When experts discuss borderline personality disorder (BPD), they often discuss a “syndrome of identity diffusion.” Identity diffusion is one of the characteristics that sets borderline personality apart from what experts term “neurotic personality organization,” and is perhaps the part of borderline that makes it most confusing for those who suffer from it.
Identity diffusion is marked by a lack of integration of a sense of self and others. When we are young children, we have a large, even extreme idea of “who I am” and who others are. Mother is alternately Good Mommy or Bad Mommy. We see ourselves in relation to this extreme mother as Good Child or Bad Child, for example, depending on our behavior and how our mother may be responding to us. As we develop normally, we come to understand that we and others are more layered than our early black-and-white notions of self and others allow. We and they contain contradictions, shades of gray. “Good” and “bad” are merely arbitrary distinctions, useful perhaps in the child’s understanding, but not so very useful the older we become. “Good” and “bad” are labels, applied by humans, and all humans are fallible—including us.
Diffuse Identity and Splitting
With borderline personality disorder, however, these black-and-white distinctions of self and other remain. “Good” and “bad” self in relation to “good” and “bad” other are the limited variables through which the borderline personality has to view oneself and others. Because someone with borderline personality maintains such limited and extreme distinctions, splitting occurs. Splitting is the tendency to swing from idealization to devaluation of self and others.
Being unable to accept or recognize the interior, more complicated layers of one’s identity, and lacking adequate awareness or acceptance of other people’s full identities, a person is said to be unintegrated—to suffer from a syndrome of diffuse identity.
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BPDs and Emotional Reactivity
A connection can be made between this fixed, early developmental view of self and others and the extremes in reactivity a person with borderline personality disorder experiences. It is not to say that adults with BPD are children, or even that they necessarily behave as children do, but there are similarities between extreme emotional reactivity when a person is very young and has an extreme view of self and others, and in an adult with BPD who experiences a diffuse identity. It has been said that a person with BPD is like a burn victim; words and experiences are like a hand touching raw, wounded skin. In the sense that young children lack the ability to emotionally regulate and experience disappointment, frustration, anger, etc. in similar extremes, a comparison can be drawn.
What adults with BPD have that children do not is the ability to become aware of the nature of their interior—why they behave in the ways they do, and what it means to experience diffuse identity. Insofar as functioning adults have the capacity to set a course for their development, even those with severe BPD can begin to heal. Borderline personality disorder has been called the “Good Prognosis Diagnosis” because, with intention and treatment, individuals do get better—and many recover.
Choosing to Heal, Determining Self
Janice, a former borderline personality disorder sufferer, was still severely suffering at age 48. Her reactions to family members and coworkers were extreme—she was frequently paranoid and often verbally abusive. She was sometimes violent, had a history of broken relationships, and had been repeatedly fired from jobs. Both of Janice’s children had broken contact with their mother and were not speaking to her after her last hospitalization and suicide attempt in 2008. It was because of this that Janice finally sought treatment for her BPD, and after nearly 34 years, she began to heal. As a result, she was able to get her GED as well as a certificate of nursing assistance. Today she has a stable job she loves and is supporting herself for the first time. She is 53 years old and has a healthy relationship with her adult daughter, something never before possible. The tables turned when Janice began to develop (and accept) her own clear sense of self; the good, the bad, and the in-between. She is able today to reconcile all the parts of her identity without shame, and because of this, she is able to accept her daughter and everyone else around her. She sometimes still struggles with old patterns of reaction, but today Janice has the tools to help her cope.
Borderline personality disorder is not an indictment against wellness, nor is it a curse on possible happiness. Accepting the diagnosis and committing to heal is necessary, and actively choosing to develop a sense of self is crucial. It can be and has been done. Remember, it’s called “the Good Prognosis Diagnosis” for a reason.