The identity issue and unstable interpersonal relationship of Borderline Personality Disorder

Identity disturbance and unstable interpersonal relationship are two core characteristics of people with Borderline Personality disorder (BPD).  People with BPD have persistent unstable self-image or sense of self.  In psychology, the “self” or identity is an individual’s conception of oneself in a self-reflective process.  In fact, there are four levels of “self”, according to William James, an American philosopher, historian and psychologist.  The material self is the physical existence of oneself.  The spiritual self is one’s inner or subjective existence, that is, one’s psychological self.  The pure ego is an individual’s sense of continuity of self across different time and contexts.  The social self is the recognition of one self image in the relationship with others.  People with BPD have difficulties in integrating these different levels of self for the creation of a stable and integrated self.  They are unable to construct a coherent self-narrative and have difficulty in answering questions, such as “Who am I?” Or “What do I need?”

This inability of integrating different aspects of the self contributes people with BPD to have unstable sense of self.  As a result, the perception of the self is fluctuating and dichotomous.  That is, seeing oneself as either “all good” or “all bad”.  Besides, people with BPD also poorly integrated images of others and have difficulty in integrating the “good” and the “bad” of others.  Therefore, they also perceive others as either “all good” or “all bad” and this contributes to the volatility in their interpersonal relationships.   In fact, people with propensity to develop BPD frequently being raised in an invalidating environment with primary care givers being unable to reflect back to them about their self-image.  This insufficiency in primary care givers can compromise a development of a stable and coherent sense of self that can be differentiated from others.  The discontinuity in identity caused people with BPD to exhibit unstable and unpredictable behaviours that will lead to similarly unpredictable and distancing reactions from others.  As a result, others cannot provide a stable interpersonal feedback to them and this can further destabilise their identity.  This becomes a vicious cycle in the destabilization of identity and interpersonal difficulties. 

As healthy development in a person’s life course requires a development of a unique sense of self identity, as well as a development of interpersonal relatedness, people with BPD have significant problems in this dialectical interactions between these two dimensions.  They have an unstable sense of self and are unable to integrate different aspects of themselves.  This unstable self contributes to their unpredictable behaviours and unstable emotions.  They may not know what they really want from interpersonal relationships and may have difficulty to say no to others and to maintain a healthy boundaries with others.  They may also have difficulties in getting consistent recognitions from others due to their fluctuating sense of self and unpredictable behaviours.  This compromised with their ability to relate with others and at the same time maintain their individuality.

There are reasons for those with BPD to have volatility in their emotional and behavioural manifestations.  To understand more in terms of their unstable sense of self and difficulties in interpersonal relationships, we can cultivate more acceptance for their unpredictable behaviours and relate with them in a more compassionate way.

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