The search for the “real”, “true”, “authentic self” can be a very long and painful one for those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). It is an angst riddled journey that many do not get past. The lack of “authentic self” – this lost self in BPD is a testament to the inability of those with BPD to mature emotionally. This emotional immaturity is very painful and for many devastates their attempts to find their real selves in meaningful and consistent enough ways that foster the kind of growth and work that is required to recover from BPD. It leaves those with BPD, until and unless they get enough professional help, between a rock and a hard place.

I receive a lot of questions from those with BPD about finding themselves and about knowing who they really are. As most who have begun to heal and who know BPD from the inside out can attest to, one of the most difficult aspects of this personality disorder is this lost self – the abyss of lack where otherwise healthy individuals have a strong sense and understanding of who they are.

It is from this lack of self that borderline behaviour stems. So much of what borderlines do and say — the seemingly endless self-destructive behaviour and behaviour toward others that is, to say the least, very painful and often abusive — is the result of arrested emotional development. Without the emotional development that those without personality disorders have those with BPD are left to flail in a parallel world where all that is true for them (from the past) in the here and now is situationally unrelated in the here and now for those who do not have BPD – loved ones – the non-borderlines.

Lacking a working sense of “true self” and an equal lack of understanding of “true self” borderlines who often are constantly triggered back into their pasts living at best very fragmented (dissociative) “reality” in what is essentially a lost “here and now” borderlines live in a different emotional universe.

For those with BPD it is not at all uncommon to not know who you are. Even trying to grasp what knowing who you are might really mean is very difficult. Borderlines experience life from a false self that was created when as young children they were overwhelmed with pain by events or circumstances, perceived or actual, that left them feeling overwhelmed, helpless and victimized. Feeling helpless and victimized in the past was a “normal” reaction. However it is the playing out of the “repetition compulsion” of early life events that is a large part of what arrests emotional growth which plays a major role in the development of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Early life events are replayed out in repetition compulsions in an attempt to resolve conflict that is usually housed deep within the subconscious. This is the root cause of projection, projection-identification, transference, and the like. It is the borderline constantly re-living events by giving home to this unresolved conflict on those around him or her in the here and now.

In the process of recovering from BPD, which is the journey From False Self to Authentic Self finding ways to increase one’s awareness about the core wound of abandonment and the shame of abandonment along with facing the abandoned pain of BPD and beginning to resolve borderline rage are key parts of being prepared for recovery – the very recovery many are still finding somewhat elusive.

For those with BPD who are actively working to recover, coming to know who you are is a gift that unfolds when the time is right in the healing process. In the meantime, however, each person with BPD will know something about who he or she is, to some extent or other. But, not to the extent that those who do not have a personality disorder know this about themselves.

What is crucial, I believe, is beginning to explore and practice self-acceptance even before one knows who he/she is by radically accepting what you know about who you are and what you don’t know about who you are right now, without judging that. This might sound impossible or confusing but it can be done. In fact, if you don’t come to some basic understanding of being kind and caring with yourself now it can prevent you from getting to that “authentic self” that awaits your discovery and longs for your comfort, nurture and love.

Don’t hold out self-acceptance and self-love until you KNOW who you are. Part of coming to that understanding is loving yourself and accepting yourself for who you know yourself to be right now — or even the absence of that self-knowledge – if that makes sense?

This can be very challenging for those with BPD however because often the pervasive polarized experience that leaves the borderline fragmented self overwhelmed with the core beliefs that one is too damaged, too broken, too unworthy to be found, and known let alone loved by self or others or to find hope and ultimately, recovery.

Knowing who you really are has all to do with knowing what you value, what you want in life or out of life, what you can and cannot give, what your needs are, what your boundaries are – and the meeting of those needs in healthy constructive ways. Therefore there are practical measures that can be tangibly known in your search for self.

I also believe that for those of us who have (or have had) BPD and/or other personality disorders to some extent who we really are and our understanding of that is an on-going process and can be expected to be over our lifetimes.

It is a painful process because it involves maturing emotionally in ways that we “should” have been able to had things been different in our lives at the ages and stages of life that most experience and achieve emotional maturation. Doing this outside of those “age-appropriate” times creates a whole set of other challenges that make it difficult to build and sustain relationships and create equally as many challenges in terms of work and careers.

Knowing that you are seeking to mature in ways that you weren’t able to at past junctions in your life creates a lot of grief that must be worked through on the road to the search for “self”.

Key in the search for authentic self (who one really is) is brutal honesty and a willingness to forgive oneself.

In order to achieve a lasting and working sense of self and identity it is necessary also to achieve some measure of consistency. Consistency in how one relates to self and how one relates to others.

The more we learn about ourselves, our needs, etc the more we can then relate, react and act from that sense of emerging self.

For example, if I know that I value respect – receiving it and giving it to others (so as not to judge or devalue self or others) than I must treat everyone with this respect even when others don’t treat me that way. What I mean here is that I must hold this value consistently in my will, intent and actions. Failure to do so is then a failure to be who I really am.

When one is still trying to identify needs, wants, values etc in search of who they really are it is important that one continue to try to answer these questions:

  • Who have I been and why?
  • Who am I right now?
  • Who do I really want to be?
  • How can I be that person?
  • What do I need to do to be that person?

And live by this assertion:

I am walking down the road to the me that I want to be. I need to give myself the gift of patience and understanding.

The good news in all this lostness is that you get to decide who you really are/can become. You can define yourself. You do not have to be defined forever by your past.

In the past most of us had to protect against tremendous pain and hurt that we experienced and/or perceived in and through our experiences. This means that we have used many mechanisms to defend ourselves. It could be argued that a large part of BPD in and of itself is a defense mechanism against being hurt any further. Of course the perpetuation of borderline beliefs and patters does, in reality, cause more pain, but to those caught up in the patterns of active BPD this is usually the furthest thing from their understanding.

The very nature of this personality disorder is such that it leaves those who have it buried so deeply within the defense mechanisms trying to protect “self” that a “self” really doesn’t ever get to emerge as such. What, instead emerges is a “false self”.

Make sure that as you work to define who you really are that you are accepting of all that you have been or haven’t yet been able to be. Forgive your mistakes. Take an inventory of all the people you may have hurt. Make amends wherever you can. Those amends need to extend profoundly to yourself.

I am on a healing journey and I am not the person I used to be. I will let go of any and all shame associated with the person that I became in response to what I had to do to survive my understanding of the pain and losses that I have suffered.

I am not who I once was. I am healing. I am not yet the all of the person that I hope to be. In the meantime the me that I am is all that I have and I will do all I can to love, esteem, respect, nurture and love this me.

This quest to know who you really are is a challenging and painful one. It requires that you be brutally honest with yourself and any therapist you work with. It means not being ashamed to shed light on the darkest aspects of the “false self” that through BPD has become your persona.

Keep walking down the road to who you want to be. Make this your mantra. Live by it. Let it fill the hole that exists where your “true self” longs to be until such times as you discover that “true self” enough to fill this void with who you, in fact, really are.

I believe that the road is life-long. We can come to know who we essentially are. But with many years of disordered personality behind us I don’t believe that our “authentic selves” are destinations. Finding your “authentic self” and learning to consistently be that personification of who you are is really more about a life long journey of discovery and recovery. Don’t just expect to arrive “there” one day. Realize rather that each step you take to heal and to know more about yourself is you unfolding who you really are.

© Ms. A.J. Mahari – May 30, 2003