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Borderline Personality Disorder ‘Mirroring’ Means I Don’t Know Who I Really Am

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In a new setting, I tend to introduce myself as a quiet introvert, which is a fact that has confused many down the road of our first meeting. They question how such a person blends into crowds so easily when I clearly stated in the beginning that I stray from the social side of life. It brings about a question of my authenticity and has led to the loss of many friends and even more acquaintances. People can be hard to please but when you build up a character they were not introduced to, they shy away from furthering the relationship. It is just one of the many realities I must face with borderline personality disorder (BPD), harsh as it may be.

The “Borderline Chameleon Effect,” described by Dr. Jerold Kreisman in Psychology Today, is a rehearsed change depending on the environment and who is present, a constant struggle to fit in. Often online, I have seen it referred to as “mirroring.” With an entirely new collective of youth discovering the borderline diagnosis and its many facets, terms we otherwise would not hear outside of a doctor’s office are becoming more easily consumed by the public. The age of technology is here and more so than ever, we have the ability to take the research process into our own hands, but with that comes a weight of a symptom without the nurturing assurance of a medical professional. It is a double-edged sword.

Only recently I began to learn about mirroring when someone on a video platform discussed their struggle with it and it provoked a thought that maybe I, too, was participating in the chameleon effect. With the new knowledge, I requested an appointment with my doctor and we discussed the term in-depth. She was able to properly confirm my fear in that hour-long appointment. I left her office a bit drained and with even more questions than I had answers, it was deflating to say the least. One of the things I have had to come to terms with is that in order to heal from my scars, I must seek professional help. Gone are the days of living with a self-diagnosed disorder and here are the years I look on my records at the billing codes and hope I can wrestle my demons into submission.

As I stewed under the pressure of this new term, I began a self-reflection that sent me rightfully spiraling into the hard-to-answer questions. I was suddenly faced with an identity crisis that was much larger than I could even begin to control. For days I pondered on who exactly I was. Who was the woman under the many masks? Who was I really? The point of the diagnosis was above my head and out of my hands as I dissected every interaction, I had ever participated in. Slowly I tore down the walls of who I always assumed I was and began a long rumination.

One of the first things I began to face was the fact that I had built up an array of perfectly tailored personalities for every person in my life. I would mirror their likes and dislikes in order to curry their favor. Like a court jester, I put on a show for the person in question, living with a wild fear of the friendship being executed. If they had a commanding presence, I would make myself known and scarce at the same time. Should they not like the company of another, I too would take up that stance. It was a broad brush I painted with in order to forge a friend they could see themselves in, one that they could never abandon. It would be kin to leaving their own side.

Some of the most key traits that I considered to be my own thoughts are not that at all. They are shreds of other people that have been and gone already, glued together like some puzzle. I am a person built from the pieces of others I have taken along the way. Like a quilt, the blocks are sewn together to bring a sense of warmth to the one holding it, I have always needed that feeling in order to justify my existence. If I did not possess that, I lived in the teeth-chattering cold of being left behind. So, over and over I rack my brain to try and find the original version, not the one edited hundreds of times over to please a crowd that honestly probably did not even mind if I was authentic.

The idea that I had to be a different person altogether began at an early age, as my parents questioned why I had to exist in their world. As another gifted kid with serious abandonment concerns, I began to read the room and shift into the perfect daughter. Taking in the best pieces of two toxic parents was not easy but it was all my young mind could see to do in order to try and garner their affection. The way I dressed, the way I spoke, the way I studied — all of those things came from the desire to please my mother and father. It started at home and slowly crept into my entire life.

At school, I took those problematic opinions and learned that they did not gain any friends, so I was set on building a persona for my closest peers. The idea was originally meant to last until I was no longer fearful of being left alone and instead it carried through deep into adulthood. Soon I was changing masks and lying from the start of the day to the end of it. If my best friend was quiet, so was I. If my teacher was passionate about a topic, so was I. If another friend was toxic about other students, so was I. The entire game snowballed into a disaster of a teenager who lied, stole and all around felt so fake for the sole purpose of keeping those people around her happy.

Piece by painstaking piece I constructed so many different personalities that it became too much to keep up with. So, before anyone could leave my side, I self-isolated and cut them all off. That is one of the hardest things about mirroring that I have come to experience. After so long of faking my entire self for another, the clay begins to crack and what I can only assume is the real me begins to peek out. By that point, I resent the person at hand and spew nothing short of vitriol to cut them from my life. Once they’re gone for good, I take a deep breath as the weight leaves my shoulders. I no longer have the painful need to please with a made-up character. Not long after though, I feel an even heavier presence of guilt, and while somewhat relieved I also suffer knowing I have lost someone else to my habits.

I have changed hands so many times and put together far too many faces to ever possibly count. I have lied and cheated my way into the seclusion of very few close friends and even less family to lean on. Before I knew the term mirroring, I called myself a “people-pleaser,” but honestly that was so vastly wrong. It was a deeper reason; it was more primal. My desire to never be alone fueled a fire that has burnt up my true self and left in its wake a woman who had so many questions. From the ashes, I have very few answers to the self-inquiries I now have.

Little I do is original and thus my struggle of self-identity continues. If I am not a real person, but a quilt of my personal experiences, who am I really? I looked deep inside of my core and hoped I could find a solution. I see my writing as unique; the silly things that make me giggle alone in my bed are all me; the excitement I feel when I see the sky painted sunset is authentic; my love for my shelter pup is real; the two close friends I converse with see my original self more often than not, and so much more has come about from this reflection time. With a little effort and a sturdy journal, I have started what I know will be a long process of finding who is the first Lien, who she really is. Who I really am.

If you experience the chameleon effect, I encourage you to pick up a pen and write out your favorite parts of yourself. Look deep at yourself and what core memories made you who you are today. Tend to yourself when you can and never forget a little self-care goes a long way. Loving yourself for who you are is the first step to a new path, one that allows you to flourish and bloom as who you would like to be. If at all possible, seek out a professional in your area that can help open this process up for you. Together we can see the issue at hand and direct our attention to more productive views of ourselves. We are not just a collective of masks; we are survivors of situations that forced such a hand.

Getty Images photo via AOosthuizen

Originally published: February 19, 2021
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