One of the biggest and most challenging aspects of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is often ‘The Chameleon Effect’ – or ‘mirroring’. This is the constant, unconscious change in the person’s ‘self’, as they struggle to fit in with their environment, or the people around them. It is, essentially, a fluctuating identity. It is the manifestation of a basic inability or difficulty in establishing a stable sense of self.
The presence of The Chameleon is often one of the main obstacles to effective initial treatment and diagnosis of BPD, as it effects the interaction between patient and doctor, and can mask the disorder itself. It also effects and masks the way in which BPD intersects with other disorders that may have developed in connection with it – creating a complex web of behaviours that can be hard to untangle. The irony is that, without diagnosis and treatment, most are unaware of The Chameleon, and it is only through awareness that The Chameleon can be managed.
Though I was diagnosed some time ago, and am now (relatively) successful at managing my BPD, I am only recently getting to know my Chameleon. BPD and its insidious brethren are ugly, unpleasant and unsettling things to deal with and perhaps it is the case that my mind slowly processes them at a pace it knows to be comfortable and realistic for me. Accepting the fact of BPD is one thing, but admitting to the presence of The Chameleon truly slices to the core of all of that pain and insecurity – all of which is like pouring acid on an already gaping wound, for an emotionally dysregulated Borderline.
Now that I am acknowledging the presence of my Chameleon, I am beginning to wonder if this is actually the key to everything. The whole kit and caboodle. The crux of the issue. From what I can see, everything stems from this lack of a stable self. Borderlines instinctively ‘mirror’ to fit in, because without that behaviour, we have no idea what will happen. We have little or no sense of our own identity, so we can’t know if that will be acceptable to others. Without acceptance by others, we risk abandonment, which is often an intense fear for Borderlines. Why do we have this intense fear of abandonment? Because if we are abandoned, we have nobody to ‘mirror’. The fear of abandonment is a fear of being alone. It is terrifying to be left alone with yourself, when you don’t know who yourself is.
Imagine being entirely alone, looking into a mirror, and seeing a total stranger. Or, worse still, seeing nobody at all. There is no ‘you’. That’s kind of horrifying, right? So you’ll go to great lengths to avoid that situation, because, as an emotionally dysregulated person who experiences feelings in extremes, that situation will put you headfirst into a tailspin.
Now, I feel as though I have almost finished this monster of a jigsaw puzzle. I am close to seeing the big, completed picture. Perhaps this explains the terrifying, recurring, childhood nightmares featuring facelessness. It explains the debilitating childhood fear of being alone – so intense it caused hallucinations (externalisation of anxiety). It helps explain why, as an adult, I regularly experience severe dissociation. It explains further why the coping mechanisms that have developed over time – such as OCD – mainly serve as attempts to exert control over external daily life, as internally there is chaos.
It also explains why I am regarded by others as something of a ‘social butterfly’, constantly flitting from group to group, person to person, being different things to different people, as required. It explains my inability to say “no”. It explains why my persona changes depending on whom I interact with – even down to my accent and mannerisms. These are not conscious behaviours, but I have become more aware of them over time. I have begun to catch my Chameleon in action.
This is all good progress for me, as it is soothing to have explanations and answers. But mostly, it provides hope for lasting recovery. If the central problem is an unstable sense of self, the answer must be to build a more stable one. I just have to figure out how. I believe I have started to lay the foundations, and I am incredibly lucky to have people in my life that are willing and able to see beyond my Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m under no illusions, however – this is a chronic illness and I will never be free of it. But I can have enough awareness to keep it at a low, manageable level. The next step is to continue working towards a stable self that I can have confidence in. Only then can I can tame my Chameleon.
Have I finally reached the pot of explanation at the end of my enormous psychological rainbow? I’m not entirely sure, but the ground certainly seems to be solidifying beneath my feet.