Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’

ChameleonOne 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 affects the interaction between patient and doctor, and can mask the disorder itself. It also affects 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. People with Borderline Personality Disorder 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.

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191 comments

  1. I really relate to this, being a chameleon myself. Can I ask what steps you have taken to lay the foundation, as you put it, to a more stable sense of self?

    • That’s a really good question. Not to sound too corny, but I really think it’s with my writing. When I write, there’s nobody to mirror. It’s just my keyboard and I. Obviously, sometimes it’s commercial stuff and I’m writing to someone else’s specification – but even then, I have my own specific style and ‘voice’, and it’s due to those things that I got that job. I have always written, but it has only been in the past two years that I have done so for public consumption. It’s no surprise that that timing coincided with my biggest progress in recovery. I began to dig down, find my real self and put it into my work. Exposing that to the world was terrifying (and sometimes still is), but I was highly motivated to recover, so I took the leap. Since then, I guess I have used my writing to get to know myself a bit better, and it has allowed me to gain confidence.
      The trick is (in my opinion) to commit to being brutally honest. There will be some things about yourself that you do not like. The next step is acceptance.
      I feel an interesting follow-up post coming on… 😉
      Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to get in touch.
      Sarah Myles

      • Thanks for your reply. Writing has played a huge role in my recovery, hence the name of my blog. 🙂 I think I am being nudge by that inner voice to do some private writing in a brutally honest, get to know myself better kind of way which terrifies me because I know there will be some stuff I won’t like, so I understand what you mean about that.

  2. […] stress in women with borderline personality disorder.Could I have borderline personality disorder?Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’AC_FL_RunContent = 0; #site-title a, #site-description { color: #19ae5e !important; […]

  3. I really enjoyed this post! As a bpd I can truly relate to this. Thank you for making feel like I am not the only person in the world that struggles with these things. Can’t wait to read another post 🙂

    • I’m recently 1-2 yrs bipolar rapid
      Cycling & borderline.
      I feel inadequate and like everyday
      Is a struggle,with part of me wanting to live and tonite looking up
      Legal euthanasia….it’s truly exhausting.
      I’ve lost friends,jobs…
      Christmas is truly a nightmare the beasts come out in all their ugliness
      I would give up everything to have
      a normal Christmas,to laugh,not
      burst into tears at a Christmas song
      Reminding me of my mum & recently deceased dad…..
      I’m 52, seen psychiatrists since my
      20s…..they just correctly diagnosed
      Me.
      I pray there is hope.
      Other times,I just when to be no longer in the chains of these
      Hellish diseases………
      Release from the prison in my
      Torturtured mind and broken spirit

  4. All I can say and have been saying as I read this, is WOW. I never heard of the chameleon effect…. never!!! It scared me and Im still shaking because most of the traits of this BPD that I have been diagnosed with after 10 yrs or so of other diagnoses that were not the ‘big’ picture… the one main cause of my mental disruption In daily life… which they thought was Bipolar… I forget which one they guessed I was…. because I never agreed with the symptoms of one suffering from Bipolar. It is catagorized in 3 separate types if I remember. After 6 or 7yrs with the same Psychiatrist, he left and I was given a new one. i am still current with him and he is the one who diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. I like him alot, but I also have generalized anxiety, the toughest to treat, and he wants to take all my anxiety meds away. I only take one kind, but he wants me to cut them out. I took 90 a month for 5yrs at least and he has me at 35 a mo. for a yr. Im just tired of it all! Btw Im 56!

    • Hi Sheri!
      Thank you so much for reading, and for taking the time to reply. It means a lot to me to know that this reaches people – I’m glad to have written something that people find helpful, and it helps me too, to know that others experience similar things.
      Also, thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear your journey to diagnosis and treatment has been such a struggle. I hope things improve for you.
      Very best wishes in your recovery,
      Sarah Myles

  5. Wow. I’ve been called a chameleon by my family my whole life. I’m 28 years old and was only diagnosed as borderline yesterday, and reading this and other blogs related to it is a shocking revelation to me. This. This is me. Why did it take two hospitalizations and nine years of therapy for me to find out that there’s a name and a reason for why I am this way? All this time they’ve been treating me as bipolar and I knew that wasn’t it but didn’t know what IT was. Thank you for your perspective.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for sharing your experience. Sorry to hear it’s been such a long road to diagnosis.

      It seems to be quite common for BPD and Bipolar to be confused during assessments – it was in mine, too. However, I hope that now you have the right information, you are reassured that it is possible to improve the condition and achieve some level of recovery.

      Thanks for reading, and best of luck with your treatment. 🙂

      Sarah Myles

  6. My younger sister has been a chameleon for as long as I can remember. She would literally take on the persona, appearance and personality of those she paired up with. Her entire self would change to mirror the person, to the point of looking like them, acting like them and taking on their interests as her own. Just a few examples: The first boyfriend I can remember of hers was a hippie that was into skiing. So she bought all the gear, and soon became what she thought was a pretty good skier. They broke up and skiing was no longer of interest. Next boyfriend was in (her one-semester attempt before flunking out at) college – he played golf, drank beer and wore his hair short. Lo and behold she soon was very much into golf, drank beer and cut her hair just like his. She wore all the golf attire, and their hair was the same style and color, so they looked like twins, each with a can of beer in their hand. He dumped her and soon married someone else. No more golf, beer or mention of either. The next one that comes to mind was the hippie “birdwatcher”. She suddenly became a birder and enthusiastically would name every bird that flew within her sight. While living with him, she would go off on trips with her new trade-up she was working on – a cardiologist this time! He was married (that never slowed her down), 20 years her senior and she immersed herself in his social circle, having parties at his house to entertain all his colleagues. She suddenly acquired a doctor’s medical terminology vocabulary that was uncanny! He was also an art aficionado / collector and she became a self-proclaimed art “expert” and critic – even referred to herself as a “curator” in an article about herself. She accompanied him on all his conference trips and did her best to mirror him and his associates in order to fit in with the intellectual set. Her car stereo during this time was set on classical music, no more rock n’ roll for her! This match went on for several years until his daughters slipped him away to a nursing home recently due to his progressing Alzheimers disease, and she was left to find a new mate, persona and identity. Darned if she didn’t find herself a Jazz band bass guitar player! No problem, she totally re-did her Facebook page, deleting all of her old interests, unfriending the old cardiologist’s daughters (who no longer speak to her as they knew she was hovering over their daddy hoping for an inheritance, so they slid him out from under her control and influence, basically throwing her to the curb) posted a pic of a famous Black jazz player as her new “interest”. Presto change-o the new persona has emerged!! She now regularly attends small-time Jazz performances at various venues around town. In describing her many selves, my dad once referred to her as “an empty vessel waiting to be filled” and it fits her to a “T”. I could tolerate all her ever-changing personas, but the one thing about her that never changes is that she’s a sociopath! I have had to extricate her from my life for self-protection after she has done some dirty deeds against me and my daughter. Apparently she perceived us as threats standing in her way of getting the inheritance my mother will be one day leaving behind. She has been working to turn my mother and family against me, and I can only think of one reason why. She is a parasitic golddigger after all. Just doing what golddiggers do!

    Looking back on our childhood I can remember her repeating everything I would say, and it drove me nuts!! I wonder if maybe she’s the human equivalent of a mynah bird?? Or more like a mockingbird??

    • Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experience. I think there is an important distinction to be made here, between Borderline Personality Disorder and Sociopathy.

      As with many mental illnesses, there are many points of intersection and co-morbid conditions are well-documented. ‘Mirroring’, or ‘The Chameleon Effect’ can be seen to varying degrees in many different mental illnesses, just as conditions such as depression and anxiety can too. In those terms, the way in which a co-morbid condition intersects with the overarching illness will also be different.

      While Borderline Personality Disorder and Sociopathy (more commonly known as Anti-social Personality Disorder) do sometimes co-exist, this is not always the case. These are two very distinct conditions.

      My understanding of the difference between the two (bearing in mind that I am not a mental health professional – just a diagnosed Borderline) is that while BPD is characterised by emotional dysregulation, instability of self, dichotomous thinking and extreme reactions, Anti-Social Personality Disorder is the ‘pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others’. It is characterised by deception, impulsivity, aggressiveness and a lack of remorse. This would suggest that the Chameleon exists in a Borderline to compensate in some way for the instability of self, while in Anti-Social Personality Disorder, it exists to further the self-interest of the individual – which is often their primary motivation due to their condition.

      Again, while co-morbidity is well-documented, my article above regards the presence of The Chameleon Effect in Borderline Personality Disorder, based on my experience.

      Having no real experience of Sociopathy, I can’t speak with clarity on the way in which The Chameleon Effect exists in that condition, so I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss its co-morbidity in other diagnoses.

      Thank you for reading,

      Sarah Myles

    • You’re certainly not alone – as you can see from this comments section. That’s not always a comfort, I know, but when it is, it’s a helpful remembrance.

      Thanks for sharing, and for reading the piece.

      All the best,

      Sarah Myles

  7. A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do think that you need to publish more on this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people do not speak
    about these topics. To the next! Cheers!!

  8. The discussion is fascinating, as is your article. I have not come across this ‘chameleon effect’ as you describe it, before, but it makes sense as an aspect of BPD is the shifting sense of self, or identity diffusion. I wonder if the mirroring is related to the psychoanalytic term ‘mirroring’, something we all need as babies in order to find our sense of self, from out primary care-givers. If the BPD individual does not have this as a baby, they are constantly searching for it throughout their life?

    • Thanks for your comment, which raises a very interesting idea.

      My understanding of the concept of ‘mirroring’, as set out in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, is that infants begin to develop a sense of self-perception through ‘mirroring’, or interacting with their reflection, between the ages of 6 – 18 months, and that this allows them to learn to view themselves objectively.

      I can see perhaps some connection between a disruption of this process and disturbances in the sense of self later in life – including self-esteem and body image issues. But what might cause that disruption, I wonder? A physical issue in the way the brain is developing?

      In terms of the act of ‘mirroring’ with caregivers – infants absorbing modelled behaviour from those around them – it certainly is a factor for many – but may often be difficult to distinguish from hereditary issues, too.

      Plenty of food for thought – many thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

    • Hi Victor – thanks for taking the time to comment.

      This is a really good question. I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t give a definitive answer from a technical standpoint. However, in my experience of the illness, I certainly have phases of becoming intensely fixated on new hobbies/interests, before abandoning them and moving on to the next. I’ve also changed jobs a lot, moved house a lot – it’s only really been since I’ve been able to sustain some recovery from BPD that I’ve been more settled, so there could be a link there, I guess. Certainly for me, anyway.

      Hope that helps. Thanks for reading!

      Sarah Myles

      • (I would add further that any single behaviour or symptom/s would need to be viewed as part of the wider collection of indicators, of course.)

  9. That’s a great way to describe it – The Chameleon, very accurate haha
    I used to write a looooot when I was younger – since I had a major depressive episode though I’ve never really gotten back into my old hobbies – writing,drawing,reading – I do them all occasionally but I want writing to be a regular part of me again – it helps to deal with racing thoughts and feelings I think
    Thanks again

  10. Way to take the fun out of it. Haven’t you ever seen the Never Ending Story. The 2nd gate where Atreu has to face himself in the mirror. If you’re mirroring them, than they are getting a glimpse of their true selves. Without the masks that all people wear. It’s hilarious to watch some people squirm. As well as it is troubling when that other person is close to your heart. I guess I may be one foot over the border with my personality disorder :o) I think there’s another level of this Chameleon Effect. The ability, whether controlled or not, to absorb the personality in front of you and force feed it back to them. Riddle me this.

    • Combine a BPD with a glutton for punishment. I doubt Sigmund f*in freud could pass that up! Interesting article here, I’m just stumbling across. I’m not trying to appear as a troll. Though i often do absorb them. Facebook was my own biggest source of insight. I found out i can be a real prick, and i can’t stand that at the end of the day. That’s not me. I mean i like to joke like everyone, but, well i think you, if anyone, may know what I mean. You don’t want to know what lengths it takes to get them out. Be proud of yourself. Not all that discomfort and sadness is you. Maybe not any! Wish you well. Don’t take no shit.

      • Thanks for your comments, and for highlighting the fact that we all regard our chameleon differently. I guess the point is that it first has to be acknowledged and understood in order to move on and progress in whichever way progress is going to be made.

        I do know what you mean, yes. What I may have failed to get across in the piece is the way BPD is exacerbated by mirroring, when you involuntarily mirror a person whose nature is problematic to you, and therefore causes difficulties in maintaining emotional stability. In that way, acknowledging and understanding the chameleon becomes about self-protection.

        Thanks for reading, and for the kindness.
        Warm regards,
        Sarah Myles

      • Surround yourself with positivity. A hater will take everyone down with them.

    • Thanks for your comment. I would say that there seems to be a very clear difference in intention regarding the account of The Chameleon Effect in my post, and that described in your comment. My post talks about The Chameleon Effect serving the purpose of ‘fitting in’ in order to generate connections. This is central to the complexities of BPD, in terms of soothing the distress caused by fear of abandonment. As I also say in my post, The Chameleon does occur in other mental health issues, and also without mental health issues being present at all.

  11. can someone please help me understand the difference between the chameleon affect and sociopathy. or are they pretty much the same thing? being able to manipulate people and your surroundings into perceiveing you differently , in a way to where it works to your advantage. make sense? like youll almost instinctively do something to fit in /make yourself happy without realizing its wrong . or something. like I always thought that was like everyone though? doesn’t everyone alter their personality to some extent depending upon who theyre talking to? some people like socio[paths or chamelions are just smarter at it and tend to automatically do it.,does that make sense?

    can someone please give me advice on what I just said and see if you agree or not 🙂 thank you so much! all responses are appreciated! ❤

    • and besides? isn’t everyone “nothing” basically, and were all built and molded by our surroundings. so its natural that the people around us with rub of on us, and whenever were with them or s specific group well tend to act more like them.because when were born we all are basically a clean slate, and then divided and change along life depending upon our up-bringing. and some people just copy, or manipulate others more than some, because they feel it benefits them in the end. that’s why some people mirror others because they know subconsciously if they act like the other person the other person will like them more, thus working to their advantage, because it makes yourself happy. am I making sense? like they’ll mirror them via style or common verbal phrases, its like adaption in a way. like almost if someone were to live in the south for long enough theyd pick up the accent , weather they had it or not.

      anyway, I really do truly think at the end of the day our “souls” or whatever, are just all the same energy. like were all just energy, like blank-slate energy when were born . and then given a random shell(body, and youre not your body, youre a soul ina body), and then the energy inside the machine(body) keeps it powered and uses it accordingly. that’s why every single person in the world would be the same, but were only different based upon 3 major things, physical apearnece(what our shells look like), our surroundings throughout our entire life (life through our perspective), and things that may alter ones perspective(i.e, physical imparities, like a chemical imbalance in your brain causing you to be more sad, or anxious or whatever, or maybe a physical disability like if you were born color blind or with autism, basically any reality altering fault that exists due to your own bodys setup). those 3 main factors are the only thing that separate us, but also….those 3 thigns are the only things that bring us together…becase we all have them in common. we all have those 3 factors in common, making us similar. you see? funny how that works out.
      but anyway, back to my original point….do you think maybe chameleon affect and sociopathy go hand in hand? do you think either of them could just be a persons incline to act like others and smartly manipulate them for their own personak gain( consciously, OR subconsciously) what do you think? all feedback welcomed 😀

      • Hi Alissa – Many thanks for your comments. I’ll try to answer your question about mirroring and sociopathy – but please bear in mind that I’m not a mental health professional, nor do I have experience of a diagnosis of sociopathy.

        As I understand it – from what I know of sociopathy through reading, and of BPD through first-hand experience – the difference is in the type of mirroring. A sociopathic mirror looks inward as well (or is a 2-way mirror), while the BPD mirror just looks everywhere else. I guess what that means is that the purpose of the BPD mirror – subconscious or otherwise – is to deflect attention away from the ‘self’, while a person with sociopathy does the opposite.

        Of course, the term ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ was originally coined because it was believed that the patient was on the ‘borderline’ between psychosis and neurosis – the ‘neurosis’ part being closer to sociopathy, perhaps. Now, however, after greater study, it is more accurately described as ’emotionally unstable personality disorder’, or ’emotional intensity disorder’. The reason this is significant here, is that the main issue for those with BPD is that they effectively feel too much emotion and empathy, as opposed to those with sociopathy, whose behaviour is characterised by a lack of empathy.

        Therefore, in BPD, the mirror is a main self-defence mechanism (to deflect from the unstable sense of self, which is part of the disorder), while in sociopathy, the mirror itself is an integral part of the manifestion of the disorder.

        I hope that makes sense, as far as my understanding of the difference goes.

        Thanks again for taking the time to read the post, and comment.

        Kind regards,
        Sarah Myles

      • so basically, the sociopath would be more likely to lie naturally to save their own ass ,where as bippolardisorder would only do when necessary to deflect attention from them?

        and what do u mean by it being a 2 way mirror inward??

      • Hi Alissa,
        On your first point, I’m referring to Borderline Personality Disorder. Bipolar Disorder is a completely different thing. I can’t really comment on the presence of the ‘chameleon’ in Bipolar Disorder without doing more research.

        On your second point, as I said, I’m not a mental health professional, so my explanations of my understanding are not flawless. For ‘2 way mirror’, think ‘privacy glass’. The sociopathic personality can see out, and themselves, while those outside of it are simply mirrored, as per the sociopathic personality’s behaviour.
        Hope that’s a bit clearer. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  12. I didn’t know this was a real thing, but a few months ago I suddenly noticed how I really changed when I was around a few different people, so I sorta sat back and watched myself to see when I was doing it, and i noticed that it happened every single time that I even just talked to someone. I would use different words, different posture, different attitude, wether I acted smart, laid back, airy, funny, sarcastic, and so on, all changed when I interacted with a new person. I tried to watch to see if others did this, but they all stayed relatively the same; I didn’t really know what to make of it. I have been constantly thinking about this the past few months, but only really realized what i was doing after the situation had pasted. I started seeing if i could figure out what was just me, and what was other people, but every single thing
    i do is just mimicking my friends and family, like there is literally nothing where I’m suppose to be. I finally decided to see if I could find anything on what I was experiencing, and this came up, I’m partly relived that there might be a explanation and early scared, because now this means that I really might be an empty person, and I don’t know what i want to fill me with.

    • Hi Lilly,
      Thanks for your comment. It certainly can be a disconcerting experience, once you are aware of ‘the chameleon’, however, it’s significance in terms of your own behaviour and mental health is entirely dependent upon your mental health in the wider context. As I suggested, it’s common presence in Borderline Personality Disorder is essentially as a coping mechanism to deflect attention away from an unstable sense of self that the personality is not prepared to engage with.

      For me, I would not characterise it an indication of an ’empty’ person – although feelings of ’emptiness’ are also a common feature of BPD.

      That ‘unstable sense of self’ can also be described as ‘fluctuating identity’. The self, and identity, are there – it is just that they are constantly shifting. The reason for that is often connected directly to the disorder.

      So, in terms of BPD and ‘the chameleon’, or mirroring, the unstable sense of self is the issue, and the mirroring is an unconscious way of masking it.

      If you are concerned about your mental health, I would always recommend seeking the advice of a medical professional.

      Thanks for reading, and getting in touch.
      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

  13. I have actually discovered this in myself, i dont k.ow treatment for it, but awareness has made me progress into somewhat of a normal life. I can control it most every day, but when im dramatically tired, i find myself referring to myself as a social chameleon, and have researched this order done some self reflecting, gathered myself and am always meeting more of myself every day, im establishing who i am, but its a hard feat.

    • Thanks for your comment, Izaiah. It certainly is hard to deal with, but as you say, awareness of it goes a long way.
      Best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  14. Thank you for posting this. I find that in certain situations or with certain people I will mirror their speech patterns and physical movements. I had a friend in university whom I got on really well with at first and after a while she got annoyed with me as I had lost my own identity and substituted it with aspects of hers. I annoy myself to no end when this happens, and it has happended in my relationships too. I didn’t see these things at the time, but now, a few years after the fact I think about my behaviour and how odd it must have been in the eyes of those affected/imitated.
    It wasn’t until recently that I even came across this ‘chameleon effect’ but at least it explains why I do the things I do.

  15. I can’t remember how I found this today but it just so happens that earlier I was contemplating how to figure out exactly who myself is while not in the company of others. I’m self diagnosed at this point and had my own feeling of hopeless as to my identity. This was a great read, I find much of what I go through in day to day life since I was a child in this article.

  16. I wrote this today. It makes sense to me, but I have but a single frame of reference. I hope someone can give a second opinion. Feel free to blast it if it’s blastable. I’d like an honest opinion.

    Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

    Imagine you’ve been given a cool new superpower. You know the emotions behind what a person says, as they say it. Clearly. With absolute precision.

    Sounds cool, right?

    Knowing when someone really loves you when they say, “I love you.”

    Knowing when someone is going to screw you, early enough to do something about it.

    Here’s the caveat: When your superpower activates, it creates a magic button, and freezes time. Until you push the button, that moment will go on forever.
    Now, imagine talking to your spouse. They say something really hurtful. People do. And in the instant they say it, they mean it completely. An instant later, their mind will change.

    But you are locked in that moment, magic button in your hand.

    That’s borderline personality disorder.

    The perceived injury is genuine, and your emotional response is proportionate – if the moment is percieved as going on forever.

    The trick is remembering to push that button.

    When you are in love, and your partner is in love – the button seems unnecessary. Push it anyway. Your partner changes every day. Love requires “reloving” your lover every single day, sometimes every moment.

    When you and an enemy hit your buttons, you can look at the bigger picture, perhaps finding a point of commonality. Your enemy today can be your friend tomorrow, a button’s press away.

    It’s the third situation that causes the biggest problem. Your spouse causes you a deliberate, specific injury – poorly conceived, and with deliberate intention. You are stunned. You are betrayed. You may forget you have a button.

    Ask yourself this, do you really want this moment to go on forever? What outcomes can happen when the button is pressed? 1: Your marriage is done. If so, it was done anyway. 2: Your spouse realizes and apologizes. Your marriage is better. 3: Your spouse doesn’t realize. Oh, the horror! The terror! Because the problem isn’t fixed. It will happen again. You know it will happen again.

    Here’s the real question.

    Do you want to live, forever angry and afraid, in a perpetual moment of time?

    Hit the damn button.

    Thanks.

    B.

    • Thanks for sharing that – it’s always interesting to read/hear the perspective of others with BPD because, although there are a common range of symptoms, everybody’s experience is subjective.

      That being said, I can appreciate the use of a ‘button’ as a descriptor, but I find that, for my experience, the situation is more like a ‘web’. This is due to the complex intersections between co-morbid conditions (such as OCD), which developed as coping mechanisms around the core problem of BPD. I use ‘web’, because there are countless ways in which one thing effects another, in a variety of combinations – depending on the trigger.

      Not sure if that makes sense, but it certainly highlights the way in which we all experience and see our BPD differently, according to our own circumstance. The key, I think, is to form an understanding that works for ourselves, and run with that – because as long as we are striving to understand it in our own way, recovery can be achieved.

      Sharing perspectives is a great way to do that, so thanks again for sharing yours.
      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

  17. This really helped me see myself as not alone, and it put what I see as my personality into words. Thank you so much for this article! I plan on discussing this with my psychiatrist and hopefully getting some better-aimed help.

    • Hi Noah,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Truly, when writing these things, all you hope is that it resonates with someone, and that they find something in it for themselves. To hear that you plan to try taking some of these ideas forward in your own recovery means the world to me. I hope it helps.
      Best of luck, and thanks for reading.
      Sarah Myles

  18. I do a fair amount of speculating given what I have learned and infered about brain function. This occured to me today, and would like to ask your opinion.

    It’s clear to me the chameleon is a very neuroplastic set of mirror neurons. Neuroplastic, because they morph beautifully. Mirror neurons, cause they model others.

    In childhood, one can be frightened of one’s environment, if it is unstable or unsafe. However, as a child, it is impossible to flee that environment, as an adult would. To survive, the child must,..

    Be a good boy.
    Be very aware and responsive to unstable adults.
    But he must stay in that group, because a child cannot survive alone.

    This would make your identity very plastic and would make you hyper-empathic in the worst way.

    I don’t know if the inner me is hiding, or simply missed the critical growth period where the brain map clised in on one set of rules or values.

    It would explain where it comes from, and I think to reach the inner me, if any, will necessitate allowing myself to refeel the helplessness, fear, and uncertainty – but with my adult mind watching.

    If I can mirror myself, maybe I can become it.

    An interesting experiment.

    Thanks again for the echo,

    B. Wilson.

    • The concept of neuroplasticity is an interesting one when applied to mental illness in general, and BPD specifically. The idea of the brain reorganizing itself clearly has vast implications with regard to sustainable recovery.

      My understanding of mirror neurons is fairly rudimentary, but I believe the vast amount of research has been in connection with motor mimicry with regard to social learning (infants copying facial expressions, for example). From this, theory suggests the possibility of intentional inference, language development, and self awareness. There is clearly scope for greater research with regard to mirror neurons and the Chameleon Effect, but such investigations are currently some way off.

      It certainly is an interesting theory, however. For my part – in my own recovery – I would say that I find it important to acknowledge that in order to uncover the self (wherever and whoever that may ultimately be), I must still do the work to get there. Whether mirror neurons are involved or not, the need to dig down in the rubble and detritus remains.

      Thanks for bringing a new element into the discussion.

      Best regards, Sarah Myles

  19. Oh, and let me add 2 things, I’ve learned to do that might help others.

    Listenning with great attention.

    If you listen, and try to hear as much as possible, you will learn a few things.

    1. Other people are not often talking about you.
    2. Other people’s lives can be very hard. If you can use empathy in the regular way, it helps a lot.
    3. There’s a lot of non-human life. Spending time focusing on birds and squirrels is surprisingly therapeutic.
    4. Your stress hormones diminish, because their effects interfere with listenning.
    5. When you listen, the inner monologue shuts up. Thinking and observing the world with a silent mind is the most therapeutic part of all.

    The other exercise is to physically place your hand on a tree. It won’t judge, won’t care, and cannot hurt you.

    Be empathic with a tree awhile, and let your brain rest.

    These help me every day,

    B. Wilson.

      • I will try to explain why process analysis matters.

        Given neuroplasticity,

        I first figure out what process is wrong or absent. In this case, if the brain is rapidly changing its coping strategy based on who you’re with, then a more adaptive model would be to have a clear set of reactions I want to apply globally.

        I, in effect, write a mission statement for my brain.

        Since the brain won’t apply these rules unconsciously, I impose them by monitoring my reactions, and choosing to apply them logically, rather than instinctively.

        The cool thing is, because of neuroplasticity, if the brain applies these rules for awhile, they become your reality.

        I want to contact the child within me, because he was a victim, and I want him fairly represented in the new version of me.

        This method is working very well, I hope it can help someone else.

        The little exercises are designed because brain reprocessing takes a lot of energy. While doing this you will tire like a one year old, whose energy goes primarily into brain reorganization. The little breaks will help, I know because I’ve been there.

        Have a bright and sunny day,

        B. Wilson.

  20. I’m 30 and all I searched on google was “I mirror people” and Google added “‘s personalities”. the second I saw your title “the chameleon effect – bordelrline personality disorder” I knew what I had. Reading your description of challenges got me comfortable with this result. Thank you

    One question, I’ve been pulling the rug from under my chameleon. Like whenever I catch it in action or feel the urge to forget my self and become a passenger in someone else’s personality, especially if they were influential, I kill my chameleon instead. This usually results in the other person, especially if they know me, to get worried about why I look so upset. I’m not upset I just don’t want to lie to them if I can help it.

    Am I doing the right thing? Any doctors here?

    • Thanks for getting in touch, and for reading my article. Apologies for the delay in replying – I’ve been unwell myself.

      From my point of view (not being a doctor or a trained health professional) I would advocate dealing with social situations in whichever way you feel best serves your mental health, and your personal goals for management of your emotional state. We all have to find our own coping mechanisms, and I don’t think there is any one-type-of-action-suits-all approach. If you have an understanding of your own situation, and the way in which your own mental health reacts to external pressures, then you know better than anybody what you need.

      Having said that, I’m not medically trained – that’s from a patient’s perspective. If there are any doctors or mental health professionals that would like to weigh in, feel free…

      Again, thanks for reading, and best wishes for the future.
      Regards,
      Sarah Myles

      • Hi. I would like to offer a few thoughts. I’m not a doctor, I’m a fellow traveller. I’m not sure a doctor would be able to offer much advice, anyway. I think the “walk a mile in my shoes” approach has a lot going for it.

        However, that disclaimer is necessary, as I’m giving advice. Advice that helps me, but I am one person – I have no way of knowing if it will help you.

        I have learned to look at the chameleon, philosophically. I suspect if you are reading this – you might be wondering, “If I mirror people, what does that make me?”

        I now define myself as the chameleon.

        Let’s look at what it takes to be this awesome super hero. First of all: your brain is incredibly plastic. It can adapt and become whatever it needs to be, to fit into any social situation. This, when harnessed – means you can CHOOSE to be anything you want to. You just have to learn to do it by act of will.

        But to be a chameleon takes another super power, one the world desperately needs. To become another person, you have to have spooky good empathic skills. I’ve spoken to many people, and people’s perception and empathy skills need a lot of attention. You simply have to become aware of this perceptive process.

        Now, the bad news,..

        We have particular vulnerabilities. You likely get angry – very, very easily. You can lose yourself in other people. It is almost impossible to go against the crowd.

        I’m not going to give instructions for dealing with these. We are very vulnerable to well intentioned advice. I will instead suggest things to think about. I will further suggest doing such thinking, while uninterruptedly alone, with the radio and television off.

        The first thing is this: If you could copy anyone – anyone at all, who would you like to be? We all try to take on the best qualities of those we admire. Chameleons can do this almost reflexively. We can build a personality, using others as our building blocks – and this may be enough.

        Lately, probably due to holiday stress, am victim to my empathy. I see little acts of cruelty and pettiness all around – and only later realized that in our culture, Christmas has become a battleground. So selective attention is not currently enough.

        I am redefining my “moral compass” – that guidebook for how to behave, when others behave badly. I am working from base principles and what I think makes sense in the world – without a lot of assumptions.

        My assumptions are these:

        I am not responsible for anyone’s actions but my own. I am not guilty by association. I do not need to apologize for my group, I am an individual.

        I am IRREVOCABLY responsible for my own actions. WHATEVER other people do, what I do – I do by choice. Free will can be a real bastard/bitch, you know?

        If you look at yourself as the writer of your own story, you might be able to find your own purpose: that elusive “moral compass” thingie.

        Then – there are no morally ambiguous situations, you can be a super hero (or villain), and it’s really up to you,

        Joyous Solstice (pick your favorite variant),

        B.W.

      • Thank you, Brian. There is certainly a lot of great food for thought in there. Your suggestions prompted a thought of my own, regarding how I have come to handle social situations, personally.

        For me, as someone with BPD, I often find myself easily overwhelmed by negativity. The presence of the Chameleon means that it seeps in and infects my being – eventually laying me low for a significant period of time, setting off a great battle within to regain some sense of balance in my mood. Coming to this awareness, and accepting the reality that Brian mentions – about the choices we can make – means that I am, in recent years, much more selective about who I spend time with. In terms of casual acquaintances, I actively avoid negative people, or people whom I realise are displaying the kinds of behaviour or emotions that will adversely effect me. I used to be very open, but am now much more cautious.

        In social situations – unless the person I am interacting with is someone that I trust and am comfortable with – the version of me that people get is the ‘armoured’ version. This version is personable and pleasant, but does not engage emotionally. It’s all about self-preservation and self-management, but it takes a lot of practice.

        Just a thought.

        Sarah Myles

  21. Your website has big rechnical issues. I wrote a detailed answer for you submitted it, and it vanished. Since my creative mind doesn’t remember – it’s gone, forever. I suggest to everyone – not to trust this thing and to write on reliable software.

    • Now it has appeared. I don’t understand why the delay. I would still suggest generating a local copy before posting.

      • Any replies that people post on my site are held by WordPress and sent to me by email for approval before appearing on the site, so any delay is almost certainly the result of my schedule, I’m afraid. I always try to process them as quickly as possible, but sometimes (like, for example, my current health situation), it can take a bit longer. I appreciate your understanding and patience.

        Sarah Myles

      • Oh, reread my post. You were checking the expletives. I get it. They can be used hurtfully, and the website guys had to check. Sorry, I was afraid my thoughts had vanished into the ether. Attention eeb admin: the other two technical posts and this one could be deleted. Please leave the long initial post relevant to the blog.

        Thank you.

        Brian.

      • 😀 While I’m flattered that you think this endeavour so grand, there’s no “admin”, or “website guys”. It’s just me, and my laptop. Just a blog for my stuff. Thanks though!
        Sarah Myles

  22. Hi Sarah,

    I’m glad to make your acquaintance. I want to offer you specifically – a thought about probability:

    Remember the times things go right. Pay attention to them. Don’t dismiss them. They are not trivial. They are IMPORTANT.

    Life is a bell curve. If you remember the wonderful days of serendipity -pay attention to them, you can remember them when you are at the other end of the bell curve: when everything goes wrong. Life isn’t evil, it’s random. It’s ups and downs. It’s really – where you put your attention.

    I like you, and we have never met. You are trying to help people: because you can feel their pain.

    That seems pretty heroic to me.

    Brian

  23. Another thought, relevant to what you said,

    Emotions transfer person to person. Being around grumpy people makes us grumpy. We tell two friends, and so on, and so on.

    Grumpiness is a particularly nasty virus. I suggest silliness as an antibody. Find someone you trust – and find little absurdities in your life it’s safe to laugh at. Hopefully, little absurdities in yourself. I cannot overatate how liberating it is to be able to laugh at yourself.

    It has gotten me though some very dark moments.

    I hope you find joy.

    Brian

    • Thank you, Brian. You’ll be glad to know I laugh at myself often for, truly, I am filled with absurdities – as are we all.
      Thanks for your continued readership, and I wish you a peaceful festive season.
      Sarah Myles

  24. A last thought, or maybe a gift: (Anything further would be “creepy”)
    Rorschach Test

    I guess there’s nothing magic in the blots
    Our hopes and fears fill every summer sky
    In days too cold turned suddenly too hot
    In how, “Hello” can often seem, “Goodbye”

    We bear a paintbrush, and we rule the world
    We mix our palette and we face the gray
    We make tomorrow with the paint we’ve hurled
    Our minds are artists and we have today

    So make your life a masterwork of art
    Make every day your gift to all mankind
    Unfold your mind and then unfold your heart
    Send forth such color, no one can be blind

    From ink blots, we behold a world of night
    But learn those tools that let us offer light

    (I come by “sonneteer”, honestly. Hope your new year, renews your faith. Brian)

  25. While this is true completely , I’ve thought about it and maybe the chameleon effect is borderlines way of coping with buried anxiety to reveal self which is extreme thoughtfulness and intellect , be honest with yourself there are certainly things you genuinely enjoy and people you care about and love. Maybe instability of a certain array of personality characteristics but not the entire person necessarily, maybe this sounds like denial but I believe while you wrote that you were in a state of splitting on the apathetic hopeless end.

    • Thank you for your comment. Let me take each point in turn.

      Firstly, yes – the chameleon is absolutely a way of coping with buried anxiety to reveal self. The gist of what I’m saying in the piece is that it is, in a way, the ultimate coping mechanism. Like, the final booby-trap before the central, hidden chamber. Whether the anxiety stems from an extreme lack of confidence in the self, or from a fundamental instability in the self is entirely dependent on the person in question. Everybody develops their coping mechanisms for different reasons, and with this article, I am referring to mine.

      Secondly, yes – there are things I genuinely enjoy and people I care about and love. Contrary to your suggestion that I “be honest with myself”, I have never claimed otherwise – as you will see from my other articles on this site. For example, I’ve been married for 12 years, have two children, and a very nice cat. I also enjoy writing. An instability of the self does not preclude these things. It is, in essence, a shifting foundation – which means that ensuring everything you’ve built on top of it doesn’t constantly shake itself into a pile of rubble can be exhausting, but equally, going down into those foundations to take a good look at what’s causing the cracks can be terrifying, when you don’t know what’s lurking down there.

      It also changes over time. As I say, I will never be free of this condition. When I was first diagnosed, prior to treatment, my instability of self was at crisis point, along with everything else. Then I did the work, my condition improved, and my sense of self is now more stable than it once was. I am better able to manage my chameleon. I have more good days than bad days, but the point is – this is not set in stone. It fluctuates day to day, throughout life. To be clear, it’s different for everybody, and everybody’s experience of it changes over time.

      Thirdly, while I appreciate your assessment of my mental state during the writing of this piece, it was quite some time ago, so I cannot be entirely sure. Based on my understanding of my mood cycle, however, and re-reading the piece, I would say I was probably a day or two out the other side of a low period (i.e: on the ‘up-swing’), which is when I usually achieve most of my moments of clarity and understanding about my mental health. This comes from a tendency toward self-assessment (i.e: “OK, that was a bad patch – what set it off, what did I learn while in that hole, and how can I apply that to my self-management going forward?”). In other words, the type of thought-process contained in this piece usually occurs when I have been at the hopeless end of splitting, but have then returned to some kind of temporary equilibrium, and can apply rational and critical thinking.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

      • I apologize if it seems like critique, that was not my goal. In you writing this, I happened to sense a lot of myself and I tend to devalue or idealize a lot especially in this type of conflict. Borderline personality disorder is extremely complex and I applaud your bravery for writing this because it eliminated my feelings of being alone in the way my mind works, I very much appreciate this and want to thank you .

      • Thank you. It certainly works both ways – in writing these pieces, it is a comfort to me to hear from people that can identify with the issues they contain. I appreciate you reading and getting in touch.

        Best wishes,
        Sarah Myles

    • Thank you, Cory. I hope your onward journey takes you where you need to go, but I am very grateful for your comment – it means a lot.

      Thanks for reading, and taking the time to get in touch.
      Best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  26. I noticed something last night in “full fury” mode. I’ll put it here to see if it happens to anybody else.

    I have extremely good access to “sensory” memory. I can replay images and conversations from decades past nearly verbatim. I also have “inferential” memory, where I keep what I’ve figured out. Sensory memory never changes. Inferential memory changes all the time.

    When I went “borderline”, I had access to Inferential memory – but was completely “blind” to images from my life. In a sense, since inferential memory is your workspace notion of “self”… my life “became” the bad interactions that brought on “borderline”.

    Once I realized this distortion, that my life was temporarily “gone”… I knew that the only option was to “wait it out”, until sensory memory came back.

    This morning looks a whole lot brighter.

    • I forgot to put in the experiment part:

      When you go “borderline” try to “remember” your mother’s face. Try to visualize any act of kindness that has happened to you. Then try to visualize any bad memory. And in both cases, by visualize, I mean play the recording in your head. In “borderline”, accessing any of these was impossible. At least for me.

  27. It’s amazing to come across such a post. I relate to your story so much. I never thought that I would possibly have a personality disorder. I’m definitely struggling with The Chameleon. I’ve been aware of the mirroring but not sure how to “control” it as you would say.

    I wanted to say Thanks! I’ve been searching for something like this, and I feel like I am on the right path now. It’s been quite awhile since you have posted this, How are you dealing with the Chameleon currently?

    • Thanks for your comment, Duke. I’m glad you found this post useful.

      I would say that, currently, I’m dealing with the Chameleon by continuing to implement dialectical behaviour strategies. Awareness is absolutely key, as is learning, accepting and understanding triggers and patterns of behaviour. Once you know the circumstances under which the Chameleon is likely to surface and, most crucially, why, then it is possible to almost ‘head it off at the pass’, with practice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t – but the way I see it, as long as I remain motivated to try, then the positive outcomes soon start to outweigh the negative. Hope that makes sense!

      Thanks for reading,
      Sarah Myles

  28. I’ve come to the exact same conclusion that you’ve expressed in your post here; the lack of a sense of self is the root of all of my issues. I came to this conclusion because I noticed that the worst, most overwhelming feeling of my bpd is EMPTINESS, and I was able to realize that the emptiness stems from not having a “me”. It seems like even if I were to manage/or even fully get rid of all the other components of my condition, without developing a self identity, I’m still going to be suffering and extremely limited in my ability to have the full human experience in this lifetime.

    My bpd diagnosis came just 3 weeks ago at age 32, but like most of its sufferers, I’ve been struggling my whole life with it. I am a “high functioning” borderline, in that I’ve never practiced substance abuse, don’t cut, I have several friendships that have lasted over a decade, and I’ve managed to maintain a stable career for over 8 years…and guess what…none of that matters without having a self bc I still feel defective, empty and hopelessly limited by this disorder. I’m trying to find hope in telling myself that I will get better, I won’t always feel this way, but when I look at what “recovery” or “remission” means to the beacons of light we have in this community; the individuals who have done the hard work of DBT, meds, and relentless self growth, most bpd people (and the medical community), paint a picture of a high functioning borderline who has made enough progress to where they can now manage their painful emotions. Please don’t take this as me not respecting anyone’s recovery, (I know how hard it is for all of us), but simply being able to manage my emotions isn’t enough for me to want to continue to life through to a natural death. I want to not feel this way to begin with! Not fight through the pain with coping skills! I know that my expectations are unrealistic, I know that there’s no cure for this and that the best I can ever hope for is managing it and finding a way to accept that I will never have the joys in life that the average human being has every right to expect, but it’s so hard to accept a life that’s less than, and except that my fate involves pain and emptiness.

    I’m apt to believe that creating a self is a task that has to be accomplished in childhood, and if that doesn’t happen then you’re simply out of luck. It’s such a strange thing to be plagued to walk the earth, an entire lifetime, and never have yourself.

    • Hi there – thanks for sharing your story and experience.
      Firstly, I would say that I completely understand the frustrations that go with looking at a diagnosis of a mental health problem for which there is no cure.
      Having said that, if it’s any consolation, I can say that I am about 5 years on from my diagnosis – which came after a particularly severe crisis – and the work involved in coping with emotions has become generally automatic. By doing the work, and practising, it has eventually become something I don’t even notice I’m doing.
      Of course, it’s still there, lurking in the background, and triggering situations do derail me. In those instances, I have to ramp up my efforts, and consciously deal with my BPD. But, under normal circumstances, it is so low-level as to be barely noticeable.
      I still get angry that this is my cross to bear – especially when I do get derailed. I resent it greatly. But then, I pay close attention to how much easier it is now, and I congratulate myself for coming this far. Without sounding too corny, in my experience, it really does get easier, if you remain aware, and work to understand your triggers.
      On the point of the Self, I can also say that, after putting in a few years of work, I am finally beginning to feel like I have some kind of self. It is still forming, and emerging, and I do not yet have full confidence in it – but it is definitely there, and this motivates me to continue working on it.
      I hope that helps – although I know it is difficult to think of the long-term picture when you are newly diagnosed. Mostly, please remember that you are not alone in it.
      I wish you well with your continued recovery, and many thanks for reading, and taking the time to get in touch.
      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

  29. […] The presence of The Chameleon is often one of the main obstacles to effective initial treatment and diagnosis of BPD, as it affects 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.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect) […]

  30. I’m impressed that you have addressed your BPD and are getting help. I’ve known two women with this disorder, who are completely unaware. One was a roommate who stole from me every day and had major anger issues. One was extremely jealous and convinced that I was trying to steal her bf. She began dressing like me, speaking like me (even trying to command a room the way I naturally do). I felt for her, but she was not ready to acknowledge her illness.
    I’m hopeful that, with enough therapy you can live with your illness. Good for you for being open. The struggle is real….

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