Managing Borderline Personality Disorder and the ‘Chameleon Effect’ Through the End of Lockdown

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease, it’s perhaps the perfect time to follow up on my previous article, Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect.‘ The shift in circumstances provides an opportunity to observe the impacts that the daily reality of lockdown have had, through the lens of Borderline Personality Disorder, and the ‘Chameleon.’

While there are many co-morbid conditions that are triggered by a pandemic – including OCD and anxiety – Borderline Personality Disorder is fundamentally defined by emotional dysfunction, coupled with an unstable sense of self. As we know, the unstable sense of self, within the context of BPD, is what gives rise to ‘The Chameleon Effect’ – or, ‘mirroring.’ Taming the Chameleon can be a big part of achieving sustainable recovery in BPD, but what happens when daily life is completely upended – including our opportunities to socialise?

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2012, and came to truly understand the way it works alongside ‘The Chameleon Effect’ a few years later, after undertaking Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Since then, I have been steadily managing my way to sustainable recovery – that is, the ability to live, on a day-to-day basis, without the constant conscious effort of controlling the disorder.

When the Coronavirus pandemic reached the U.K, I fully expected to experience heightened anxiety, and for my Obsessive Compulsive behaviours to become much more significant. They did, and I deployed my regular management techniques of self-care, rationalisation, and communication in response. I did not anticipate the impact the situation would have on my Chameleon, though – possibly because it has been largely tamed for so long now. The fact is, by objectively observing this impact, I can get a clearer picture of how much progress I had actually made before this whole lockdown situation happened. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Video calls

Before the lockdown, I had always avoided making video calls, with email and phone calls being my preference. Once the lockdown was in place, however, video calls became the norm. Keeping up with extended family, keeping up with friends, keeping up with Book Club, attending meetings of the charity with which I volunteer – the answer was always a Zoom, Google, or Messenger call. A lot of people dislike them, and this is a perfectly natural response. But there is a very specific relationship that these video calls have with the Chameleon, and it consequently has a negative impact on Borderline Personality Disorder – no matter how much sustainable recovery has previously been achieved. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s look at some context. Being a freelance writer, I’ve conducted many interviews before. I use a digital dictaphone for recordings, but have a deep loathing of the transcription process. It occurs to me now that this is because it involves listening to my own social interactions. It’s not just about being uncomfortable listening to my own voice, it’s about the fact that every social interaction is difficult for a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, and transcribing an interview requires that I relive one that potentially has career consequences.

Our unstable sense of self cuts right to the heart of the way we perceive our identity which, in turn, cuts right to the heart of how we see ourselves fitting into the world, or not. One of the main elements of BPD is the intense fear of abandonment, which is deeply linked to identity, the self, and to ‘fitting in.’ This is where the unconscious mirroring comes from – the need to blend in, and to seem like we belong when we fear that we don’t.

‘Normal’ social interactions can therefore be literally exhausting, because the whole time is spent unconsciously mirroring those present, followed by the inevitable and lengthy post-mortem – with every piece of dialogue replayed in the mind for days; every inflection analysed, and every response scoured for hidden meaning, as the paranoid spiral builds. For effective management of the disorder, this is the point at which self-intervention is required, to prevent a crisis that requires medical assistance.

Now, as someone that is well-practised at avoiding that point now, by applying DBT techniques and essentially putting out the fire before it becomes a raging inferno, I would routinely implement all the appropriate fire prevention strategies – rationalisation, self-care, and communication – when transcribing an interview. But then came the video calls.

During a video call, we are confronted with ourselves, and even the most clearly self-identified, self-defining person surely struggles with that. When you have an unstable sense of self – even when you have worked on that instability for years – video calls are deeply unsettling for two reasons. Firstly, you have to watch yourself socially interact in real time, and secondly, you come to the realisation that while everyone else is talking about adjusting to and coping with the ‘new normal,’ you are actually more comfortable with a lack of social interaction.

Out of practice

When you’ve been doing something that is psychologically exhausting for so long, there is a numbness to it. A ‘grit your teeth and do it’ quality. Head down and power through. It is simply something that has to be done, in order to ‘fit in’. This is not to say that I don’t like other people. In fact, many people are great, and I have friends that I love very much – but it’s still exhausting, because I have Borderline Personality Disorder, and that in itself creates internal conflict.

Now lockdown restrictions are lifting, and it is possible to socialise in-person, in small, socially distanced groups. Suddenly, I feel unsteady again, like I did when I was first learning to manage the disorder. During lockdown, with the exception of the dreaded video calls, I’ve only had to interact in-person with immediate family in the safety of my home, and this is far less challenging. The gradual re-socialisation with those outside the home is a stinging reminder that my Chameleon is still there, curled around my wobbly sense of self, ready to provide a constantly changing palette to reflect the person to whom I happen to be talking. “Who do they need me to be?” As opposed to, “I am who I am.”

This all reveals the truth that sustainable recovery in Borderline Personality Disorder is basically psychological athleticism. You start off as an amateur – doing a mental health version of the Couch to 5k Challenge. Over time, your stamina builds, and you start participating in half-marathons and Park-Runs. Then perhaps you join a running club and, before you know it, you’re at the starting line for the London Marathon. You never thought you’d enjoy it, but now your body is so accustomed to the sport that it seems strange when you’re not running. Eventually, you’re semi-professional and winning medals. Brilliant.

Then, unexpectedly, you’re benched.

It’s weird and frustrating at first – you’ve trained your body to run, and that’s what it’s now geared to do. As time goes on, though, there is comfort in the fact that you don’t need to run. So, when the time comes to get off the bench, guess what? It’s a struggle. Some of that stamina is lost. It can feel like starting from scratch, and that can be incredibly disheartening and de-motivating. It can be tempting to give up running altogether. But, the body is a marvellous machine, and it remembers well. We never really have to start from scratch when we’ve already put the foundational work in.

The mind has the same ‘muscle memory’ as the rest of the body. We’ve done that foundational work, and learned those important things about how it all operates and intersects with Borderline Personality Disorder. As long as we pace ourselves and don’t do too much too quickly, we can re-build that stamina without causing further injury. It just takes a little time, that’s all.  

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