Understanding bpd:
identity disturbance

June 4, 2020

Today, I want to share my own experiences of another BPD symptom as part of my BPD Awareness Series throughout May and June. I've already spoken about the fear of abandonment that affects many people with BPD, which you can read here. The next symptom I want to talk about is...

Identity disturbance: Markedly or persistently unstable self-image or sense of self

Those with BPD usually have a very unstable identity or sense of self. Obviously, a lot of people without BPD can struggle with identity issues too but it's usually more profound in those with BPD.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been crippled by fear, paralysed by indecision, and trapped by over-thinking. It feels like I'm trying to walk on moving plates that are constantly shifting beneath me, impossible to find a secure footing. I’ve felt lost and numb, disconnected from myself and the world around me, a question mark over my existence. When I've managed to get these feelings out into my journal, I drew myself as a scared, silent little girl with sellotape over my mouth, and a huge 'X' over my very existence. 

If you've ever asked yourself 'Who am I?' then you might be struggling with your identity too. Most experts define identity as the overall view of yourself and your place in the world. Your identity is made up of your beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, personality, temperament, attitudes, history, behaviour, knowledge, opinions, and roles. It's the glue that holds all the different aspects of yourself together. A stable sense of identity means viewing yourself as the same person in the past, now, and in the future. It also means you are able to view both your positive and negative traits at the same time.

The development of our identity and sense of self is influenced by our past experiences and traumas. I lost my mother to cancer suddenly at the age of 8, which probably affected my ability to form a stable sense of ‘who I was’ without a loving and consistent caregiver around. Unfortunately, my father's narcissistic traits and problematic behaviours had a detrimental affect on my development, leaving long-term psychological scars. His need for control paired with his fragile ego and insatiable drive to be a successful musician made him control and push me in the very narrow career direction of a concert pianist from the age of four.

Putting this into perspective, it makes sense that I severely struggled to form a solid identity or sense of self growing up. Being constantly spoken over and having my feelings dismissed meant that I never developed my own voice, or a sense of who I really was, separate from my father. Having my own emotional needs constantly denied caused me to shut off and repress those needs, along with my feelings. The way my father single-mindedly propelled my career in the direction of music didn't allow me to explore and try new things, or get to know what I really liked or enjoyed.

My unstable sense of self began to really show in my teenage years, my insecurities bubbled to the surface as I struggled to fit in to my new secondary school for girls. Jumping from one clique to another, I went through many phases - chav, emo, skater, grunge, girlie girl, hipster. It felt like I was trying on image after image in a desperate attempt to find one that fitted, but nothing ever felt quite right. I eventually ended up in with the wrong crowd; a bunch of insecure teens from broken families who hung out in the empty market stalls near my house. Through their influence I began binge drinking, smoking, and taking drugs from the age of 14. It felt good to be accepted into my new ‘family’, a stark contrast to the deafening silence that hung around the dinner table at home, where my father was physically present but emotionally unreachable. I left school with little friends from my year group, none of whom I'm in touch with now. 

Looking back, I felt so lost and terrified, desperately searching for someone, anyone, that would accept me. The pain of not feeling enough for my father ran deep causing me to go into self-destruct mode. Instead of feeling those insecurities, I tried to numb out the pain by abusing my body. I began to self-harm too during that period of my life, in an attempt to block out the overwhelming worthlessness and shame triggered by my father and being bullied. I had many dark nights but gradually came out of it through help from a child psychiatrist and medication following a short hospitalisation. 

Then, as my music career grew on entering the competitive music college environment, I became even more obsessively driven to be a highly successful musician, my father's controlling voice engrained deeply in my psyche. All my life I had practised for hours and hours at the piano, trying to become the best. I never switched off and pushed myself numerous times to the point of emotional breakdown. Apart from during my gap year in Australia, music was always in my life, and I was forever striving to be better. I'd played in numerous solo recitals my father had set up, and my first concerto performance was at the prestigious St John’s Smith Square. I'd been the best pianist at my university, winning several competitions. I'd always been an overachiever. Music was all I had and all I ever was. Music was my worth, and my success depended on it. 

So, it's hardly surprising that when I graduated from music college three years ago, my fragile sense of self threw me into the depths of depression and despair. I woke up to immense anxiety as the emptiness of each day stretched ahead. Under such a high amount of pressure for an extended period - the constant rush of college assessments, recitals, competitions, and endless hours practising - I had finally collapsed. It felt like I'd been balancing on a tightrope for so long and it had suddenly disappeared beneath me, dropping me into darkness, a rug pulled from beneath my feet. I found it difficult to get out of bed. Some days I didn't even bother. Without music, I truly believed, and still do, that I was nothing. I felt like a nobody, a total failure. Nobody knew who I was and nobody cared about me. My identity had been so focused on being a musician to the exclusion of everything else. I had no idea who I was if I wasn't trying to be a successful musician. 

Over the last eighteen months or so, I've began to get a more steady footing in knowing who I am. I've got a long way to go but I'm on a journey discovering who I am without music, and without success and external achievements. I've got in touch with what makes me, me, such as my warm and bubbly personality, my fun-loving and creative sides, my thirst for adventure and my passion to help others. One of the most beautiful outcomes of all is realising I want to spend my life helping others by training to become a psychotherapist. Don't get me wrong, it's hard-going and pretty exhausting doing all this 'soul-searching', and I often slip back into my old ways but I already feel more "me" than I ever have and it feels truly freeing. 

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