The Shifting Chameleon: Identity Disturbance and BPD

Hello, Dear HFBPD Community!  Please help me welcome guest blogger Robert Fischer, M.D. with this excellent post on identity disturbance and Borderline Personality Disorder.  "Dr. Bob" is a psychiatrist, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA, School Of Medicine
Dept. Of Psychoneuroimmunology, Mindful Awareness Research Center, and he is the Executive Director at Optimum Performance Institute and its Roanne Program for young adults with Borderline Personality Disorder and BPD traits. 

Please let us know what you think about this article.  Can you relate? Do you struggle with identity issues?  If you do and have a difficult time expressing the experience, consider passing along this article to your parent or loved one.

In kindness,
Debbie Corso 

To the outside observer, young adults with Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD traits appear to be making drastic shifts in terms of what they like and/or are committed to in any given moment. This can manifest in repeatedly changing their major in school, shifting career goals, including difficulties sticking with jobs when they suddenly and completely lose interest in what they are doing at work, becoming very interested in a hobby and then suddenly wanting nothing do to with it, and even relationships where they were very close to someone one day and want nothing to do with them the next.  Being unstable in these areas can ultimately lead to a failure to launch to their next stage of development, namely being able to live independently and support themselves.

Through all of this shifting, the young adult portrays a sense of undependability.   After all, if interests change so rapidly, where is the consistency?  It is hard for the external observer to appreciate the fact that the individual is not consciously being deceitful, hurtful, or undependable.  That is not to say that their external behaviors could not be interpreted in that way or have a negative impact on those that are closest to the individual, but in truth, what appears to be inconsistent externally actually feels quite consistent internally.  A major drive for the young adult is to have a sense of feeling accepted, loved, and validated. The desire and drive are not the problem.  That desire, eventually, can lead the individual towards a healing path of finding a passion, expressing it joyously, and sharing it; however, in order to do that, the sufferer must connect with who it is that is finding the passion.  The problem lies in that the person with BPD or BPD traits shifts depending on who they are with in a given moment, because the shifting is an unconscious attempt to secure that love, acceptance, and validation. Ultimately, it is simply unsustainable.

Debbie Corso of Healing From BPD notes “I just couldn’t do it anymore with the lack of sense of self, and this is what ultimately led to my BPD diagnosis.  As I began to have an awareness of my ‘shapeshifting’ ways to please others, it became exhausting, and I knew I needed help.  I didn’t have the insight in my twenties to know it was a problem, so I encourage parents who see this in their young adults to pursue getting their child the help they need early on to reduce suffering as much as possible.”

One can see how the individual goes about trying to achieve the goal of validation and intimacy is not possible because of the way in which they are trying to achieve it.  It is in answering the question “who is it that is shifting?” that the true complexity and suffering of that individual can be seen.   For those who have not had the opportunity, based on thousands of experience over the years of feeling, “You’re OKAY as you are” there can be an absence of a validation of the self.  To some degree all of us may feel that we have not received sufficient validation from those who we generally seek it from: parents, mentors, friends, families, lovers; however, for those with BPD who have identity disturbance issues, who you have to be depends on who you are with for validation: you may behave one way for your mom, one way for your Dad, one way for a friend, and a different way for another friend.

For the individual who has not had the opportunity to consolidate and create a more complex self, you have to patch a quilt together rapidly depending on the circumstance, unfortunately usually out of fear of being rejected or abandoned, and for most this entire process is unconscious. This may manifest as, unconsciously in one moment, you are compelled to be this sweet, demure young woman to please Daddy, somebody who is sharp, witty, and bright to please a friend, and someone who is seductive to please a boyfriend. If this shifting takes place due to underlying fear from past experiences and of being left or invalidated in the now, many times the words and mannerisms of the person with BPD in these moments will seem to come through the eyes of the frightened child, a child who understandably does not have a strong sense of self, and it is from that position that they speak unconsciously. 

When one’s lover says, “You’re behaving like a four year old,” it is the intense sense of fear and rejection experienced by the young adult with BPD that stimulates this kind of unskillful reaction. It’s about survival. It’s about you not leaving. It’s about you realizing how much I need you. As a young adult who knows she is no longer four years old, if she is in a moment of emotional dysregulation and vulnerability, she may still behave as if she is. So, from an external point of view, we can begin to appreciate that these individuals are not malicious, are not insensitive, and that they must begin to adapt to a world of imperfections without unconsciously going back into a fantasy world that keeps them safe – they think – but that actually serves to make them more isolated and more detached from reality.


Over time, their internal self-esteem and sense of self is not helped by this process.   It is therefore very difficult for these young people to launch into independence. For many, there is not a deep faith in a stable self who can persevere to get them to their target goals. They may also be very unclear of any certain goals due to their identity disturbance. So, how do you find out who you are and develop that sense of self? It is clearly experiential. The complexity of the experience is that the young adult must learn to be present, and this often requires caring, skillful professional guidance, patience, and time.  When he or she learns to be present, the skillful creation of opportunities to explore one’s gifts and to begin to develop a sense of self unique from anyone else present themselves. We have seen this numerous times in our Roanne Program for young adult males and females with BPD and BPD traits. 

The question is: Can anything be done to accelerate or facilitate the process?  Of course! 

For most of us, when we were children, the environment was composed of other individuals who were supportive of our creativity, who fundamentally allowed us to explore as children without judgment, to laugh at our silliness when we would make mistakes, who would clap and cheer and support us when we were successful and share a sense of joy and hope based on the notion that we are all trying our best and want to help each other.  For many with BPD, this environment didn’t exist, or issues of survival competed for their attention of noticing it if it did.

Through both therapeutic and creative experiences, we create such an environment. In it, young adults who have been struggling for years begin to see and appreciate the complexity of who they are, their vital role in this world, and their interconnectedness with others. They learn that we are all imperfect.  We all want to be validated and loved, and sometimes we go about it very unskillful ways.  It’s not too late.  At Roanne, we provide this environment in the now as a bridge to reconnect and find one’s creative self that allowed us all to learn to walk, talk, and experience the world. Through the acquisition of skills and therapeutic interventions such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and a myriad of experiential therapeutic and healing opportunities, we witness young adults beginning to fit the pieces into a more cohesive, balanced, and joyous self.

We create new neuropathways by creating opportunities to see and do things differently.  We encourage the discovery of the self through inventories of one’s values and pursuing various avenues that may lead to a passion that lasts.  Our environment is one in which there are may “toys” to play with, including music, acting, scuba, tennis, art. These can be shared with others in an environment which supports the exploration.  This process is accompanied by an internal shift that allows the young adult to use his or her Wise Mind to appreciate the gray in us and the world, and through that gray, he or she is able to experience the clarity and light of internal joy.

Ultimately, the young adult must be presented with opportunities to discover who he or she is, without the fear of perfection, the fear of letting anyone else down, or the internal pressure from identity disturbance to shape who he or she is in order to please the person standing in front of them.  It is a complex process, but the tremendously good news is that there is hope, and these issues can be overcome.  A young adult struggling with these issues can not only go on to find a strong sense of self but to then go out into the world and live a meaningful, full, and happy life.  Borderline Personality Disorder and BPD traits are very serious mental health issues that require the intervention of a clinically sophisticated treatment team.  A young adult in his or her twenties may not yet have the insight to know that help is needed.  As a parent or loved one, your gentle guidance of their receptivity to getting help is very important in assisting them in avoiding years of unnecessary suffering. Intervention is the key.

Is your young adult struggling with identity disturbance issues?  Is it getting in the way of him or her living independently and building a life worth living?  Reach out to us for more information on our intensive residential and outpatient programs to help young adults with BPD and BPD traits to discover who they are and to build full and healthy lives that they feel are worth living.

Take care,
Robert Fischer, M.D.
At the Roanne Program for young adults with Borderline Personality Disorder and BPD traits, we intensively integrate DBT as part of your treatment plan. We offer compassionate, clinically sophisticated intensive residential help, including genetic testing to determine the best course for medications, if needed. Rather than a sterile, hospital-like environment, we offer beautiful accommodations in luxury apartments just outside of Los Angeles.  At Roanne Program, we treat the individual, not the diagnosis.  Our clinical team is made up of a diverse community of passionate, highly skilled individuals working together with you to help you find your joy and express it.   For more information on Roanne residential programs and our measures to help young adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, call us at (888) 814-5985 or click HERE to submit an online form. We’ll be in touch promptly.


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