The Looking Glass – Identity on the Borderline

The Looking Glass - By Charlotte Farhan

The Looking Glass – By Charlotte Farhan

When identity is unstable life can feel as if you are staring through a mirror wondering what the “other side” means ?

Like Alice who questions the world on the other side of the mirror’s reflection – before stepping through and entering an alternative world; our concept of self is greatly developed from infancy through our interpersonal interactions and mirrored back through society.  Suggesting that we have a tendency to understand ourselves through our understanding of how others see and judge us; this is thought to be how we develop and understand our own identity.

As a child we learn how our crying, smiling and silence elicits a response from our caregivers, this forms our first mirroring and understanding of how we are perceived and responded to. This continues throughout our interactions and learning.

“The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”

(Cooley 1964)

(The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept introduced by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 (McIntyre 2006). The term “looking glass self” was coined by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902.)

There are three main components that comprise the looking-glass self

(Yeung, et al. 2003).

  • We imagine how we must appear to others.
  • We imagine and react to what we feel their judgement of that appearance must be.
  • We develop our self through the judgements of others.

As a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – identity is something which has always been an issue for me and so many other sufferers. My entire life seems to have been an identity crisis and it is one of the 9 traits you have to have in order to be diagnosed with BPD.

The specific issues which concern the stability of self in BPD sufferers is exhibited in:

  • Fragmentation – Which is in no way as dominating or persistent in BPD as it is in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), however it still causes many issues. BPD can make it so you have adaptive personalities depending on who you are with and what scenario you are in – which to some extent most people do. BPD however causes this to be such separate fragmentations of the self that it is disturbing for us – the sufferers, to a degree it damages our personal relationships, careers, idea of self, family life and integration into society. It also affects our memories and association to people and places as our identities can separate what is dear to one “personality/self” over the other.
  • Boundary confusion – Also known as boundary dissolution is the failure to recognise the psychological distinctiveness of individuals or a confusion of their interpersonal roles. Boundaries are believed to be established in childhood within the family setting, when roles are clarified such as who is the parent and who is the child, with a flexibility to create close bonds and also have a separateness allowing you to build your “self”.

Kenji Kameguchi (1996) likens boundaries to a

“membrane” that surrounds each individual and subsystem in the family. Like the membrane around a cell, boundaries need to be firm enough to ensure the integrity of the cell and yet permeable enough to allow communication between cells. Overly rigid boundaries might constrict family relationships and limit family members’ access to one another (e.g., “children should be seen and not heard”), whereas overly permeable or blurred boundaries might lead to confusion between the generations (e.g., “who is the parent and who is the child?”

[Hiester 1995]).

  • Lack of cohesion and continuity of the self across situations and life history – Most individuals who have secure identities do so because they remember themselves as the same individual they have always been. Noticing the changes one experiences with age, experience and gained knowledge, developing their core identity through life’s stages. BPD doesn’t allow for this due to the fragmented self which has been present throughout our lives, causing perceived gaps of identity knowledge and incompatible memories. Timelines become confusing when remembering what past events mean in regards to identity.

“I don’t know who I am”

“I don’t know what I want”

“I don’t know how I should handle this situation”

These questions seem harmless to most – however when you have BPD these questions are so confusing that emotional stability is compromised and becomes dangerous if we are not supported or receiving some kind of treatment. These questions are second nature and the answers come to mind with a certain amount of ease when you do not suffer from psychological identity issues – something taken for granted by most.

When you have BPD you are seen by different people as polar opposites at different points in your life or even at the same time, such as myself; I am seen by many in my life as a self righteous, egocentric, judgemental, scary, aggressive, rude person. However I am also seen by many as an inspiration, kind, loving, empathetic, polite, selfless person. Many people without BPD may encounter this kind of reaction from certain people, contradicting what makes you, you. This doesn’t phase well adjusted stable personalities as they know who they are and realise they are probably a combination of things to different people due to differing interactions and other peoples personalities. With BPD this causes self annihilation, an instability of emotions and further fragmentation and less awareness of the self.

“who do I believe – me or me or you”

In truth – at times I feel as if my identity is a game of guess who; or that this confused dissociated state is in fact a malevolent monster controlling and interchanging me – to torture me.

Friends, family and people who have crossed my path along the way will have no idea to a certain extent that these different identities exist within me or at different times in my life. The ones who remember are those who I have split, those who got to meet the protective identity, the no empathy, unforgiving, hateful identity – who has kept me alive in times of pure distress. These people have gone from being idealised to then being devalued and thrown away. The hardest part is being aware of this, of others being more aware of this – knowing I can rip you off the pedestal in which I created for you at any time just because you reveal to me that you are in fact human and fallible.

Sometimes the mirror reflects back that no one really knows me, so in turn I can’t know myself – which then brings about the depersonalisation and not feeling as if I exist at all.

The looking glass is the perfect metaphor for how this feels – knowing one reflection is in one world and another in the next. Feeling unreal or full of identities fighting to be seen or wanting to hide. Not knowing when in front of the mirror – who will reflect back.

 


References 

Hiester, M.”Who’s the parent and who’s the child: generational boundary dissolution between mothers and their children.” paper presented at the biennial meeting of the society for research in child development, Indianapolis,1995.

Yeung, King-To, and Martin, John Levi. “The Looking Glass Self: An Empirical Test and Elaboration.” Social Forces 81, no. 3 (2003): 843–879.


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