Borderline Personality Disorder and Mirroring

I wrote this post, The Male Borderline Waif, a year ago, and it gets a lot of daily traffic.  For as much research that’s been accomplished over the decades around borderline personality disorder (BPD), there are still few answers to be had particularly for men who may be on the borderline spectrum.  Mental health and healing should not be pie in sky for any of us regardless of our diagnosis.

What do we do?

There is also a great deal of stigma for those who carry a personality disorder diagnosis particularly borderline.  The psychopath CEO or even pastor is let off far more easily than the borderline woman (TIME).

Let me be clear.  I’m not a personality disorder apologist.  I don’t, however, feel that anyone should withhold empathy from a population of people simply because there is little true understanding  around the etiology and ultimate course of their condition.  In the case of personality disorders, there are working theories.  That’s it.

Both my parents have personality disorders, and both my parents are dangerous people.  For years, I suspected something was going on with my ex-husband, but I could not pin it down.

Yesterday, I did.

How?

Firstly, my ex-husband was very resistant to any kind of treatment.  He refused to go to the doctor for anything.  He refused to seek mental health treatment as well–even when an ultimatum was on the table.  When I asked him why, he would tell me that he knew more than any doctor.  Was my ex-husband a physician? No.  Did he believe that he knew more? Yes, I think he did.  Is there a name for what he was expressing? Yes, there is.

Grandiosity.

Secondly, over the years I noticed that my husband had different personalities depending upon the situation, and sometimes they were wildly different.  He was a chameleon, and I wouldn’t even recognize him as the same person particularly at work functions.  What was creepier is that he had borrowed my self-image in terms of how he talked about life in general.  He used my language and knowledge base as if they were his own.  This is called mirroring.

What is mirroring?

Definition:

Mirroring – Imitating or copying another person’s characteristics, behaviors or traits.

Borrowing a Self-Image

Mirroring occurs when people with Personality Disorders have a vacant or distorted self-image, which can manifest itself as an imitation of another person’s speech, mannerisms, behaviors, dress style, purchase preferences or daily habits.

In more extreme manifestations of this behavior, the person doing the mirroring might begin to believe they actually are the other person, to the extent they might call themselves by their name, claim to be them or ‘borrow’ elements of the other person’s life such as relationships, past experiences, career or family history and claim these as their own.

Mirroring can be a form of Dissociation, where a person’s strong feelings create “facts” which are less than true.

A dramatic case of mirroring is portrayed in the movieSingle White Female, in which the character Hedra Carlson (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) begins to imitate her new room-mate Allie in the way she looks, dresses and behaves, imitating her haircut, wearing her clothes and ultimately seducing Allie’s boyfriend. (Out of the Fog)

What it Looks Like

  • A man switches accents to mimic a colleague.
  • A woman wears identical clothing to her friend.
  • A mother wears her daughter’s clothing.
  • A teenager makes phone calls in which she pretends to be her sibling or parent.
  • A secretary wears her boss’s wife’s perfume in an attempt to seduce him.
  • A man writes letters in which he forges his boss’s signature. (Out of the Fog)

My mother mirrored me frequently.  It was obvious.  It wasn’t as obvious when my ex-husband was doing it until he started therapy.

He came home after his intake appointment and told me that his new therapist saw no reason for him to be there.  I was shocked, but I played along.

“Why does your therapist think that you don’t need therapy?” I casually asked.

“I told him that I was looking to create more ’emotional mindfulness’ in my life, and he was really impressed with that.  He had never heard that term before, and he really liked it.  Anyone who would even come into his office and use such a term probably didn’t need much therapy,” he said smugly.

STOP!!!!!! That’s MY term!! I used that term! That is what I was trying to create in MY life! 

He mirrored my therapeutic process in his first therapy session to get out of therapy! What kind of person does that?!

That is a very good question.  What kind of person indeed!

I kept this behavior in mind as I proceeded, and this weekend’s antics with my daughter settled it for me.

Between his mirroring, chameleon-like behavior, grandiosity, entitlement, apparent lack of a solid sense of self as well as his belief that others do not have a sense of self that requires fencing in (boundaries), protecting, and respecting, displays of rage and violence, and consistent need to be the victim in our relationship when he was actually participating in victimization, and his reported self-loathing, I am going to go with my initial assessment of borderline personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies.

I know that pathologizing people isn’t necessarily the way to go, but it helps me get a proper handle on how to adjust my expectations and behaviors.  It helps me think in terms of what I can expect from someone in terms of personal safety, too.

Mirroring behaviors are not discussed enough in the context of personality disorders particularly if you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in them.  You may feel “creeped out” by them, and that’s legitimate.  It is a bit alarming.    Why is this even a thing? I found a very brave blog post written by a woman with borderline personality disorder who explains why she engages in mirroring behaviors:

“One 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 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)

She goes on to explain very succinctly what the mirroring is all about:

“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. Borderlines 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.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

This is such a courageous thing to write, and it explains the inner movements of the emotional life of people who struggle with borderline personality disorder in a way that is very understandable.

My ex-husband and mother refused to confront themselves or their highly abusive behaviors.  There was no happy ending, but perhaps we can all gain better insight into the vast spectrum of human experience through the depth of our own.

Further Reading:

Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’

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7 thoughts on “Borderline Personality Disorder and Mirroring

  1. my ex did this within months of knowing each other. He stared to take phrases I said and jokes to use them as his own. He would always use them playfully with me so it made me feel closer to him a way. Almost like it was our inside joke until I heard one of his friend’s say my joke on his youtube channel. Then I was like wait a minute! I always had a feeling that he used parts of me as his own more with his friends when I wasn’t around to seem more funny or intelligent than he actually was. He also started using phrases with me that I had never heard before and would say “I always say that…c’mon you’ve never heard me say that” when I fact never did hear him say it before. I found it was phrase his close friend always said that he took. I always thought it was vice versa. I read out of the fog months after our separation and realized how deep mirroring really is and was happy to know a term for it.

  2. Hi. This is a great article. I have BPD and other issues like Dependent Personality Disorder and complex PTSD. I feel like a sponge. I have no sense of identity, and my interests and hobbies have varied so much over the years. I was watching Home Alone 2, and there is a scene where the evil hotel clerk makes a grinch face. Well, my youngest sister and I have been making that face at each other for years and I couldn’t remember why we started doing it but now I know! We also use other phrases and facial expressions from various movies over the years. I don’t see any other friends acting that way, and was googling this behaviour and discovered it’s called mirroring. I think my bf may have narcissistic p.d. and I read about mirroring in that relationship dynamic too. He loves hunting and fishing and I am started to feel compelled to learn when it kind of goes against my morals. When we first started dating I started listening to hip hop because he did, when I really hate that kind of music. He mirrors me a bit too but it’s not to my extent. Back in my early 20’s I was dating a biker, and got my motorcycle licence and a motorbike and was totally engrossed in that scene. After we broke up 5 years later, I could barely get on that bike anymore and decided to sell it. I thought it was because of anxiety from having a health scare and surgery, but in retrospect I think it’s due to mirroring and losing my reference point or whatever. It’s kind of scary. I wish I knew how to stop this. I’m in DBT and it doesn’t really touch on building an identity. I do feel being emotionally aware is helping me a lot. I know I have to do a lot of work to do.

    • Thank you for commenting. I really appreciate it. I write a lot about the “other” experience of personality disorders. I am very grateful to hear from you–a woman who experiences it.

      It helps the conversation, and it broadens understanding.

      You know, I have been asking a question about how identity forms so that a person feels complete and solid within themselves. The mechanisms of that. The how or the steps that occur. DBT does not address identity. You are correct. It address the emotional instability part that results from identity instability. I really liked DBT for that. For a lot of people with BPD or any sort of personality disorder or even mood disorder, DBT is really useful. I took the 24-week course and found it to be invaluable for learning about self-validation and even what a validating environment looks like. But, it doesn’t address how to build an identity when you feel like you don’t have one.

      I don’ know what the current APA protocol is, but I wonder if there is belief that one can’t. I don’t believe that. I do think that one has to be emotionally stable first in order to do the deep identity work. Sometimes reframing helps me settle down inside myself, and I feel hopeful again. Perhaps building emotional awareness and working on emotional regulation–skills learned in DBT–and then slowly addressing identity work. It’s a hard thing to do. I think that your insight into yourself is outstanding and shows that you already have a sense of identity in a way–you know where you have a deficit. And that is actually how one starts. After I separated from my ex-husband, I had to address identity again because so much of mine was wiped out. I had to go back to what I liked before. I started there. I started doing the things I liked before I stopped doing them to prevent his judgments and mockery. What about that? Do you have anything in your life that you have always liked to do? Even if it is tiny? A hobby? Watching musicals? Walking? Looking at birds? Pets? It can be anything. Your likes and dislikes are part of who you are.

  3. Great article. Do you think that certain personality types draw the excessive mirroring types toward them? I am surrounded right now with two people who seem to have fluctuating personalities and mirror me. At first, I felt great being around these two people. Now, I think that I felt great because they were mirroring me. Of course I liked them–They were me! At first it was flattering to have my phrases and ideas taken. It then became irritating. I’m scared to think of it, but I wonder what is the need inside me that draws these people into my life. As I’d like to have a happy and healthy life surrounded by stable people, I’d like to figure this out.

    • Well, it’s validating, isn’t it, when people imitate us to a degree. What is the saying? Imitation is the best form of flattery. Someone picking up on one of your hallmark sayings. Another one starting to wear their scarf or hat just like you. I mean, are there any original ideas out there? We all create new things from someone else’s idea, and that is how art, creativity, and the world at large seems to expand. But, your question–a great one BTW–is significant. How do we know when it’s not just normal relational mirroring (which happens in the beginning stages of falling in love, when we’re forming new bonds in platonic relationships)? When does it become…something else? Like identity encroachment? And are some people more prone to attract it? Well, I can’t say for sure as I haven’t studied this at length, and I’m not not a PsyD. But, from what I have experienced personally with the phenomenon, read, and observed over the years, I would suggest that people who are naturally empathetic and accommodating tend to have more “porous” relational boundaries with people. So, identity encroachment i.e. toxic mirroring is often missed or overlooked. People who come from codependent backgrounds and were raised to be enablers in the codependent family dynamic make great mirrorees largely because enablers were often encroached upon by a parent or sibling growing up. So, their identities are not firmly fenced in–they were not really allowed to develop an identity of their own. The mirroring behavior will then feel familiar and, thusly, almost intimate. Like two people who just “clicked”. The truth is that true lasting friendships take time to develop. Trust takes time to develop as does respect and the space to learn to be vulnerable. Oftentimes when two people click instantly and people start pouring out their most intimate secrets, it isn’t kismet. It’s compatible neuroses amplified by mirroring behaviors.

      So, how does one change this? Invest in personal identity development, and I know that this may sound abstract. Some of the best identity resources I’ve come across are written by SARK. You can check amazon for her stuff. It is whimsical looking, but it is amazing stuff. It will engage (but admittedly more female-oriented). Melody Beattie’s work–all of it–is outstanding. Start with Codependent No More. It is a classic work and a must read. And then go from there; she has a ton of books. All of this deals with identity. Next, figure out what sort of boundaries need to be reexamined around your personality. Think of yourself like a house or a property. Certain people get to come onto your lawn or patio or threshold depending upon the kind of place you reside. People have to deliver mail, etc. That is a public boundary. You have no control if a neighbor sees you hang a wreath on your door, and then, lo, they decide to copy you. That’s a public space for the most part. Like a coworker buying a tie or earrings like yours simply because they totally love it. It has zero to do with you in that case.

      Next is your entry way. What is analogous to your personhood? Who gets to be in that space with you? Then go through the rest of your living space and draw analogies to your person/identity? If someone bought a couch just like yours, how would that feel? Is this similar to snagging a catchphrase? Would it feel different if it were a one-time guest or a close friend? If so, why? And then bring it to your bedroom–your most intimate space. Who gets to be in that space with you? (this is all metaphor. What is your bedroom in your identity and personality?)

      This is very much like rings on a tree and who gets to occupy those spaces with you. This is how we start to fence in our lives, our person, and our identities. It also lets us prioritize what part of our person was violated. Did it happen in the entry way…or in the bedroom? Was it an acquaintance or a close friend? It lets us know who to move in and out of certain spaces in terms of vulnerability and intimacy. If someone close to you was once in the hallway outside your bedroom and they begin hurting you, then you get to decide if they should move to the guest room or living room…or foyer. Note, the bedroom doesn’t have to solely represent sexuality or sexual personality. It can be a sense of personal safety as we must be safe to sleep. It can represent ultimate vulnerability.

      This is all a metaphor for your life and who you are. But, the picture lets you get a sense of where you are in your own house, and THIS is how you stop the encroachment. Do you have people in your bedroom going through your metaphorical underwear while you stand in the hall saying, “Hey, hey, hey y’all…uh….hey…let’s go watch a movie…’kay???” Where are YOU in your own “house” vs. the people who encroach upon you? Have they stolen access to parts of your house before you gave them permission? When that happens, empathetic, accommodating people often do not know how to handle that skillfully. People with enabling tendencies often are not assertive enough to expel people from their homes (ahem…I’m raising my hand here. This is REALLY hard for me.) because they were not taught or permitted to.

      So, getting a map of your Inner House and where your friends are, to me, is Step 1. Taking a look at the state of your identity growth will always be primary and an ongoing process. We will never stop developing that. And, if you find that this is really hard or harder than you thought it would be, reach out and ask for help. If you need resources for that, I can point you in that direction.

      Does any of this make sense to you?

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