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 my father was extremely dangerous. For years, I suspected something was going on with my ex-husband, but I could not pin it down. Also, I didn’t want to believe that after growing up within a family dynamic so influenced by disordered personalities that I would then go on to choose a partner who would exercise a similar influence. I, therefore, felt a great deal of denial for a long time which led to my staying in a very unhealthy relationship longer than I should have.
So, what pushed me out of my denial?
Firstly, I observed that my ex-husband was very resistant to any kind of treatment and became very defensive if I suggested it. 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.
Secondly, over the years I noticed that he had different “personalities” or ego states 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 most bothersome 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?
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 attended an intake session with a therapist.
He came home after his intake appointment and told me that his new therapist saw no reason for him to be there. I felt 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! That was the moment when I knew something was wrong.
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 finally understand that he is likely experiencing identity disturbance among other things.
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. It also helps me organize a better narrative around our past interactions. When I look back over our relationship, I can see that I wasn’t interacting with his true self but rather his disorder.
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 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.