Identity Disturbance


Identity Disturbance - A psychological term used to describe a distorted or inconsistent self-view

Who Are You Today?

Identity disturbances involve an illogical or incoherent, inconsistent pattern of thoughts and feelings which go beyond logical pessimism, low self-image or a negative outlook. People with an Identity Disturbance may frequently speak, think or act in ways which are contradictory, even to themselves. They may think they are fabulous one day, and think nothing of themselves the next. Their actions or thoughts may flip from self-serving into self-effacing, or from healthy choices into self-destructive patterns for no apparent reason. They may excel in one activity and appear incompetent in another, or oscillate seasonally from energetic and enthusiastic to lethargic and withdrawn.

This arises partly because positive and negative thought patterns are not always based on facts. The human mind has an ability to simplify the complexity of the world with quick, emotional judgments about what we consider good and bad, desirable and undesirable. However, if a person’s emotional thoughts are not backed up by rational fact-based thoughts, this emotional “shorthand” can result in erroneous black and white thinking - known as splitting - which when applied to the self can lead to an inaccurate self-perception.
People who suffer from Personality Disorders are sometimes prone to think more emotionally than logically. This can lead to extreme emotional highs and lows in response to the natural ebb and flow of life’s circumstances, which can lead to make unsubstantiated, grandiose claims of superiority one day and self-condemning statements of worthlessness the next.

In a 2000 study of patients with identity disturbances, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, and Drew Westen identified four types of identity disturbance:

Role absorption (in which patients tend to define themselves in terms of a single role or cause),
Painful incoherence (a subjective sense of lack of coherence),
Inconsistency (in thought, feeling, and behavior),
Lack of commitment (e.g., to jobs or values).

The researchers concluded that identity disturbance distinguishes patients with borderline personality disorder from other psychiatric patients and that it occurs in patients with BPD whether or not they have a history of being abused.

Source: Identity Disturbance in Borderline Personality Disorder: An Empirical Investigation by Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, A.B., and Drew Westen, Ph.D.

What it Looks Like

  • A woman frequently flips between describing herself as a “great catch” and as a failure in relationships.
  • A mother oscillates between seeing herself as indispensable to her children and rejected by them.
  • A man is a high-functioning, charismatic over-achiever at work and a depressed recluse at home.

What it feels like

People who live with someone who has an identity disturbance often find themselves wondering which “face” they will be presented with when they next walk through the door. They may try to find logical patterns in their behavior, or try to work out ways to control their mood.

Because of the inconsistencies in what the person with the Personality Disorder is doing and saying, Nons may accuse them of “faking it” or “putting it on”. They may begin to suspect that the person with the Personality Disorder is presenting a false negative view in order to excuse themselves for breaking promises, escape from consequences of their behaviors or to avoid responsibility.

When you are living with a person who has an Identity Disturbance, the only workable choice is usually to accept they have a psychological condition which is unrelated to external events and circumstances. It’s tempting to try to improve the situation by repeating arguments or reactions that have worked for you in the past - or in other relationships – however, this will generally result in confusion or frustration.

What NOT to do

  • Don’t put yourself in the role of the “fixer” of a loved one’s mood or feelings. You weren’t responsible for getting them into a negative thought pattern and it’s not your job to get them out of it.
  • Don’t feel obliged out of “love” or “commitment” to join in with a downward spiral of negative thought. They are free to have negative thoughts and you are free to have positive ones.
  • Don’t thought-police or unleash a barrage of criticisms about their attitude or their mood. Allow a person with a Personality Disorder to own their own thoughts and feelings. That’s their stuff.
  • Don’t nag, argue for hours, or get into circular conversations.
  • Don’t try to manipulate them “out of it” by trying to change the mood or the environment. Their sudden mood change was probably not caused by an external event and probably won’t be fixed by it.
  • Don’t blame yourself for what the other person is feeling or how they are behaving. Don’t look for ways to change yourself to try to fix another person. You are only responsible for your own words and actions.
  • Don’t stay in the room if the situation becomes physically, verbally or emotionally unhealthy.
  • Don’t go it alone or keep what you are experiencing a secret.

What TO do

  • Remind yourself that this is a mental illness and that you are not to blame.
  • Detach yourself from being responsible for how another person is feeling, behaving or thinking.
  • Turn your attention on your own behavior and your own thought patterns. Discard the unhealthy and learn what is healthy for yourself and pursue it - regardless of what reaction you get from the person with the Personality Disorder.
  • Talk about it! Talk to trusted friends and family about what you are dealing with.
  • If you are ever confronted with violence or abuse, get yourself and any children immediately out of the room and call for help. Report all acts of violence, threats of violence or self-harm to the police.
  • Maintain your healthy lifestyle and thought patterns. You will need them. If necessary, explain to your loved-one gently, but firmly that you are doing what you need to do for yourself and then close the conversation.