Who are you?

When I was a child, my answer to this question would be aspirational, traits I wanted to be associated with by other people.

I am smart.

What is smartness but a metric contingent upon a person’s social and cultural capital?

I am hardworking.

I am not always hardworking. I procrastinate endlessly when I am anxious. I don’t work hard when I don’t see the point in a particular activity, such as assignments.

I am strong.

I no longer understand what it means to be strong. Does survival imply strength? Would it be called strong if a tree barely survives a storm but loses its branches and doesn’t grow them back for years?

I am honest.

I learned how to lie as a defence mechanism. As a kid, I was told I would not be punished if I came clean about a mistake, only to realise I had been tricked into confessing. When my truth was not good enough, I learned to lie. When my reality was not impressive enough, I learned to brag. When I was afraid of consequences, I learned to hide. This isn’t to excuse lying, but an explanation of it. I don’t lie as often as I used to because I feel less afraid these days. However, old habits die hard, and sometimes I lie without thinking.

When I think about who I am, I look back and try to find consistency. But when one has BPD, it is difficult to differentiate fact from anxious extrapolation. People with BPD tend to have strong emotional reactions; the smallest things can set them off. I am prone to misinterpreting neutral interactions with people as signs that they don’t want me in their life. Several times after an emotional breakdown, I have woken up to realise that I may have overreacted1.

In the recent past, have I been honest in all my conflicts? Have I stood up for myself in the face of hardship? Have I been a good friend? I can’t tell if I have because I am an unreliable narrator. I don’t trust my version of events, so I lean on my closest friends to validate my narratives. Then again, their version is derived from mine, so I also struggle with their validation. I am incredibly nit-picky about factual aspects of conflicts, and I keep retelling the same story. Not just to my friends, but I narrate it to the entire world so they can tell me who I am. To some, it might seem a stupid and paranoid exercise, but this exercise is a bridge between my rational self and my unreliable narrator.

Before regularly starting therapy, I tended to blame myself for everything. As the name suggests, people with borderline have difficulty seeing grey and swing between black and white. The slightest mistake would send me down a spiral of self-hatred, shame and guilt. Although I do this less frequently now, any form of criticism can lead me to believe the worst about myself. Hence, going through archives of previous conflicts allows me to check if, historically, I have been a bad person. And because I cannot trust my version of events, I repeatedly go over it with close friends and family.

I don’t know how long it will take for me to resolve these trust issues, but one thing is for sure if I don’t have guardrails, I will keep reliving incidents I would much rather forget. Those guardrails, my self-concept, lack confidence, but what my behaviour doesn’t lack is the fundamental truth that I do not want to hurt anyone.

People with BPD carry a lot of self-hatred because they feel like everything they touch withers away. We dislike the idea of causing pain. It is impossible to live without hurting or causing discomfort to people we come in contact with, but as far as intentions go, the intent to minimise pain for others is powerful.

Hence, to form my guardrails, I have come up with two seemingly neutral attributes that are undeniably always true. They don’t necessarily imply positive behaviour, but I know for a fact I have been consistently doing these ever since I was a child:

  1. I don’t like hurting people: knowingly or unknowingly
  2. I question everything and everyone, especially myself

If I cannot trust the narrator, I can count on the force of habit and nudge myself to do better. Informed by the scholarship in transformative justice, I have come up with guiding principles to guide me when I forget how to orient myself in reality:

  1. I will be wrong, and it is okay to be wrong. I can only learn by making mistakes and critically reflecting upon them.
  2. I don’t know what a good person is, but if I can do what is least harmful in times of distress, that is good enough.
  3. Shame and guilt don’t help anyone. It is okay to forgive, even myself, as the chance to learn and extend compassion emerges from forgiveness.
  4. If I can be wrong and learn from my mistakes, so can others. Their journey is not my responsibility, but I must acknowledge their potential to grow like I recognise my own.
  5. When I doubt whether I am being performative in my politics, I will ask myself, “Will I do this even when no one is watching?”

I no longer expect myself to hold onto my guardrails at all times. There will be instances when I forget they exist, regress into old behaviour, and interrogate myself mercilessly. But these principles are also a promise to my past and future selves I want to work to fulfil. A promise that I will treat them better. It is a leap of faith toward my narrator, who has been through so much distrust and pain. Besides, if I don’t try a new path, I will never know what I am capable of.

  1. I am not fond of this word because my overreactions, as unfounded as they may seem to a third party, are borne from a legitimate fear of consequences. ↩︎