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THE EMPTY SELF AND THE “AS-IF PERSONALITY”
March 28, 2018
A long time ago there existed another diagnosis crudely named the “As-If Personality.” The “As-if” Personality, now folded into the diagnosis of “Borderline Personality Disorder” (BPD), was described by psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch in 1942. She was led to create the diagnosis after seeing people who, lacking a sense of their interior “self,” compensated by forms of mimicry, becoming chameleons who acted “as if” they are something else.
According to psychoanalytic theory, early trauma and/or neglect could teach an individual that people are unreliable, leading them to have within themselves a sense of being empty. In the wake of this developmental trauma a person experiences “Object Hunger,” an unconscious and pathological need to fill the internal emptiness with people, places, and things. This is much more than normal social conformity - this is serious psychological problems existing in the core of the self, such that a person habitually takes on the identities and values they see around them.
In a way that no other term does, the diagnosis explicitly posits the centrality of our abstracted “self.” By doing so, it asks deeply psychological and perhaps spiritual questions. What is a self, and how is it that a self can be empty? What fills a self? When we think about our self, are we just telling our self a story? Is the self just a collection of habits? Are we the same self in different places, with different people, or do we change in different contexts? Do different emotions create a different self?
The above questions are often discussed - directly or indirectly - in therapy. My own feeling is that the answer depends on how the question is asked. As Claude Levi-Stress said, “The wise man doesn't give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” An approach that emphasizes issues of consciousness, and thoughts will understand the “self” in terms of ideas, stories, narratives, and identity. An approach emphasizing direct experience, the body, and development will understand the self in terms of habits, relationships, developmental contexts, emotions, and nervous systems.
The psychologist William James was the first to address issues of the self, suggesting the self was comprised of both a “me” and an “I.” The “me” is the more objective aspect engaging in behavior and being seen by others, while the "I" is the self we know and feel we are internally, via introspection. The concepts can be demonstrated in the statement; "I know it was me who ate the cookie.” If a person is raised in a family using the attitude “children should be seen and not heard,” then those children might develop a “me,” but lack a sense of an interior “I.” It might also be true that in this culture, attractive young females are vulnerable to having a strong “me” (seen by others) but a weak “I” (knowing themselves) which might explain why females are more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
The “As If Personality” diagnosis is a good reminder that the core symptoms of BPD are not the external behaviors of self-harming and suicidality, but the internal emptiness and existential despair the person suffers with. The self-harm is just an escape, or regulation strategy. Healing requires both awareness and validation of reality, of others, and of our feelings. Healing also requires a reduction in the tendency to be judgmental, because judgements are a way we escape from emotional experiencing. All easier said than done.
(Note 1: it’s obvious that Woody Allen was guided by the “As If Personality” when he wrote the movie “Zelig,” about a man who magically changes his identity to match whoever he’s around)