Life in a Bind – BPD and me

My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by

The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity


More often than not, there is a distance of time in my writing, between the events or feelings that prompted it, and the recounting itself. Sometimes, that time can be as little as twenty-four hours, as was the case for my post on suicide. More often, it tends to be a number of days, weeks, or even of months. In general, my writing tends to be a way of reflecting on events, rather than processing them. The processing happens in my head, as the precursor to the writing, although it’s still true to say that in the writing, new revelations or new interpretations can sometimes be unearthed. But it’s fair to say that most often, when I’m in the thick of emotions, I cannot write about them until I have some perspective on them. I may write as a way of coping – but I write about something else.

But this time, I have to write ‘in the moment’. I have to write through it and write it through. I have to write it out. Perhaps it is because this moment, this emotion, keeps returning. There is no getting rid of it, and if I wait to gain some distance or perspective on it, I may wait too long, and never give it expression.

I have often heard others with BPD talk about feeling ‘unreal’, and wondered exactly what they meant, or how they would describe it. I would still like to know. ‘Anxiety Care UK’ describes ‘derealisation’ as feeling dissociated from one’s environment. To quote from their website: “The experience might include perceiving objects as unsolid, diminished in size or two-dimensional; and the self as perhaps being inside some glass-like container or peering at the world through a fog, with the world unreachable and meaningless.”

No, I don’t think that describes the emotion I’m referring to, although I often feel that life is hopeless and meaningless. I have felt the world as being ‘out of kilter’; I have felt as if I were living on my own speeding train, on a parallel track with the rest of the world, never to intersect; but I’m not sure I have felt ‘derealisation’, as described above. ‘Depersonalisation’- yes, I have felt that. The same website describes it as: “people will experience changes in self-awareness, which might include feeling as if their thoughts and actions are not their own, perhaps as far as experiencing the sensation as watching themselves from the outside.”

But this feeling that I have – it’s not depersonalisation either. My inner voice keeps offering up the phrase ‘I feel unreal’, and it is quickly quashed by my inner critic who still regularly persists in accusing me of fraud, and of ‘making up’ my mental health difficulties. “What do you mean you ‘feel unreal’? You have no right to use that phrase because those who use it actually do feel unreal – as if they don’t exist, as if they are ethereal. You’re lying to yourself. You’re not ill. You don’t feel unreal.” But I do – I do feel unreal. I don’t think it’s necessarily in the same way as some of those with BPD ‘feel unreal’, but the phrase still feels appropriate to me. It still rings true. I may not know exactly what others mean when they use it, but I know what I mean  – and this is it.

It’s not that I feel ‘physically unreal’, or that my physical being feels ethereal, far from it. My physical existence weighs me down – its heaviness makes it hard to ignore. I try to escape it by retreating inside my head, but I continue to travel through time and space while I wish that I could be less bounded; that I could somehow leave my body behind to live my life, while I inhabit a different, purely mental world. Give me the blue pill Morpheus, and let me live in my matrix of dreams.

No, it’s not that I feel physically unreal. It’s that I feel devoid of content. I’m not sure if I feel empty – but I feel I am empty. I feel as though there’s nothing there. My outer being may feel heavy, but my inner being feels utterly insubstantial. And like many aspects of BPD, that feeling is particularly present in the turbulence of the relationships with those I am closest to – my husband, in particular.

I am spirit, and every criticism blows apart my atoms like wind rushing through a cloud of smoke. Every harsh word annihilates me. With every argument and insult I lose integrity – in both senses. My decency, my character (do I have any?) are undermined; any sense of wholeness and cohesion are swept away. I am nothing, I am worth nothing. I grasp at a sense of identity but when being undermined rather than being underpinned, it feels as though there is nothing there to grab hold of. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, my state of being – full or empty, worthy or worthless – is undetermined until your looks and words give it actuality.

Perhaps, then, this sense of unreality is much more about identity, than it is about physicality or dissociation. In the landscape of the DSM IV criteria for BPD, perhaps we’re in the terrain of criterion 3: “Identity disturbance – markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self”. And science knows what happens to unstable elements – they self-destruct and either reject or convert parts of themselves, in order to become something else.

Sometimes, I wish my response to feeling devoid of content was to feel devoid of emotion. Given how much I crave intensity of feeling, that’s saying something. Instead, feeling devoid of content makes me want to be devoid of life. A book of blank pages is a lifeless book. How joyless feels the task of turning every page, until the end. Feeling devoid of content looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but on the inside. Feeling devoid of content feels like cutting across the canvas of my skin to let the sunset of ‘The Scream’ seep out. As Munch wrote, “Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness”.

Sometimes I feel like a useless sack of skin. That description chills me  – it feels horrifyingly dehumanising. One could argue that self-consciousness, a sense of identify and of who we are, is part of the essence of being human. If that is unstable, no wonder we can sometimes feel less than human. No wonder we can sometimes feel unreal. It’s not that we feel as though we don’t exist. It’s that we exist, but incompletely. It’s that we exist, but without a core. No wonder we are so afraid of caving in, and that ‘being’ is sometimes so unbearable.

35 thoughts on “The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity

  1. I wrote a poem about this called “I Am The Shadow” I don’t know if I’ve ever shared it with you or not. Would you like to read it?


  2. Someone who understands! THIS is what I mean when I tell others that I always feel empty or dont know what to do with myself, my time. That Im just stumbling around, walking in circles (literally), looking for the answer. The concept of relativity overwhelmes me. And I feel useless. Ive tried in vain to express this before. This is why I cant work, finish school, or commit to anything. I havent any purpose nor am I able to conceptualize any interest or meaning in it. Very articulate post! Thank you.

    But….please tell me, what can we do about it? I am desperate to know! It would seem that the logical answer would be to toss what is useless. But I want to try to feel SOMETHING.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comment, and I’m glad this struck a chord with you. I know from personal experience when reading other bloggers’ posts, how important and helpful it can be to come across someone who really seems to understand and have felt the same things, and one of the reasons I blog, is to hopefully make that sort of connection with others. As for what to do about it….I only wish I had some answers! It’s a perpetual problem for me in therapy, as well….I feel like I grow in self-awareness, and I uncover emotions and have certain realisations, but I have no idea what to do with any of them…how are they supposed to help, how is change supposed to happen? I completely see what you mean when you say that then logical answer would be to toss what is useless, and I am in the middle of writing a post about those feelings, which I have been having regularly over the last few weeks. However…..when I am not feeling that way, I know that there must be other logical answers, and that however impossible it might seem, the answer probably lies in trying to interweave the past and the present with all those realisations and the increased self-awareness, to make a new person who is nevertheless, recognisably still the ‘old person’, but a more complete one. Someone who is at peace with being a bit of a mess sometimes (!) and most importantly, someone who can accept themselves and their emotions. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me said I needed to accept that is no such thing as ‘perfect care’ – I think she’s right, and I think that’s part of the answer. But I know that I can’t do it yet, however much the intellectual truth of it may stare me in the face. Like you, I want to feel something. And I want that something to be intense, and to be that perfect care that I crave. Those are the things that make me feel real….. Are you in therapy? I ask because I do think that therapy can be so important for those with BPD, and in terms of solutions, I really do think that the instrument of change can be a trusting and open relationship in therapy. I think that it can be one of the very powerful things that can aid that leap from intellectual appreciation of something, to really feeling it inside. And I think it’s only that deep, felt knowledge and conviction, that can bring change and healing….Take care, and keep in touch!


    • I felt the same way when I first read this. In fact, this blog has helped me a great deal through my own BPD and helped me explain to my family how I feel. No one has ever put it in better words than in this blog!


      • Apologies again for taking a while to reply – I’ve had a really really difficult week to ten days, but I really want to let you know that your comment, which I read when I was feeling pretty horrendous, was immensely important and really made a difference. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to know that my blog has helped you, and moreover that it has helped to explain things to your family. I can honestly say that your comment is one that I will treasure, and remember frequently. Sometimes, when you’re feeling despairing and as though you don’t matter, it’s comments like these that can bring comfort and a reminder that the things you do, do matter. So thank you so much – your words are invaluable. And as someone who wishes fervently that my partner would understand how BPD affects me (ironic that I share my blog publicly where it can potentially benefit others but can’t bear to share it with him!) I am so glad that this has helped your family to understand you better. What families read about BPD can be so important not just for them, but to our recovery, as what they read influences how they react to us, and we to them….
        Thank you again for your wonderful words, and do keep in touch….


  3. Feeling empty and without anything to hold you together and yet being in acute emotional pain. Yes, this is who we are. I have been living in this city for 8 months now, (longer?, not sure) and yet, every day, I struggle to see my surroundings as ‘real’ … it’s like living in a cartoon. I cannot even weave together a narrative of who I am from the stories and memories that are my life — I have bunches of missing times, and I can’t quite place when the things I do remember actually happened — most of it feels like it was someone else who experienced those events. There is nothing consistent in me except the pain that I drag around from place to place, person to person. The pain is what links it all up I guess; what makes me me.


    • Thank you so much for your comment. I absolutely know what you mean about not being able to weave together a narrative, and having so much missing time, and not being able to ‘place’ memories. I feel like I remember so very little of ‘growing up’, and what I do remember are just like snapshots, photographs, or remembered ‘feelings’ or ‘impressions’, rather than events. Remembering them, sometimes feels like looking at photographs – it almost doesn’t matter whether the photographs are of me, or of someone else…..does blogging help to make things more consistent for you, to link things up a bit more?


      • Blogging/writing/photographing/etc helps in the short-term. It helps to read over and helps to get things out and onto/into a more permanent form but, over time, these things also fail to anchor my thoughts/feelings to any specific time or place or events/feelings.

        Like you say, you can look at a photograph of yourself at a specific time and know, cognitively that that is you in that picture but there are no associative memories or emotions from that time, it is no longer a part of who you are and it is extremely difficult to understand that it ever was who you were.

        Things just don’t link up.

        If I am at the same job, same people, same place, that bunch of time will gain consistency and reality but as soon as I leave (run) and I always do … it fades and becomes another ‘storyline’ that I can’t quite recall or hold onto.


      • I’m glad blogging/writing helps to some extent, even if it’s in the short term. I’m not sure if it’s the same for you – although I write from the heart, once the words are on the page, it’s almost as though they’re about someone else. I feel detached from them – do you know what I mean? So much of myself is poured into them – how can that be? Thank you again for commenting and ‘chatting’!


  4. This is so spot on and particularly poignant to me right now as I try to put the pieces of my life back together post “caving in,” as it were. I want to move on, grab life by the tail, do something – anything – to feel like my life is back on track… and I’m finding I don’t know what on earth I actually want to do. In many ways, I couldn’t care less. And this is why. I find myself wondering what the hell happened to my interests, my hobbies, my passions… the truth is I’ve just gotten used to this BPD ‘incompleteness’ and it’s very difficult to know how to combat it. I’m only too happy to go along with what seems right or seems admirable in others, and that’s obviously not ideal. :S Anyway, I clearly have no suggestions (!), just wanted to say I really enjoyed this and it hit home – as so many of your posts do xxxxxx


    • Thank you so much Cat, glad you enjoyed it! And as usual, your comments feel spot-on too, and also chime with how I feel. I don’t know what I believe, what I think is important, or how I’m meant to act or be. Although having said that, at least when it comes to ‘passions’, the fact that I _do_ feel so utterly alone and estranged from everyone and everything, is sort of allowing some parts of me that were just buried under everyone else’s interests, wants and desires, to start to surface again. Writing, for example. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that even barely keeps my sense of self afloat….


  5. oh wait, I do have one suggestion though I have yet to really implement it yet myself: my therapist said that remaining cut off from certain feelings (i.e. traumatic memories or unprocessed trauma/emotions) is pretty much the recipe for this sense of emptiness, and that processing/confronting those feelings (through therapy – of course) is the antidote. Once you can connect with all parts of yourself and all emotions, you gain access to an increasingly whole/real self. Does that make sense? In theory I’m about to find out if it works as that is what my therapy agenda is for the foreseeable future…


    • Thank does make sense, thank you. I _do_ have a sense that that is what I’m ‘meant to be doing’ in therapy as well, I’m just not sure how to do it……..! xxx


      • what one is ‘meant to be doing in therapy’ is an ongoing puzzle isn’t it? .. I have been avoiding therapy for around a month .. I feel stupid when I am there as I don’t know what to say/do — and I cry a lot … that’s about the sum total of my experience …. and DBT just makes me want to scream … it’s like ‘life 101’ …. ugh


      • Therapy almost always makes me want to either scream or cry as well 🙂 And although I’ve been told a million times there is no ‘right way’ to do it, I cannot get away from that mode of thinking, and wondering whether I’m ‘doing it right’…sigh….as for feeling stupid, I can definitely relate, particularly as I obsess so much over the therapeutic relationship itself, and that makes me feel pathetic. Urgh indeed…..


  6. Pingback: BPD and emptiness | Life in a Bind - BPD and me

  7. I know exactly how you feel on this. One thing that I have been doing to help me with my identity is that I have a little spot in the house (the desk where my pc sits actually) and I decorate it with MY stuff. I won’t let anyone touch or organize it or even give me suggestions. I’m building my own identity with it and it’s actually helping me a lot. I feel safe with my “bubble” of space, my little “world” that I call my own that my partner or my kids can’t “destroy”.

    When I feel stupid I get angry at myself to the point I take my anger out on the ones I love. I don’t mean to but that’s usually what happens. I’m learning to control those feelings and at least not take them out on others. When I get angry at myself I blog, I journal, or I rant on Facebook even. I’ll even throw punches at pillows depending on the severity of the situation. I hate feeling stupid or being perceived as stupid so I understand there too.


    • Thank you so much for reading, and for your comment! Many apologies for my delay in replying…..What a fantastic idea to help have a space all of your own, particularly in a house with a partner and kids, where it’s so easy for everything child-related to take over. When I read your comment I was reminded once again of all the things I used to do as a teenager or in my early twenties, without really realising what I was doing, that helped me to cope with what I now know was my BPD. Music, dancing, writing down quotes, poetry, meditation – and keeping pictures, objects etc of significance, all around me in ‘my space’, just as you describe. It’s been so long since I’ve done so many of those things, and that includes having my own personal stuff around, or having a place that is ‘just mine’. I’m not sure I can carve out something exactly the same at the moment (lack of space and general untidiness!) but I think I should be able to take the principle and do something with it, even if it’s only a little corner on my bedside table. Or even if it’s the content of a box I can look at when I need to. Thank you so much for the suggestion and also for the memories and thoughts that it triggered.
      I know what you mean about the anger. I hate myself daily for shouting at my kids. I tell myself everyday I won’t do it again. And like you, I hate being perceived as silly or incompetent or ‘weak’, however you might define that. I had a very painful therapy session a few days ago, and part of what made it so made was feeling I’d made an incorrect assumption and had put my therapist in a difficult position. I felt embarrased and ashamed and I felt like pulling up the barriers as far as I could possible manage…..
      Thank you again for reading and for getting in touch….


  8. I don’t have many eloquent words, but I wanted to thank you sincerely for writing this. This has been one of the biggest aspects of BPD that I consistently struggle with. Even if you’re feeling good, how do you fight against the sudden onset of feeling so incredibly empty and hollow of person? In the past, I used to call it depression, but now see it as something unique in its own right, though feeling empty can certainly lead to depression. I’ve always had a really difficult time putting this feeling into words and seeing you get it down coherently made me feel overwhelmed with…relief. It means so much to me, as does the rest of your blog–I’ve added it to my RSS feed to keep up with. Thank you so much, and I hope that you’ve been able to find more respite from this illness. You seem like an amazingly strong person.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is one of the best posts about bpd and feelings of emptiness I have ever seen…you have captured both the challenges that the person who suffers from borderline faces, associated simultaneously with identity and relationships, and the feelings of emptiness. The official description of the derealisation never fitted for me either… I think every person has their own mechanisms and it probably feels different for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for your very kind words. I completely agree, I think the experience will differ for different people, and I certainly had to find my own ways of understanding my experience; some things I read didn’t quite chime, but others seemed to fit perfectly…thank you again for your comment!


  10. It is so helpful to read your personal description of the symptoms ! It is beautifully written and I can only admire the effort you have put into finding the right words to talk about your experience, as I personnaly find it impossible. I lack so much of understanding and education about my personnality, and your posts make me feel understood and help me to see much clearer.
    It is so interesting to learn about the differences between the derealization and depersonalization symptoms. I always thought (and was told) that those feelings of emptiness were simply another word for low self-esteem. Now I understand that it is truly pathological. And interestingly, I never experienced a despersonalization moment, as I never felt like I was looking at myself as if from outside or anything of that kind. But on the other hand, I totally feel that I understand what derealization means, and how much I feel trapped in those moments. And as you don’t happen to experience it, I thought it could be helpful for me to try to describe it, as it now ocurs to me that it is a “thing” with BPD.
    I think the major component of it is my way to over relativize reality. I very often have a feeling that everything is all too weird in a world that everyone finds perfectly normal. Even the most simple things, I can come to a point where I’m convinced that they are pure non-sense. I feel like I’m living in a video game at times. It’s like if I was playing with my perceptions, and suddenly I feel like I’m not really there, experiencing this moment, that it must all be a creation of my mind. I keep thinking that life is the weirdest game ever. I could be having diner at the restaurant with my mom, having a normal conversation, and then suddenly I would feel the overwhelming absurdity of the whole situation. I’d look at her as if it was the first time ever, thinking that we are two ape-like shapes of life able to have a conversation about stuff we don’t even know truly exist. It’s like time would stop in front of me, and stuck me with this confusing view, leaving me unable to believe that reality is even real. I’m just stuck in my own body and I’ve got to pretend it’s all fine by me, and keep playing the game. It’s like putting everything into too much perspective, and being astonished and frightened to even be alive. I know I’ve felt that since a very young age, just feeling unable to understand what the hell this was all about, with the terrible feeling that this was all a huge joke. I also thought that I was a retard when I was little, and that everyone around me was sharing the secret that they had to make me feel normal. And such convictions would sometimes totally deplete me of my sense of self
    It’s actually the first time I talk about this and I feel quite ashamed honestly (“people are going to think I’m crazy”). But it’s true, I’m never really sure to be there, unless I’m experiencing intense pleasure, because at least I can forget about my doubts and truly feel that I’m alive. And I agree with you when you say that seeking those intense moments is just a way of avoiding something, which is the sense of bizarre that comes with emptiness in my case.
    I hope this made some sense, but anyway thank you for helping me finding the right words to understand myself !


    • hey, I just came across your comment and thought that I had to reply, because honestly the things you wrote have been true to me too. it’s like I look around sometimes and feel this sudden need to laugh or cry, because everything seems so absurd. it’s like everyone’s born and lives their life and they don’t ever question their existence or the purpose or just their place in this world. I remember my friend said that she doesn’t ‘see’ herself in life and it’s so true to me. it’s like I try to read the books and watch the movies and talk to people, but it’s all a facade, because deep down I feel empty and like I just pretend, because truth be told I just don’t care. and it’s so terrifying, when sometimes I meet someone and they say something or do something and I suddenly feel this rush, I suddenly care and listen… and then it’s all gone again. I listen to my friends sometimes and I feel like I don’t care about anything they say and I know it’s a bad thing and I know what everyone’s supposed to do, but… it feels like I go through my life trying to fill myself with all kinds of things and experiences, like I try to somehow ‘imitate’ being human, because I’m never really convinced that I should actually be here. it’s like I do things I’m ‘supposed’ to do or follow the rules that don’t actually exist and then I talk to people and find out that they live their lives ‘normally’, sometimes doing stupid or reckless things. and then I feel like I should maybe be more risky, but for me… it’s like a video game, like you said, and it’s just… I worry that for me ‘being risky’ is not the same, I worry that someday I might actually cross a line. it’s like I don’t have this clear distinction between what’s risky and acceptable and what’s just plain dangerous or insane, because I don’t particularly find this world to be real, or my life to be real. and at the same time I seek those intense moments, because they’re the only ones when I actually feel like I’m happy or free. I’m not sure you’re going to read it, but anyway, thanks for the comment and hope you’re doing well.


  11. I have a blog called driftingbrain & a lot of the stuff I write is related to BPD but in a more poetic sense. If you feel like having a look that’d be cool (-:

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Does anyone have ways of dealing with this other than professional therapy? I know I should try therapy again, but I have no access to it in the town in live in now :-/ Which is partially an excuse – I know I could go to a therapist in a city nearby, but my experience with therapy is dreadful (my 1st therapist ended up in jail for molesting multiple patients is all I need to say). Sometimes I feel I could be anything, a chameleon, because I have no substance and no identity of my own 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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