Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’

ChameleonOne 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 effects 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.

Though I was diagnosed some time ago, and am now (relatively) successful at managing my BPD, I am only recently getting to know my Chameleon. BPD and its insidious brethren are ugly, unpleasant and unsettling things to deal with and perhaps it is the case that my mind slowly processes them at a pace it knows to be comfortable and realistic for me. Accepting the fact of BPD is one thing, but admitting to the presence of The Chameleon truly slices to the core of all of that pain and insecurity – all of which is like pouring acid on an already gaping wound, for an emotionally dysregulated Borderline.

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.

Imagine being entirely alone, looking into a mirror, and seeing a total stranger. Or, worse still, seeing nobody at all. There is no ‘you’. That’s kind of horrifying, right? So you’ll go to great lengths to avoid that situation, because, as an emotionally dysregulated person who experiences feelings in extremes, that situation will put you headfirst into a tailspin.

Now, I feel as though I have almost finished this monster of a jigsaw puzzle. I am close to seeing the big, completed picture. Perhaps this explains the terrifying, recurring, childhood nightmares featuring facelessness. It explains the debilitating childhood fear of being alone – so intense it caused hallucinations (externalisation of anxiety). It helps explain why, as an adult, I regularly experience severe dissociation. It explains further why the coping mechanisms that have developed over time – such as OCD – mainly serve as attempts to exert control over external daily life, as internally there is chaos.

It also explains why I am regarded by others as something of a ‘social butterfly’, constantly flitting from group to group, person to person, being different things to different people, as required. It explains my inability to say “no”. It explains why my persona changes depending on whom I interact with – even down to my accent and mannerisms. These are not conscious behaviours, but I have become more aware of them over time. I have begun to catch my Chameleon in action.

This is all good progress for me, as it is soothing to have explanations and answers. But mostly, it provides hope for lasting recovery. If the central problem is an unstable sense of self, the answer must be to build a more stable one. I just have to figure out how. I believe I have started to lay the foundations, and I am incredibly lucky to have people in my life that are willing and able to see beyond my Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m under no illusions, however – this is a chronic illness and I will never be free of it. But I can have enough awareness to keep it at a low, manageable level. The next step is to continue working towards a stable self that I can have confidence in. Only then can I can tame my Chameleon.

Have I finally reached the pot of explanation at the end of my enormous psychological rainbow? I’m not entirely sure, but the ground certainly seems to be solidifying beneath my feet.


144 thoughts on “Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’

  1. One last comment Sarah, then I must say farewell. In order to save the inner child, the one hiding in the dark, only you as your older self can reach her. You have to save your self, yourself. She will listen only to you. She will understand no one else.

  2. I am lucky in a way with my over analyzing need to know why to anything answer’s prevent fear, and gifted in the ability to be self aware. before even my Borderline diagnosis, the concept of my social chameleon was made as an issue my last partner who had ASD greatly envied. I recognized justifiable reasoning for need to have a survival mechanism and being starved constantly for social interaction attention affection and for my brain to be used at all. so i would mold myself to fit. i always find alpha type people in groups and model them in a submissive way so to be in a neutral line of interaction not full control but enough to be respected and needed and useful to said social group. i did not know this was related to my border line issues even after i got the label, i just assumed it was more related to my Adhd issues as it was social and i have not been educated in my borderline mostly just made conclusions because it has very little support here. Why it was of interest to me tonight was i did not understand my weird need to be in relationship after relationship i assumed that was an attachment issue due to my “daddy issues” but tou found the words i only felt as i have recently become single after a 6 year long dv relationship i refused to leave to realize i have no damn idea who i am because i changed myself and modeled for every man around me that i thought i had lost who i was but in trying to find who i was these last few days i couldnt find anything of myself that was my own anywhere but what i mean is thank you very much for your perfect expression and insight

    • Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I am glad you found something useful, and I wish you luck in your continued recovery.

      Very best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  3. Thank You for this post. I have been trying to give a name to my personality disorder. After reading this post, Now I know. I was starting to think there is no such condtion. My peronality gets eaily influenced. From the way I talk, behave, laugh, write, speak. Every little thing changes as the people around me change and It was scary I felt I had no identity. Whenever I looked it online I found nothing related to my condition. I will have to see a doctor I guess. To get a control over this. Thank you once again for this post.

    • Thank you for reading and reaching out. I’m glad you found something helpful in this piece. I would say that this particular aspect of the disorder is not exclusive to BPD, and can be part of a number of equally treatable personality disorders – so I would absolutely recommend seeking the advice of a mental health professional if you are concerned.
      I wish you the best of luck with your recovery.
      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

  4. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing these words. My spirit rings in knowing how true to the core this is and in the journey that BPD is. Thank you ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  5. At 32 I’m no longer having this problem. Ive gotten to know and like myself pretty well by spending lots of time alone and meditating. Im a gorgeous, youthful, voluptuous, very intelligent feisty latina escort that is humorous and loves to sing spanish karaoke and dance soca. At times impatient and temperamental but never for long. Often warmhearted. Brave. Extremely good taste in fashion and make up and terrible at all things relationships. Unapologetic manhater. I could go on. But nonetheless i wouldn’t have it any other way:) spend lots of time alone for a couple years and you will truly get to know and love who you are.

    • Good to hear you found a strategy that works for you. We all find our own way, ultimately, but the key is to remember that recovery is possible – so thank you for sharing your story.
      Best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  6. In the last several months, I’ve been feeling the classic “mid-life crisis” type feelings. I really thought it would never happen to me. In reading this article, I must say that I’m convinced I have BPD. I’ve always gloated to my closest friends about how I could mimic the person I’m speaking with in order to invite optimal responses from them…in a retail setting. But I’ve never admitted to anyone that I actually do this with everyone, in any given setting, for the most part. (There is a small sense of self.) Even my own husband of 16 years is currently mystified about my character and claims I’m bat-shit crazy. I verbally abuse him in return. Chameleon. And believe it or not, I recently and very subconsciously acquired a veiled chameleon as a pet, and I travel with him all the time now. (I travel a lot for business.) I claim he has “life lessons” to teach, but whenever I say this to people, they look at me all confused and I drop the subject–turn my colors back into what they are wearing, saying, feeling, conversing, vibing, whatever. So, thank you for this. I feel now I can further my journey in forgiving myself for some choices I’ve made in the past, and I feel like I can be more aware of this condition as I make decisions now and tomorrow and the next day and until it becomes habit. In all sincerity, thank you.

  7. Its amazing… It is terrifying to be left alone with yourself, when you don’t know who yourself is… I was there, in that situation many times, looking at myself at the mirror and not being able to recognize myself, I thought it was me just being crazy but now I see how other people feel it too, I’m starting to be aware of my chameleon, I realized I was borderline a little too late perhaps, but I learn everyday a little bit more, I also suffer PTSD and struggle with that too, but knowing where the root is makes me feel somehow relief, this is a very helpful information, thank you

    • Thank you for getting in touch – I’m glad you found the piece helpful. There is a lot of power in awareness, so it’s good to hear that you are finding some relief. All the best for 2017!

      Thanks for reading,
      Sarah Myles

  8. Thank you. I’ve known about my chameleon behavior but never knew it was a real thing. In reading your article I now have the ability to start identifying why and who I really am. It’s empowering to actually identify it and know that it’s not just me I actually question if it’s a disorder or a learned behavior for me in childhood now I’ll seek help to find out the real me and hopefully stabilize my life so people can know I’m more genuine. Thanks for writing this!

    • Thank you for your comment – I’m glad the piece was helpful for you. It means a lot to me when others are able to connect with what I’m writing about – it helps me too!

      So, thanks for taking the time to reach out, and thanks for reading. Good luck with your continued recovery.

      Best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

    • I’ve been reading these replies and yours struck a cord of truth for me. I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching–not so that I can “name” my behavior and label it as a disorder but to discover the birth of it so that I can start to rectify my reactions to similar situations. Not dealing with the constant temptations to push back my feelings and emotions and slip into whatever needs to be done in order to “fix” situations has left me not knowing who I really am. But I’m choosing a different course of revelation–If God is my true creator, then it makes sense to me to pray to Him to reveal to me who He created me to be and help me to quit apologizing for it.

      • Hi Christine, thank you for your comment.

        Absolutely. I’m not religious myself, but everybody needs to walk their own path – if this is the path that brings you peace and comfort, then i wish you all the very best with your continued journey to recovery.

        Thanks for reading!
        Best wishes,
        Sarah Myles

  9. I’m so glad I came across this post, and more than glad that I came across all these comments. It’s so comforting knowing that you aren’t alone with this disorder. I was diagnosed about a year ago and ever since I’ve been on the road to recovery.

    The chameleon effect has been something that has effected me alot. I’ve managed to form a completely new identity over the past few years that doesn’t resemble the version of who I was before. This new version is forever changing, my accents, the way I walk, talk, my interests, my dress sense, it’s got to the point where I’ve had to isolate myself to find myself and come face to face with who I truly am. It’s terrifying though. It feels like I’m playing dress up. When a glimpse of the real me shows I feel embarrassed. It’s like i’m obsessed with reinventing myself so I can become the loveable child that I feel I never was.

    Even though that version of me was abused as a kid, I’m gradually teaching myself that that version didn’t deserve to get abused, and that I can bring that version back as a fully grown adult who is now in control, and that my personality had no part to play in how I was treated.

    Before I came across this chameleon effect blog I labelled it my inner child. Loved this and will continue to work on this chameleon effect so being me becomes automatic.
    Thank you 🙂

    • Thank you so much for reading, for getting in touch, and for contributing to the brilliant range of comments these lovely readers have created. I agree – it is so comforting to know that there are others experiencing the same thing, regardless of where they are on their road to recovery.

      I’m glad to hear that your recovery is progressing nicely, and I wish you all the best for the future.

      Warmest wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  10. Reading this literally stopped me in my tracks! It was almost as if I had written it myself. I only came across this because I googled, ‘chameleon disorder’. Ididn’t even know it was an actual thing. I was just trying to figure myself out. I have always described myself as a chameleon, which most people see as a good thing, being able to read people and adjusting my personality accordingly. People have even commented on how I pick up accents when I travel. Just recently I have realized that this may be a bigger problem than I ever thought. I have never had the opportunity to be alone much. So I always had someone to, ‘chameleon’ off of. My youngest child of four just recently moved out and after being a mom for 27 years there are days when I find myself alone at home and I almost feel like my brain is short circuiting, like a robot waiting for a command, because as I’m starting to realize, I don’t really know who I am, do I don’t know how to be who I am. Reading this had given me a little comfort though. It helps knowing that I am not the only one like this.

    • Thank you for sharing your story here – it is always fascinating to hear the way other people describe it, and the circumstances under which they have come to understand their chameleon. It certainly is comforting to find that there are other people experiencing similar sensations, but I also find it heartening to hear how it touches people in very different ways, and manifests specifically for individual people.

      I think for most people, it can be very scary to initially realise that they have no real sense of self. We ultimately need to find the approach that works for us, in moving forward, and that approach may differ from that used by everyone else. I do believe, however, that there is benefit to thinking of that scary initial time as a ‘power position’ – because it is from this position that we are finally armed with true understanding, and the tools to re-build in an effective way. From this position, we have the power to feel better.

      I wish you all the best in these endeavours. Thank you for reading and, again, thank you very much for taking the time to reach out.
      Very best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  11. Thank you! Finally I know that I am NOT the only chameleon on the planet. The truth will set me free. Now I can be treated with the hope of healing and being able to manage my BPD. Eternally grateful.

  12. Remembering that being a chameleon is normal for people. We all want to fit in and mirror our friends and co workers. BPD tends to take this to extremes due to the unstable sense of self.

    • Thank you for you comment, and for taking the time to read. Yes, I agree – it is human nature to want to fit in. However, I think I make it clear in this post that we are specifically discussing the ‘Chameleon’ and ‘mirroring’ within the context of BPD and instability of self and, therefore, the extreme end of the scale.

      Best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

    • Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment. That’s a good question, and I don’t have a definitive answer – as in this piece of work, I can only speak from personal experience as I’m not a medical professional. I guess the mirroring behaviour still continues in that situation. The point is that a person with a BPD chameleon isn’t an automaton that only responds to external stimuli they can copy. We all have our own, natural ways of being. It’s just that, in BPD, we are more disconnected from them and more keen to switch them out for those of the person we’re interacting with – because it’s about acceptance, the avoidance of rejection, and the avoidance of looking inside ourselves.

      Those are my thoughts. What do you think happens?

      Thanks for reading!
      Best wishes,
      Sarah Myles

  13. I stumpled across this writing, and by the end of it I was in tears. It was like reading about all the things that are ‘wrong’ with me, with the explanation as to why. No doctor will help me, I’m basically too intelligent for them to take a 2nd look at me and consider there’s an underlying issue. I will focus on finding a stable self now, thanks to this post. Thank you!

    • Hi Alice,

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m glad to hear that you found comfort in this piece – it really does mean a lot to know that it helps other people.
      Best wishes for your continued recovery.
      Sarah Myles

  14. U have nailed it. That’s the exact situation I am facing. Am too in the same juncture right now. ‘hope’ is the only word I have along with constantly finding myself (self image).

    Any words of advice or help will be greatly appreciated…!!!

    Thank you. God bless

    • Thank you – I’m glad you found it helpful.

      My only advice is to do things at your own pace, in your own time. We all want to feel better, but it’s not a race – and the steadier we pace ourselves, the more likely it is that our progress will be relatively stable, and possible to maintain. I always make a point of acknowledging and celebrating every step forward I make – no matter how small. This, in itself, helps to build a more solid sense of self, because we are then seeking only the approval of ourselves, rather than looking to those around us. Soon enough, we go from, “I’ve had a good day,” to, “I’ve had a good week!”

      It’s a lot of hard work, and requires a great deal of patience. It’s never cured, but we can manage it by combining self-awareness with motivation to get the BPD under control. The goal, realistically, is to simply have more good days than bad. I’m now five years down the line, and there are still challenging phases, and times when I just can’t keep the balance. I have BPD ‘flare-ups’, and I still, sometimes, struggle with my Chameleon. But I now know I can look it right in the face, and tell it to get back in its box – because I know where it comes from and that understanding means the power belongs to me, not it.

      That’s the route that I found helpful – but everyone is different. I guess it depends on your own experiences, and circumstances. Having hope is a great place to start, though, and is an important resource for when you need to remind yourself that feeling better is absolutely within your reach.

      I wish you the very best of luck, and am grateful to you for reading and getting in touch.

      Warmest regards,
      Sarah Myles

  15. Can I just say thank you I’ve become more aware of this in my life. I’ve always known it was there but I struggled to put a name to it and because of it flew under the radar like you said in an example of mimicking a doctor, you sort of become a social butterfly, but you know the truth. So again thanks for this article. I hope for an update.

    • Thank you, Laura – I appreciate you getting in touch, and I’m glad you found the piece useful. I’ll be putting some more BPD-related stuff up soon.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.
      Best regards,
      Sarah Myles

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