Do borderlines have a “false self”?


One of the takeaways I got from my therapy session tonight, was that as someone with BPD, I do have a false self, but it’s not the same kind of false self a person with NPD has.

Actually, almost everyone has a false self. Whenever you’re polite to someone you don’t like, tell a “white lie,” put on your “best face” in a job interview, or act happy at the dreadful office Christmas party, that’s your false self in action. In the non-disordered, it’s called a social self, and is necessary to be able to function in the world. People who have no social self self at all are people who have no idea how to act in social situations, and just say whatever is on their mind. They care nothing about making a good impression or sparing someone’s feelings. There are people like this, but they’re usually living on the edges of society. Most people aren’t very comfortable having to wear this social self, but know they must in order to function in the world.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are both Cluster B (emotional, dramatic, erratic) disorders and both involve serious disruptions in a person’s sense of self. In both disorders, the true self was compromised at an early age because the parents or caregivers failed to mirror the child’s growing sense of self. The false self is a defense mechanism and stands in for the compromised true self, which in the case of someone with NPD, can no longer be accessed.


But there are differences. In a person with NPD, the false self is an intractable, permanent structure and is stable. What this means is that a person with NPD has become someone else. The mask they wear becomes who they are, and any threat of exposure by another for the lie it really is will be viciously attacked or the perpetrator devalued. That’s why you can never criticize a narcissist.

The NPD false self is also stable, meaning it doesn’t change much.  For example, a somatic, grandiose narcissist has built an entire identity around their physical appearance and uses every opportunity to make sure everyone knows how physically perfect they are. Because so much effort has gone into building this identity, the narcissist is unlikely to have developed any other abilities or strengths. A person with NPD pretty much lives full-time as their false self, and rarely, if ever, show others any glimpses of their true self, which in the worst cases, is so inaccessible to them it may as well not exist. If the false self is ripped away (this can be done by denying a narcissist any supply), and there is no more supply to be had (this sometimes happens to elderly narcissists, who can no longer rely on looks, youth, career or financial success to boost their egos), what is revealed is a person so empty, depressed, or dissociated they may require hospitalization or may even attempt suicide. Some may voluntarily enter treatment, but if their fortunes change, they start to feel better and are likely to quit therapy. Schizophrenic symptoms in a degraded narcissist isn’t unusual.

NPD is difficult to treat because the false self is so intractable and all-emcompassing, the person has little to no insight into themselves or even realize it’s they who have the problem. Because they tend to project their unacceptable emotions onto others, they’re far more likely to blame others for things they have really brought on themselves.

In Borderlines, the false self manifests more as a series of temporary masks, adapted to suit certain situations or people. People with BPD are emotional chameleons. Their dramatic mood swings and changeability are due to constant mask-switching and the stress this causes them. The BPD false self is not well developed and it often fails them, causing them emotional distress. The BPD false self (really false selves) is unstable, permeable, and easily shattered, frequently revealing the empty, dissociated, depressed true self. Because it’s not a permanent structure, BPDs don’t require narcissistic supply to keep it “alive” (they’re more likely to become codependent to a narcissist). They can seem “crazier” than people with NPD, but they are more easily treated because they spend at least some of the time without their masks on.

Further reading:

Derealization and Depersonalization in NPD and BPD

Comparing Covert Narcissism and BPD

Borderlines are Human Chameleons

Why Narcissists and Borderlines are Drawn to Each Other

15 thoughts on “Do borderlines have a “false self”?

  1. I was familiar with the false self(selves) but pointing out how it is different in BPD vs NPD is very important. Why BPD’s can get better with ongoing treatment while an NPD getting better is much less likely so, if at all. I know me well, after 25 years of continuous treatment, but, I’ve had so many N’s in my life, and will probably have more, without meaning to, I feel if I can understand the N’s better, realize how they think and about the importance of their image etc, I will be less likely to be hurt again. As a truthteller, I had been setting them off unintentionally. Something I would like to add(a difference), is that BPD’s are capable of living alone and being independent, while the N can’t tolerate it. They rely on what others reflect back to them to support their image of self. I guess without people to do this for them, they might just cease to be. On the one hand I feel badly for them, but, on the other they can be so destructive that I’m seriously left with a case of mixed feelings for them. Could I say that a false self is what the narcissistic mother programmed the child to be? The child was told who they are rather than shown the way to develop their own identities?

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    • This is a good comment and you bring up something important. I also have tried to understand narcissists and that has angered a few victims of narcissistic abuse, who think that means I condone or approve of their behavior, or even that I’m one myself. I absolutely do not condone their behavior , and think the only viable way to deal with a narcissist is not at all, if you can help it. You are not going to be able to fix them but they will eventually destroy you for trying. That being said, I also can understand why they are that way, and can sympathize to some extent. But only from a distance. For example, I find it’s been much healthier for me to regard my mother as someone to be pitied than someone to hate. By looking at her as a kind of victim who simply can’t help herself, that gives her less power over me and renders her less intimidating. If I focus on my rage and anger (and there’s plenty of that), I begin to feel victimized (oh poor me, why did I get stuck with a demon for a parent?) and she becomes more intimidating. So it helps us, as victims, if we can try to understand Ns without condoning what they do and still remaining no contact whenever possible. So no, I don’t hate narcissists. I hate what they do, but I pity them. They are broken people.


      • Thanks:) I guess the key then is in identifying them in the first place so I can avoid them entirely. I’m going to sharpen those skills before I try to meet new people again. And yes, just as you said, if you try to show them the way, they will destroy you. The greater the pathology in the N combined with the naïveté of the BPD the greater the destruction. A former bf accused me of thinking I was better than him when I tried to help him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but, he held me in contempt for that. Love the sinner(from a distance), hate the sin.


    • you said..”Could I say that a false self is what the narcissistic mother programmed the child to be? The child was told who they are rather than shown the way to develop their own identities..”
      is this when the parent tells the child they are great wonderful worthy! (is it the parent projecting on the child what they didn’t “get” from society? and by telling their child they are all these wonderful things.. they are entitled to “get things” and yet as you say.. were not shown HOW to actually BE those things?
      my ex is a narc and he was exactly like that. almost zero merit as a human being and that wasn’t even ever thought of once! it was just this is MINE im entitled and I better agree to it..
      this has also come up as a topic among the black community… their own discussions I mean.. as a problem in that particular society as a whole.. it can happen for different groups of people in certain “class wars” and socio economic mindsets..
      something is imagined in the mind and accepted as a truth but there is no follow through nor even a concept of follow through. when follow is mentioned to a narc they become enraged.. because that thing that requires follow through is already THEIRS in their mind so someone “took it” from them.. making them dangerous… follow through is seen as an insult. the #1 problem with my particulat narc-ex was that he didn’t want to EARN anything and threw fits of rage over it almost daily. no sense of self worth and accomplishment crossed his mind. and if you did help him to accomplish anything…well he straightaway threw it away as fast as he could and self sabotaged any success he did get…….. he couldn’t be happy if I was happy for him.. because ANYTHING that made me happy was a no no… even HIS success.
      it was that bad,
      even if it was good for him and his life
      even God spoke of narcissists …. belial means worthless and its a type of person
      its intentional worthlessness for God wouldn’t call a person worthless in the other sense
      “god will fight against the forces of belial (worthlessness) until he is fully annihilated”
      it also says “corrected” until he is fully corrected.. a mystery of the universe!
      a narc cant be “annihilated” because they will always be dead set against ANYTHING you do and youre NOT a narc… so even for God to call a type of person belial.. well.. it goes from saying “annihilate” to “corrected”
      same ole same ole
      it cant be done
      correction for a narc may lie in a rebirth and memory wipe
      fighting and correcting leaves the fighter and corrector feeling it was “worthless”

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      • Susan, I believe that the N’s were so spoiled as they were growing up, they were Golden children, the narc mother saw them as her grandiose self. So the kids grow up being used to getting much more than they earned. I don’t believe they have the ability and self discipline to attain the things they want that uphold their grandiose image. And then, The adult N gets mad at you for having more than them yourself. In their eyes, you make them look bad. So they demand and take, sometimes way worse than that. It’s true the BPD’s grew up hard and without, so therefore they’re very independent. Often times, in my opinion, the BPD who is the lacking one in the family was actually born wealthy and the people around her got it instead. In the end, I think God will be the one to do the annihilating and correcting.

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        • Hi Sue, not all Ns were spoiled. Some were abused. But some certainly were spoiled. As for your remark about some BPDs coming from wealth and getting nothing while everyone else around them does, here is my experiene:

          1. I was trained by my family to be a victim (scapegoated child). I was never given the emotional tools to do well in life, or much financial help either. My family had money, but would not pay for my college. (Hoewver, they did pay for my son’s college education. I’m not bitter about this).
          2. I live in poverty because I lacked those tools to survive well on my own, and also can’t connect in any meaningful way with people, so I am all alone in my 50s as well as poor.
          3. My family, who still has money, refuses to help me. Not that they should have to at my age, but they never have. Yet others in the family live well and get help. I have been disowned, even though I was a “good kid” who never got in serious trouble, did drugs, etc. No, I wasn’t “easy” but i wasn’t a bad kid either.
          4. My mother has triangulated against me and turned the entire family against me so everyone thinks I’m crazy and evil. She has actually told people I deserve nothing.
          4. They throw their disdain and contempt toward “the poor” in my face all the time, quoting Tea party screeds about how all poor people are lazy and leeches on society.
          5. I try not to be bitter about all this, but it’s so hard. To survive, I had to become indifferent toward them and think of them as pathetic little victims themselves, otherwise the rage would have destroyed me.

          This seems to be a common theme with so many victims of narcissistic parents, who are often borderlines. So many of us have “failed at life” because we were never given the tools to do well, or the self confidence, and were always told we’d fail at anything we ever did. I’ve never seen so many people living in poverty in their 40s and 50s except among others who had the kind of parents I did. Now I’m feeling angry and have to stop.


  2. Thanks for that Luckyotter. I didn’t know that some narcs were indeed abused. I realized now too how people at our age wind up in this predicament. I used to form an opinion of my own, but now that I’m one of them myself, I know better. I was given some help, more so when I was younger(My Dad was still alive then). What I did I manage to accomplish on my own was destroyed by narc mo to keep me in that inferior position.

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    • There’s a fine line between Complex PTSD and NPD, and thank God we were some of the lucky ones that were spared that particular fate. We could have easily become narcissists. It’s scary to think of that! Yes, a lot of people in our generation have been faced with this (“Generation Jones” and Gen-X–I refuse to call myself a baby boomer) because selfishness in the 60s and 70s when we grew up was the cool thing to do. In the “Me Decade,” women who put careers or love life ahead of their children were looked up to, while women who put the kids first were looked down on as throwbacks, and we suffered the fallout. So many of us are “throwaway children.”


  3. Hey thanks for that information. So part of our experience was the timing of when we were born and the attitudes in our country at the time. So the scapegoats are the lucky ones in the end(although in my particular case the amount of destruction was phenomenal, even my physical health took a beating). The thing that bothers me, is that the N’s live so much more comfortably(Big houses, plenty of money). Plus they have each other for support. You know who CAN see through them though? The true wealthy with the larger well established families. Most of them can spot the subtle differences, they have to be able to do that, or their family could be taken down by one or two narcs. I’ve noticed that the narcs seek out the naive wealthy who don’t know about their type, and then earn their trust and take advantage of them. Sometimes it begins with paternity fraud, and then the second born is often the scapegoat. I often ask myself, if I could be a fly on the wall when the N’s get together and ‘make their plan’ on the scapegoat(s), what it would sound like. I wonder because obviously I was never a part of it lol.

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    • I think you are talking about “old money” here–wealthy families who aren’t trying to impress others but who just were born into it. I agree, many of them are different than the nouveau riche, who think money an status are everything. They don’t make such a big deal about it and don’t have that “insecurity” that the new rich do, so they don’t always act like their poop doesn’t stink. Is that what you’re referring to?
      Money seems to be a weapon held over the head of the scapegoat. And the narcs and their flying monkeys love to flaunt their wealth in front of the designated scapegoat, especially if they’ve fallen into poverty, which happens a lot. It’s not only because the scapegoat doesn’t get the help the others do, it’s because their self esteem has taken such a battering that they believe they can do nothing and tend to be victimized by others too, because they have been programmed that way. They have no idea what they did wrong, but feel defective to the core. It’s a horrible way to live–but, if the scapegoats don’t turn to narcissism to cope (some do), they do at least keep their souls and their hearts.


  4. Yes, I believe you’re right about old money vs nouveau rich. To further clarify I’m talking about families who grew in size and wealth, generation after generation, and they earned it over time fair and square. The N’s though often cheat and steal their way to the top and therefore it happens much quicker, too quick. The difference is best seen by the behaviors behind closed doors. The N’s don’t take care of what they acquire, they use it up quickly and/or ruin it out of carelessness, and then theyre on to obtaining a replacement at the cost of someone else. A tell tale sign of the true wealthy vs the untrue wealthy is that both have big homes, but, the true wealthy don’t drive overly expensive looking cars. #1 they’re not so concerned with the whole image thing, #2 cars lose value so quickly why pay a lot(more than is necessary) when it just loses its value unlike a home does not, and #3 don’t flaunt the wealth with a high-end car, protect your earnings and your family. The true wealthy are smart about it because they know how hard it comes. Another sign, and this is big, the true poor are poor together. You don’t have a well-to-do family with one or two who ‘appear’ to be losers. Scapegoats know otherwise. And according to conversations online that I’ve read, while a majority of people think that those who live in poverty or are homeless put themselves there, there are others who do know that’s not the case. They’ve inferred its about the family the person was born into. Awareness needs to be increased.

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    • That’s interesting. I remember a book I read years ago called “Class” by Paul Fussell. It was all about the social classes. Things may have changed since it was written, but I remember he talked about class “X” which is basically the upper-upper class, who doesn’t really care about their image. They are so wealthy and so secure in their wealth that they feel free to just be themselves. If they want to drive an old junker or wear clothes from Goodwill even though they have millions in the bank, they just do it, and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. They aren’t snobs because they have no reason to be–they aren’t trying to keep up a certain image. It’s the higher end of the middle and the upper-middle class who are the most concerned with image and “keeping up with the Joneses.” They are the ones who must have the brand new high end car or the most prestigious address or eat at the trendiest, most expensive restaurant. I agree that the true wealthy are also smarter about money because they aren’t constantly spending it on things just to impress everyone else. They’re more likely to save or invest it, or give it away to charity.

      I always felt like an outsider in the world because I’m one of those rare people who came from an upper middle class family but fell into a lower class financial lifestyle. I thought I must be defective for that to have happened. From everything I’d read, it was believed the only people who would fall so far down the social ladder into poverty were those who were un-intelligent. As a person with a high IQ I found that highly insulting. I knew it had everything to do wth my low self esteem and wondered why low self esteem wasn’t ever considered a cause of poverty in adulthood. It wasn’t until I found the ACON community that I realized I wasn’t alone–that this seems to be a phenomenon almost exclusively limited to adults who are the designated scapegoats of narcissistic families. So many of us became poor but didn’t grow up that way! Obviously something’s going on here that’s significant. Studies need to be done on family scapegoats/black sheep and poverty and find what the correlations are. I totally agree with you awareness needs to be increased. Right now, many bloggers are writing about it, so it’s starting there, at the grass roots. Hopefully in time it becomes more general awareness and there is more compassion and tolerance toward the poor in general, who don’t all fit in the same box and not all of us were born into poverty. In fact, far from it.


  5. Lucky otter, wealth being a relative thing, I consider myself pretty poor(I live smart though), and this family I knew and was involved with, I was a Rockefeller in comparison to them. Their income was a bit higher, but because of their uncontrolled spending and requiring of so much, I appeared very rich to them because I had the skills to maintain and build on what I had plus the self-discipline. In the end, it was one unlikely event after another with them. Bottom line, they wanted my income(although not large, but definitely enough to put to good use), my credit, my possessions, and in my opinion, probably my life. It happened to someone named Irene Silverman. Google on it if you’re not aware. It’s very interesting. A made for TV movie was made about it sometime late 70’s early 80’s.

    Now let me offer you some encouragement, YOU HAVE what it takes. You’re older than me, but, not too old. You’re beautiful inside and out. And what a genuine smile you have. You have to believe in yourself. Present yourself the best you can. Go to singles groups in churches where more Christians are likely to be found. Think before you speak when talking with someone you’re getting to know. Scapegoats are more of a minority group, so most people don’t know our experience. Listen more than you talk. Make others feel like there is something inside of them like you do for us here.


  6. Another enlightening article. Of course I immediately applied this info to my own family. I have learned to handle my covert narc mom pretty well, having dealt with my golden child issues many years ago. I hope my scapegoated sister, who is presently limited-no contact with mom, as I was way back then, will reach the same healthy status as a result of her current therapy, before our 80 year old mom passes.

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