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.