The ‘As If’ Personality in the World at Large

Emptiness and existential despair are core symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder: What are they, and why do they happen?

In 1942 elderly Polish-American pioneer psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch, wrote a landmark paper on mental illness and personality called: ‘Some forms of Emotional Disturbance and their relationship to Schizophrenia’ In the paper she described the ‘As If’ personality, with important implications for the treatment of Personality Disorder for today.

The ‘As If’ personality goes through the world ‘as if’ it were real even when they feel it’s not. At the same time it’s ‘as if’ they are a person with an identity, even when it’s not experienced as such. The As If personality observes life as if it were a theatre play but they are the puppet forced to walk the stage. A flighty, chaotic and often dramatic approach to life, which belied the abyss inside.

In today’s world of cognitive behavioural science, the As If Personality seems a throwback to a bygone world; where psychiatry and psychology remained in a primitive stage of development. Very primitive judging by the nomenclature. And yet the As If personality is an appropriate description for the elusive symptom which characterises many Cluster B Personality Disorders. Namely dramatically acting out inward symptoms which are harder to pin down.

Helene Deutsch originally believed the emotional disturbance was at the heart of this Pseudo-Neurotic-Schizophrenia (an old name for BPD) and suggested a problem with an individuals inner nature and their relationship to the world at large.

As Helene Deutsch asked back in 1942: ‘What is wrong?’ She was the first to not only forumulate a question but provide an answer. In simple terms the As If personality experiences a ‘real loss of object cathexis.’ Object Cathexis is an old psychoanalytic term which nevertheless is still relevant for today. Cathexis is the our emotional interest and investment in the objects and people we see around us. In short it is the energy and attention we give to a something. A teddy bear as a child, a favourite guitar as a teenager, a rocking chair in old age — all are forms of Cathexis. Ultimately Cathexis is a word to describe our engagement with life. Our favourite ‘objects’ are of course people. Friends, family and romantic partners.

Sometimes Cathexis is guided by our desire for life: You kiss a pretty girl and dream of kissing her again. Sometimes it’s guided by the the death drive and self destruction: You hate that the bully at school and fantasise about beating them to pulp. Both are Cathexis. Freud believed we all have a vast amount of psychic energy, as infants we seek out objects for instant gratification. As we get older, and we practise delayed gratification, we find we can store this energy in objects without acting on primitive desires. The Superego tells us right and wrong, the Id tells us about our sexual or aggressive fantasies, and finally the Ego mediates a line between.

According to Helen Deutsch, The As if Personality experiences the loss of Object Cathexis. That is to say, they are no longer able to emotionally invest in people, places, or objects, except in a chaotic manner marked by emotional, cognitive, interpersonal and behavioural instability. Meanwhile underlying this pattern of interaction is a sense of disinterest and distrust in the world and enviroment.

From this perspective it seems that the As If personality seems more like the charm of a psychopath, with a hat full of dangerous tricks, than a portrait of Borderline Personality Disorder. What Helene Deutsch was unable to gauge is the inner life of an As If Personality. She remarked, many were in fact gifted, intelligent, with apparent competency in many areas of life. What they lacked however was realism.

That’s because inside the As If Personality would be emptiness. The complete collapse of faith in the world around them. This is the result of trauma and happens in the earliest days of infancy. When we were born, there was no subject nor object. We existed without knowing whether the sensations came from the environment or originated in us. As we got older, we learned to differentiate between ourselves and our parents. If we had parents were ambivalent, ambiguous, inconsistent or downright hostile towards us our Object Cathexis would be disturbed.

We develop a distrust of the world around us, learning from our parents that objects are unreliable. This created a raw sense of loss, which is the site of trauma. We develop Object Hunger, a pathological need to fill the emptiness with people places and things to compensate for the void we experience within, which delineates the sense of being unsafe and uncared for. Even when we get the objects we crave, we never really can lose the sense they are untrustworthy and unreliable and can’t shake off the feeling that we are being duped and all this will be taken away. As a result we go into adulthood as talented actors ready to perform for an audience, but never really believing in our role or the stage we find ourselves.

The apparently normal way of relating to the world around us is in fact a mimicry of others, learned by rote to blend in. It corresponds to a wounded childs’ world, of the boy or girl who learns to please others at the expense of themselves; because they know if they don’t they’ll be punished. The true self is buried deep inside, the wounded inner child which has been made an exile by early experiences, cannot summon the vital energy needed to make a meaningful attempt at life. Instead a crafty imitation of others takes place to survive. Adapation to the game of life, comes at the expense of authenticity. We lose ourselves, and are left with emptiness.

Have you ever gone through life feeling the world around you is unreal, cardboard, cartoonish, fake, illusionary or dreamlike. It is most likely dissociation, but if you’d like an alternative explanation straight from the psychoanalysts couch, we’d say it’s a loss object cathexis.

For those of us with borderline personality disorder, we distrust the world so much we have ceased to believe in it. When we have ceased to believe in it, it naturally appears unreal and without meaning. Perhaps because when we were babies, we invested emotionally in those objects of predominant importance, our mums and dad, and they failed to honour their roles, we played pretend in order to fit in. Because of this, we too, feel unreal.

The As If personality is compensation: Winnicott’s false self, and Linehan’s apparent competency are just two words to describe the same event: The jettison of our real authentic need to live, and the shoring up of our personality with fake hoardings. The ability to comply with life, and play our parts, however deep down knowing the world’s a stage, and we the puppets.

The story of the individual with borderline personality disorder, is that trauma made him turn into a chaemleon, blending with the environment, camflauged in every colour. With an aptitude for mimicry he watches the world, and yet remain aloof, alone and above it. A solitary creature by heart the chameleon personality, is an As if Personality, a Borderline Personality who even in aloneness can occasionally join in the game, by the skill of blending in.

There’s no cure for emptiness, and if you loose faith in the world it seems unlikely you’ll get it back in entirety. And yet through awareness, we can be awakened to reality. Be as authentic as you can and don’t take life too seriously. When it all gets too much, don the chameleon suit once again, blend seamlessly into the environment.

Remember too: Its ‘as if’ these psychologists had all the answers when it comes to personality disorder, when the truth is the real answer lay within.

Freelance journalist writing on mental health and disability. Words have the power to shine a light on realities otherwise missed.