A common symptom of both NPD and BPD is dissociation: a splitting or fragmenting of the personality not very different from what occurs in the Dissociative disorders such as DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) and Psychogenic Fugue. It usually happens in response to a severe loss of supply or major narcissistic injury, or a sudden awareness of oneself as not oneself (realizing your false self is not who you really are–which happens when a NPDer becomes self aware). These disorders themselves, especially NPD, are dissociative in nature because a split in the personality has occurred. In the narcissist, it’s a substitution of the original personality for a false one.
Borderlines, rather than having a false self per se, are more like chameleons, adapting their personalities to fit the people and situation around them. That’s why Borderlines can seem so changeable.
I first started to experience dissociation as a young child. I remember at age 4, waking up for breakfast and walking down to the kitchen where my parents were already eating, and seeing colored specks like glitter falling all around me. When I asked my parents if they saw the “glitter,” they just looked at me like I was crazy. I also had dreams that would continue after I awoke and often felt I was living in a dream. Maybe that’s the case with most young children though. I also remember hearing music from TV shows late at night after everyone was asleep that couldn’t possibly be coming from anywhere, as this was in the 1960s and no one had the capability to record a show on VCR yet, nor was there TV after midnight or so–all we’d get in those days was a test pattern until morning.
I remember at around the same age, banging my head against the wall in the family room to relieve some kind of congestion in my head. I think it may have been to relieve those odd feelings of unreality–not much different than the way a Borderline will sometimes cut herself to “feel alive.” In fact, this may well have been an early symptom of my BPD (and I always thought it was autism).
Most people have probably experienced dissociation, perhaps under the influence of a drug. Sometimes people experience it on hearing shocking news that could be either tragic or fortuitous–like hearing one’s child just died, or winning the lottery.
But for people who have certain personality disorders (as well as people with various dissociative disorders and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, and also those with PTSD and C-PTSD), dissociation is both common and chronic. It’s also severe enough to sometimes interfere with functioning.
Q: So what does dissociation FEEL like?
A. Because something so ungrounded in the tangible and everyday reality is so hard to explain in words, I’m not sure if these descriptions of what it feels like will make a lot of sense, but I’ll try.
I’ve actually experienced this the most. The world seems odd and dreamlike. Reality seems somehow “off” the way things are in a dream. In a dream, a familiar scene can look the same as it does in reality, but at the same time there’s this feeling of offness and otherworldiness about it. When I was younger and used to ride the subway, sometimes I couldn’t look up at the people because they all seemed like masks…sinister, somehow. It’s a very weird feeling but not always unpleasant. Sometimes that dreamlike oddness about everything is sort of compelling and interesting.
This definitely causes me serious panic attacks. I first had episodes of this at about age 9 or 10 and thought I was going crazy. I felt oddly disconnected from my body, like I was floating. People talking to you sound like they’re coming from either a great distance or out of a tube. You can’t focus on what they’re saying because you’re freaking out and panicking but trying to hide it to keep from appearing as crazy as you feel.
I think people with NPD and BPD (as well as the Schizoid, Schizotypal and Paranoid PD’s) who do not improve or try to change, are probably at high risk for developing psychotic disorders and even schizophrenic like conditions when things are going badly for them, there’s been a massive loss of narcissistic supply, or when the person becomes gravely ill or very late in life.