Forming a secure identity is one of the main psychological tasks of adolescence. During the turbulent teen years, you must come to grips with who you are, and project into the future as you think about your ideal career pursuits and commitments to an overall ideology that will guide your life. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson defined “identity achievement vs. identity diffusion” as the primary psychosocial issue of the period. During this time, you explore alternatives until you arrive at a clear pathway. Forming one of the key theories of adolescence, Erikson’s work has received considerable attention as researchers attempt to put his ideas to the empirical test.
As important as Erikson’s work has become to researchers investigating the so-called “normal” pathways of adolescent development, it has yet to be applied to the disturbed identity processes that characterize borderline personality disorder. Yet, the theory would seem to have a great deal of potential for understanding the issues that face people with this disorder as they attempt to come to grips with their own self-definition after having arrived at adolescence with what are undoubtedly unique challenges. Annabel Bogaerts and colleagues (2018) of the University of Leuven proposed that Erikson’s theoretical framework could indeed provide an understanding of identity in borderline personality disorder. Their research examined how well their “Dutch Self-concept and Identity Measure (SCIM),” designed to examine identity processes in teens and young adults in general, could be used to gain insight into how individuals with borderline personality disorder struggle with their own unique identity issues.
In addition to examining the SCIM’s ability to understand the dimensions of identity in people with borderline personality disorder, the Dutch researchers looked specifically at what they call the “identity dimensions” of exploration and commitment. Although Erikson believed that the only way to arrive at a clear sense of identity was to evaluate alternatives, identity researchers have come to understand that you can have a clear sense of identity without ever giving thought to various options. If you take on entirely the views of your parents (or other strong figures in your life) and their belief systems and career plans for you, then you would have a firm identity but not one that is uniquely yours. Conversely, you could also be enmeshed in a constant struggle to clarify your goals and values, never reaching a clear resolution. Neither of these possibilities are actually allowed for in Erikson’s theory. The “Dimensions of Identity Development Scale (DIDS)” includes, therefore, scales measuring “exploration in breadth” scale (“I think actively about different directions I might take in my life),” “Exploration in depth” (“I talk with other people about my plans for the future”), and “Identification with commitment” (“My plans for the future match my own true interests and values”).
Bogaerts et al. administered the SCIM to 3 samples of emerging adults averaging about 25 years of age. Two of these samples were described as convenience samples, consisting of about 400 participants each. The third was selected specifically to include individuals who would be matched in with the larger population in terms of age, gender, and educational level and selected to participate by “master psychology students.” These were the participants identified as most likely to have borderline personality disorder. Additionally, all three samples completed measures of depression and anxiety, and the third (clinical sample) a measure of borderline personality disorder.
The 25-item SCIM divides into 3 scales. You can test yourself on the items below by rating each from 1 (completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree), or just “I don’t know”:
- I know what I believe or value
- When someone describes me, I know if they are right or wrong
- When I look at my childhood pictures I feel like there is a thread connecting my past to now
- Sometimes I pick another person and try to be just like them, even when I’m alone
- I know who I am
- I change a lot depending on the situation
- I have never really known what I believe or value
- I feel like a puzzle and the pieces don’t fit together
- I am good
- I imitate other people instead of being myself
- I am so different with different people that I’m not sure which is the “real me”
- I am broken
- When I remember my childhood I feel connected to my younger self
- I feel lost when I think about who I am
- I always have a good sense about what is important to me
- I am so similar to certain people that sometimes I feel like we are the same person
- I am basically the same person that I’ve always been
- I feel empty inside, like a person without a soul
- My opinions can shift quickly from one extreme to another
- I no longer know who I am
- I am more capable when I am with others than when I am by myself
- No one knows who I really am
- I try to act the same as the people I’m with (interests, music, dress) and I change that all the time
- I am only complete when I am with other people
- The things that are most important to me change pretty often
Now, total your score within each of the three subscales as noted below:
Consolidated Identity: 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 14, 15, 17
Disturbed Identity: 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 16, 19, 21, 23, 24, 25
Lack of identity, 8, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22
The authors do not present mean scale scores for the three samples, but instead compared the three groups in terms of which items were most sensitive to scores on a measure of borderline personality disorder administered to participants. Using the data they present as a guide, the items least indicative of borderline personality disorder (i.e. Sample 3) were 14, 16, and 24, but all the rest fit the above scale organization in a way similar to that of the two other samples. The Consolidated Identity Scale was not as sensitive to borderline personality disorder scores as were the other two scales, indicating that the specific identity issues confronted by individuals with this disorder are most likely to involve either a disturbed or lack of identity.
Furthermore, across the 3 samples, individuals scoring high on the disturbed Identity scale were most likely to engage in what the authors call “ruminative exploration,” in which the individual becomes preoccupied with identity issues. Individuals scoring high on this scale have “an abiding sense of incoherence and discontinuity” (p. 62). Of the three subscales, furthermore, Lack of Identity scores seemed to signify the greatest concern, as individuals scoring high on this scale reported “lower levels of adaptive identity dimensions, higher levels of ruminative exploration, and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder” (p. 63).
By looking at borderline personality disorder in terms of identity disturbance, the Belgian study helps to place the symptoms of what are seen as a distinct psychological entity in terms of a set of developmentally-based dimensions. Furthermore, by helping individuals to focus on the identity concerns central to this disorder, this study’s findings can provide targeted areas of concern that individuals can work on to address, and confront, as they develop through their adult years. Knowing who you are is a central component of fulfillment, and if individuals with deep-seated identity issues can start to think about their identity as a developmental issue, they too can hope to move forward in their own exploration.