a different kind of inner view: working through thoughts on identity and manipulation

Just a warning: this is a “thinking aloud” post. While it’s organized, there are progressions/changes in thought as you read along. I think I made some important discoveries for myself as I went along, though. Ramble with me if you’d like…

There’s a line in one of my favorite songs, Nightminds by Missy Higgins, that says, “you were blessed by a different kind of inner view / it’s so magnified. the highs will make you fly / but the lows make you want to die.” For obvious reasons, I really identify with that description.

As I mentioned in my video journal, my little brother shares a lot of the same BPD (for lack of a better term, good grief) symptoms as me. We were talking about identity disturbance the other day, though, and he has a different view of it. While I tended to view my inability to naturally fit with any “type” or “group” of people as a personal failing, a personal emptiness that others didn’t have, he seemed to view emptiness as the default human state, and our “BPD” recognition of it as privileged knowledge. Basically, he thinks we are able to see the scaffolding behind anyone’s identity, to realize that identity is totally constructed for everyone, while most people just don’t realize that. When you think of it this way, this understanding of how people work and what they’re doing when they’re choosing the ideas, clothing, bumper stickers, books, hairstyle, etc. that make up their identity gives us a lot of inappropriate power. We know who they want to be. We know what makes them feel good or feel bad. I never really realized this before, but I think it becomes currency for manipulation (though we don’t have to use it.)

Another way of looking at it is this. Identity is a contract people enter into with the world and society. A person might say, “I’m going to dress in skinny jeans and thick glasses, listen to new music, create artwork, and have a tattoo. I’m going to hang out in the artsy part of town.” The world responds by accepting him as a “hipster”: other people who want to do those same things flock to him, people who see him mentally accept his self-created image. He may not realize he’s created an identity for himself, though: those outfits, songs, and artwork might’ve just resonated with him. But someone who feels they have no identity and is keenly aware that they have to create one (e.g. someone with identity disturbance) will look at him and see the contract. They’ll see his identity creation and the world’s acceptance of it. In some ways, this undermines the legitimacy of his identity in their eyes, because they can see the man behind the curtain.

Again, I hadn’t really thought of it this way before talking with my brother. I’ve tended to think of that hipster as just feeling an internal, innate draw to becoming a hipster and deciding to become one in a genuine, organic way. I viewed my awkward need to actively create my own identity as an issue only I had, as a problem with my ability to buy into normal societal interactions others can accept. Frankly, a lot of times BPD’s identity disturbance feels like knowing/realizing a lot more about ‘identity’ than everyone else, but maybe  it’s “disordered” to not be able to lose yourself in the myth of identity in a reasonable way. Also, I think people’s awareness of the constructed nature of their identity actually lies along a spectrum: some people are more aware than others. People with identity disturbance might be extremely aware, but I think generally girls are more aware that they’re constructing an identity than boys are (probably because of our cultural treatment of femininity and incessant discussion of how girls should look/talk/act/etc.) So maybe it’s not that people with identity disturbance are the only ones that realize identity is constructed (in fact, isn’t that obvious? So many feminists talk about how gender is a construct), but just that they’re the only ones who can’t disregard that fact, who can’t let go and create their identity happily anyway.

Anyway, I thought it was worth discussing this here, because I think this high awareness of how people work can unfortunately be used to manipulate them. I’m not talking about the flailing for security where you’re distressed and therefore send someone a letter written in your own blood (an example I saw in a documentary about BPD). I’m talking about the other times, when you’re just in a relationship with someone and know how they work, what they want their identity to be, and how they try to create that identity. Do you use this awareness in arguments? In romantic interactions? Where are the boundaries?

Regarding this deep understanding of people, I find that I’m great at sending the diplomatic and tactful emails at work because I have a keen intuition about how people respond to different things. I’m good at being charming during short-term social interactions because I’m good at knowing what people want and being what people want. It’s like many people just see a cross-section of human behavior, whereas you have a more complete understanding of cause and effect. It’s like an obsessively thorough version of interpersonal interaction, where you know way more variables than you should.

Thus when you’re using the tools at your disposal to get your needs met, you might have more sophisticated tools than others without even realizing it. Tools that you shouldn’t use, but you might not realize that. What made me think of this and decide to write about it was this blog post (I found it doing a search for my own blog name, by the way. Oops. Didn’t mean to steal that!) Anyway, regarding that post, I hate to throw a brother under the bus, but whaaat? He’s right on point about how to “steal women,” but who does that? Who feels like a mad scientist when they’re purposely manipulating people?  Who writes an instruction manual on it? Actually, there are people who do that!  Pick-up Artists, for instance (if you don’t know about them, don’t google it — it’s awful.) People are not a game for you to play.

The problem comes when there’s no “off” button to your intuition about how people respond to different things, what people want, what people need, etc. There’s no getting outside of the knowledge, turning off part of your awareness, so avoiding manipulation starts to feel like actively dumbing yourself down a bit, not using the full set of tools you could use, because you know some of them are unfair. Because of my morals and rigid attention to being genuine, I take purposeful steps not to be manipulative. But I find myself trying to check my ability to manipulate in unnatural ways: self-deprecation, timidity.  I fall victim to a cycle of self-questioning and self-doubt (“am I being fair? is that manipulative? do I have a right to ask that? is that too overbearing?”) that’s also pretty disgusting.

Not to mention that it’s not actually my responsibility not to try to influence people. There are plenty of ways people try to influence others that are socially acceptable. A guy tries to be attractive to find a date. A girl tries to be pretty and desirable for men. Companies try to influence you to purchase their products. Children try to influence parents to buy them cell phones. Girlfriends and boyfriends try to influence each other in an argument. Indeed, the creation of an identity itself is trying to influence others into thinking of you a certain way. So the problem becomes not avoiding “manipulation” altogether, but finding where the line is! How much manipulation is too much? When do you cross over from “influencing” to “manipulating”? Sometimes I worry I’m manipulating by just asking for what I need. That’s not the case! In fact, I think by and large my obsession with not being manipulative has hurt me more than any incidental manipulation that has occurred. For instance, here a girl had no problem flirting with and influencing my boyfriend by being aggressive and flirty, but I feel self-conscious and burdensome if I try to so much as ask him to spend more time with me.  Why do I have this huge self-check when others don’t have nearly so many scruples? It makes me timid and needy instead of strong and able. It’s like I’ve overcompensated.

(I don’t, by the way, think my timidity was the problem that left him vulnerable to her wiles or any such nonsense — I think he’s just having his own issues. In fact, my timidity has only been a real problem since all these issues started a couple months ago. Before that, I was feeling bold, sexy, and healthy myself. I’m just writing about it here as a comparison to illustrate how silly my current self-restrictions are. But I do think the fact that all this happened caused some of my low self-esteem and timidity.)

I guess after all of this discussion, I don’t really feel like a heightened awareness of identity is the problem. Instead, I feel like in some folks with BPD, an inability to appropriately regulate emotions leads them to use that awareness of others (which may or may not be higher than anyone else’s depending on us as individuals) in inappropriate ways, to manipulate outcomes instead of just to influence the process. I can’t wait to have a working relationship with a therapist I can talk through these ideas with. I want to make sure I have appropriate boundaries and stop shying away from asking for what I need based on an overactive fear of / compensation against “manipulating.”

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