Love is a label.
Content warning: BPD, PTSD, Splitting, Abuse
“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
I can’t recall when I started compartmentalising myself. We all do it to some extent. We have different roles to fill and parts to play, for different people and contexts. It’s functional for both business and pleasure: in any kind of relationship, people usually like to know what to expect from us. We tell stories about ourselves to each other, and by amplifying some narratives, we obfuscate others to be who we need to be at the time. It’s convenient.
We strive for narrative continuity, but human experience is non-canonical: perhaps the only trait we share is that our selfhoods are constantly in flux, subject to the ever-changing balance of nature and nurture. So, is there really such a thing as a sense of self?
When I talk about my struggles with identity, people tell me to worry less and vibe more. They say that no one knows who they are or what they’re doing. My generous interpretation of these responses would be to assume that the speaker has been through similar struggles with selfhood and emerged on the other side, but it’s perhaps more likely that they’re lucky enough to have never needed to worry about it.
I know there is such a thing as a sense of self, because I recognise its absence.
A self exists in boundaries – the separation between the self and the other. The absence, or violation, of boundaries negates selfhood. Without a sense of self, we can’t protect ourselves, or make decisions in our best interests. Love without boundaries is annihilation.
Who am I, alone, in an empty room? Will I be the same person when someone enters it?
Boundaries are how we negotiate our desires. But, what if we don’t know what we want? What about when what we want change? It is impossible to account for, and define, our multiplicity. But we try.
What do I mean to you? Who are we to each other?
We compartmentalise ourselves to simplify things, then attempt to articulate it in language, reducing ourselves to a label. A label is a social contract. A promise. Promises are safe, promises are terrifying. Promises can be broken. Broken promises break hearts.
How can I believe you love me when I don’t know who me is?
It’s best not to think about it. I wish I didn’t have to think about it.
I have been in a process of rebuilding a self that trauma destroyed, or cultivating a self that trauma didn’t allow to grow. I, like many of us who are affected by BPD/PTSD, am in a constant process of stitching together parts of me that look like they might fit, until one day, maybe I’ll feel whole. Whenever I find out something new about myself, I feel robbed of all the years I’ve lost to negation. The worst part is that it feels like I did it to myself, because it’s something my mind did to cope.
Splitting is something that people who have BPD, and function in neurodiverse ways, do as an unconscious survival instinct. In relation to other people, it looks like idealising a person, then devaluing them.
This is summarised poorly in articles about BPD by the phrase: “I hate you – please don’t leave me.”
Splitting makes love complicated: the object of your affection can be the best person in the world one day, then your enemy the next: a stranger at best, a malicious antagonist at worst. But, if they are your favourite person, the connection remains constant. Some survivors learned to do this when loved ones broke that trust in an irredeemable way. We split the person in two, so that we can keep the best half of that person, and the memories of them, untainted by abuse. Our minds tell us that it was not the one we loved who betrayed our trust, it was that other person, that bad person we don’t know. These feelings don’t go away, but we try and forget them. We hold the pain inside us to preserve the idea of a love we wish we had – the kind of love that we deserved. This painful, ambivalent ‘love’ informs that which comes after it.
Literature on ‘splitting’ is easily found, and the way I’ve described it above is both my experience and commonly theorised. What I’ve seen less of, however, is how ‘splitting’ can impact the self.
I have been splitting myself for as long as I can remember. There was the survivor: capable and resilient. This person did not have needs, nor articulate emotions. I was not the kind of person who ‘bad things’ had happened to, or someone who needed anyone. As I started to remember my trauma, and began to heal, I realised there was a different self beneath the mask. Someone intensely vulnerable, incredibly angry, lonely and longing for connection. As I got to know this person, I realised that I had made a stranger of myself. I hated that person, and I wanted to hurt them. Then I stopped hurting them and started to listen to them instead.
It wasn’t/isn’t easy. When parts of me started to awaken, they did not get on with each other.
I tell people I have a ‘Tinker bell complex’: I lack emotional nuance. I feel things so strongly, that, without a lot of emotional regulation work, I can only feel one thing very hard all at once, which makes it difficult to know who I am and what I want from one day to the next.
If I don’t know who I am, how can I ever get what I want? Will I ever be happy?
As someone who is genderfluid (Non-binary? Femme presenting trans masc?) and bisexual (Pansexual? Gay? Demisexual?) and poly? or monogamous? I have a lot of different things to feel. Things I haven’t figured out yet. All of these different aspects of myself awakening felt like a problem, not because they existed, but because I had erased them for so long. Each aspect of myself cried out for attention one at a time and VERY LOUDLY. I had compartmentalised myself so much, that I didn’t (and don’t) know how all the parts function together.
How can I promise to love you if I don’t know who I am, or how I love?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to solve the problem ‘dick-first’. I tried dating and dating apps, assigning each of my compartmentalised selves a label. But labels are not shortcuts to understanding – people fixate on the label they’re most interested in, and treat you in relation to the stereotype that they associate with it. Dating apps, like me, lack emotional nuance.
I tried to solve a problem of identity by experimenting with my sexuality. I assigned myself labels in an attempt to define myself in a way that would make me palatable. Labels that should have been empowering turned into another way to objectify myself. At first the labels were for me – to fill in the blanks that trauma had erased. Then, they became more about who I am to other people. What I’ve begun to realise is that I’m not responsible for people’s perceptions or desire of me. I exist independently of that.
My sexuality has always defined me; I use it to (unsuccessfully) connect with people, but sex should not be conflated with love or platonic intimacy. As a survivor, I’ve always found it hard to tell the difference between them – to feel seen and valued as a person, rather than a fuck toy, and to treat other people the way they deserve to be treated too.
Sex is complicated and makes things complicated for me. It feels dangerous and vulnerable and nuanced in a way that it never has before. Managing those emotions is too overwhelming. I’m not equipped to manage my own, let alone anyone else’s feelings.
Sex was the story of my life, now it’s just a footnote.
I’m shedding most of the labels I’ve accumulated and replacing them with ‘queer’. The community and connection that comes from the mutual understanding I have with my queer friends is enough acknowledgement of my identity. I am who I am, not who I do. I would rather be a friend, than a sex object.
And as for love…
I want a love that transcends labels. I want a love that acknowledges and desires every fractured piece of me.
I want a love that isn’t annihilation.
I want our love to be a promise, a promise that we’ll change – together.