We can all change our behaviour to fit in with other people. This is how we as humans seek acceptance and make connections. But for those of us whose mental health affects our sense of self, this becomes more about a desire to fit in. It can be a real struggle to know who we are and because of this we struggle with knowing how to behave.
If you struggle with identity issues or an unstable self-image, you might behave in ways that don’t align with your values. It might look like you are constantly changing to fit the situation or the people you are with. This adds even more confusion to this sense of knowing who you are. Not knowing how to act around others can make even the most typical of interpersonal situations feel very anxiety provoking.
1. Define your values
Your values are the guiding principles to live your life by. Paying attention to your values will help you to figure out how to act and how to prioritise. When you have a clearer idea of your values it becomes easier to see when your behaviour crosses these standards, as this will often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Defining your values can lead to more confidence about going with what feels right for you. Try to notice to what extent your behaviour lives up to your values.
2. Identify your goals
When you are not sure how to act, ask yourself “What is my goal?” Then consider how much your behaviour matches up with that goal. Think about your long and short-term goals for relationships as well as your life. Your goals are your action steps to ensure you live by your values. It can be really helpful, before you take on a new commitment, to examine whether you are doing this because it is the right action for you, based on your values, or whether you are doing this because you want approval from others. If you have doubts, revisit your values.
3. Let go of seeking approval from others
Pay attention to when you may be looking for approval from others. Then practice letting go of seeking reassurance. You need to approve your own behaviour. Notice when your behaviour comes mainly from wanting someone to say that you fit in or did the right thing. Before deciding what action to take in any given situation, check in with yourself to see if your choice is consistent with your values.
4. Ground yourself
When you are feeling anxious or swept up in social situations, the urge to take on other people’s behaviour can be very intense. This is why it is important to ground yourself so that you can connect with your own values and goals. Grounding techniques involve paying attention to the present moment and activate the senses. My suggestions include doing a three minute breathing space, chewing a piece of gum or eating something mindfully (like a mint or boiled sweet), applying a sweet smelling hand cream and trying to identify as many sounds as you can.
5. Plan ahead
This is known as the DBT skill ‘cope ahead’. When you notice anxiety about how to act, come up with a plan beforehand for how you’d like the interaction to go. Remind yourself of your goals and values and write down how you’d like to behave. Try to anticipate what behaviours you might engage in that cross your values and go against your goals. What barriers that might get in the way? Make a commitment to stick to this plan. If in the moment you don’t for whatever reason, forgive yourself and move on. Reflect on the situation with self-compassion.
6. Recognise your strengths
Being flexible in different environments and social situations is a great quality. But it requires balance and achieving balance means acquiring skills. This takes some practice. Try not to give yourself a hard time when you get it wrong. One way of building a more stable self-image is to reflect on your strengths. Ask people who know you to name three things you are good at (and believe what they tell you!). Or, if that’s too scary, pay attention to positive feedback when you receive it.
Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).
Image: Chameleon by Bryston Riches.