The politics of an unstable sense of self: on being a slightly mad queer

By Hattie Porter

Some days I don’t recognise myself in the mirror. The longer I look, the more I see a stranger staring back at me with an expression I can’t understand. Some days I don’t recognise any part of me, even my mind, like I’m a tourist in my own skin and I feel homesick. 

I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at the age of eighteen; which was around the same time I came out as gay, to myself at least. Both of these experiences involved a lot of questioning and uncertainty about who I was and who I may become. I hadn’t yet found a language that made sense to me. I was afraid and I thought I was broken. 

One of the core diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder, and my personal least favourite, is “a markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self (DSM-5). Or as the ICD-10 describes “the patient’s own self-image, aims, and internal preferences are often unclear or disturbed”. These words feel sharp. The language that taught me I was disturbed for being who I was, echoes to tell me I am now disturbed for not knowing who I am. 

Is it that I don’t know who I am, or is it that I’m not who they want me to be? 

Research around sexual orientation and borderline personality disorder identifies a far greater prevalence of lesbian, gay and bisexual people given this diagnosis. Unfortunately, this research is not only extremely limited but highly offensive through convoluted attempts to depict this correlation as further evidence of our unstable personalities; both pathologising homosexuality and neglecting to consider the impact homophobia has on people. That speaks volumes in itself. 

I want to know how you develop a stable sense of self. What a stable identity would look like? Can anyone’s sense of self be truly stable when our identities move at the same pace we do? These questions are too big to have answers that fit on paper. But what I do know, is that we can never begin to understand the experience of self, stable or otherwise, without considering the politics of identity. 

Our identities carry weight. They are shaped by our experiences of stigma and discrimination, and the ways we have to survive that. They are shaped by the way we’ve been moulded to be. But we don’t all fit into that mould; we carry the pain of trying. We carry the pain of living in a climate where our identities are often socially sanctioned, denied and weaponised. And that is instability. 

As a child, the only resources I had to learn about queernesswere the heavy words carved into the toilet doors and the language of playground bullying. That’s how I learnt being gay was synonymous with being flawed. That’s how I learntto hide this part of me in complex folds of origami, bury it deep inside and seal it with my shame. That’s how I learnt tosurvive. And it came with a price. 

My unstable sense of self is this unravelling. It is me unpicking the stitches of the clothes I never grew into, working out what parts are me, and what parts are the costumeI created to protect myself. This is me relearning the language I was taught as a child, and it is hard work. Some days this is messy. Some days everything is a lie. But I am finally learning how to let myself be myself and to love myself for whoever that may be, even if I don’t really know yet. 

I am proud to be queer, but it is not always easy. People are not always kind. I am always ‘other’, and this demands that I navigate the process of coming out and ‘admitting’ to being who I am. This is in itself instability. This is an experience of having to declare to the world that my identity is incongruent with their default assumptions. This is a continuous process of opening yourself up again and again to everyone you meet, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, never sure how you’ll be perceived. And that is instability. 

It is not just my own sense of self that is unstable, it is the world’s sense of me.  

Borderline personality disorder is a diagnosis which carries its own weight of stigma and judgement. For a long time, I thought this meant my personality was disordered; that I am fundamentally broken, beyond any hope of repair. And I thought it was my fault. 

But I am learning that this diagnostic label is part of something much bigger. It cannot be separated from the systems which hurt us and then pathologise us for the wounds it caused. This is not our fault. We are not broken. 

This is not an illness. It is an injury.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Gold, N., & Kyratsous, M. (2017). Self and identity in borderline personality disorder: Agency and mental time travel. Journal of evaluation in clinical practice23(5), 1020–1028.

Reich, D. B., & Zanarini, M. C. (2008). Sexual orientation and relationship choice in borderline personality disorder over ten years of prospective follow-up. Journal of personality disorders22(6), 564-572.

Reuter, T., & Sharp, C. & Kalpakci, A., & Choi, H., & Temple, J. (2015). Sexual Orientation and Borderline Personality Disorder Features in a Community Sample of Adolescents. Journal of personality disorders, 30, 1-14. 

World Health Organization. (1992). The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization.