Borderline Personality Disorder in ‘Ingrid Goes West’

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In Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), a 20-something year old woman, becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer, to the point of stalking and befriending her. Ingrid is portrayed as mentally unstable, and while the film makes no attempt to single out a mental illness by name, it does suggest a reason for her sudden decline: the death of her mother. We don’t know anything about Ingrid’s life beforehand, but she appears to have thrown herself into the obsessive and repetitive world of social media as a coping mechanism. Here, she can obtain fast bursts of dopamine as she lives vicariously through other people’s lives. 

Ingrid’s odd behaviours likely began before we were introduced to her in the film, as it appears to be an intrinsic part of how she functions. It’s also in line with a mental health disorder that isn’t often talked about: borderline personality disorder (BPD). According to the NHS, BPD is a disorder of mood and how you think, feel, and behave in relation to both yourself and other people. The Mayo Clinic lists nine symptoms, only five of which are needed to make a diagnosis. From what we see in Ingrid Goes West, it’s possible to connect Ingrid to the first eight of these:

  1. An intense fear of abandonment 
  2. Unstable intense relationships
  3. Unstable sense of self 
  4. Impulsive and risky behaviour 
  5. Self harm and/or suicidal thoughts, feelings, behaviour
  6. Wide and intense mood swings which can last from hours to days
  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness 
  8. Explosive anger 
  9. A sense of unreality, such as paranoia and/or dissociation when stressed 

Ingrid has an intense fear of abandonment which was exacerbated by her mother’s death. While we know nothing of their relationship, it’s safe to assume that Ingrid feels lost without her, even abandoned. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Ingrid scrolling through her Instagram newsfeed, obsessively double-tapping photos to “like” them. The photos are real-time posts from a wedding currently taking place. “Happy to be sharing this day with all my favourite humans. #blessed,” the bride writes. Ingrid, with tears in her eyes, gets out of her car and crashes the wedding reception. She walks right up to Charlotte (Meredith Hagner), the bride, and pepper sprays her in the face, before saying “thanks for inviting me you fucking cunt.” 

After this incident, Ingrid ends up in a mental hospital which highlights the severity of her mental state and subsequent behaviour. In an apology letter Ingrid writes to Charlotte, we learn that Charlotte was the only person who reached out to Ingrid after her mother died — but she soon disappeared from her life, too, leaving Ingrid feeling hurt, abandoned, and more isolated. Ingrid’s colourful language and abrupt actions at the wedding also meet the explosive anger symptom, which sees people react with inappropriate (in terms of society’s expectations) and intense anger to a situation. 

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Ingrid has an unstable sense of self which often includes changes in self-identity, self-image, goals, and values. Ingrid is an impressionable empty shell with no real identity — she has no friends, interests, or hobbies that stand out. Nothing that makes her feel fulfilled, which is typically what leads to feelings of chronic emptiness. When Ingrid moves to Los Angeles to stalk Taylor, she absorbs the identity of the city and of Taylor herself. She eats at the Grateful Kitchen and orders the same food Taylor does, ends up hating it, but posting a photo of it on her Instagram anyway. She begins dressing similarly to Taylor, going to the same hairdressers, and reading the books she posts about. You get it. 

We know very little about what the real Ingrid likes and dislikes. We only know her through how she rebuilds herself through copying Taylor and her lifestyle. Eventually, we learn that even some of Taylor’s identity isn’t real. Her boyfriend, Ezra (Wyatt Russell) reveals to Ingrid that Taylor’s favourite book, for example, is actually his favourite book and Taylor has never read it. But Ingrid has, because Taylor said she was “obsessed” with it. Taylor is just trying to seem interesting, stay relevant, and get sponsorships — but for Ingrid, she is trying to latch onto something — or someone — in order to create a version of herself that gives herself purpose and makes her feel connected to others so she actually feels like living. Ingrid’s life goal is to fill up the emptiness she feels with anything that will fit, whether it’s good for her or not. 

Ingrid also takes part in tons of impulsive behaviour. This is often described as something that could be damaging, such as gambling, reckless driving, unsafe sex, drug abuse, sabotaging success, and more. Ingrid moves to Los Angeles on a whim after leaving the mental hospital and wanting to be closer to Taylor. This is an impulsive and risky behaviour, though fortunately this doesn’t affect Ingrid financially (at first), as her mother left her a large inheritance. While there, she kidnaps Taylor’s dog as a way to meet and befriend her. She drives recklessly, almost getting into a car accident. She’s easily influenced by others, as she does drugs with Taylor (seemingly a one-off), and is pressured to stay out longer, thus breaking her promise to Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), her landlord, to return his truck back on time. This causes him to miss a table read for his screenplay. 

When Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) looks through Ingrid’s phone one night, he finds incriminating evidence that reveals Ingrid’s obsession with his sister and he blackmails her. With everything to lose, this causes Ingrid to form an impulsive and risky plan. She pays a stranger to punch her in the face, resulting in a black eye, and tells Dan that Nicky did it. Instead of calling the police, Ingrid convinces Dan to blackmail Nicky back by kidnapping and terrorising him. The plan backfires and Nicky tells Taylor everything, which causes her to shut Ingrid out of her life. This drives Ingrid to buy the house next door to Taylor, which Taylor wanted to buy in order to start a new business venture. Ingrid uses the last of her inheritance for this desperate act, triggered again by her fear of abandonment, which eventually leaves her without power and struggling to buy food. A lot of Ingrid’s behaviours were never harmful to others — she only wanted to be accepted. Ingrid just happens to have more desperation and audacity than the average person. 

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Due to her erratic behaviour and unstable sense of self, Ingrid has intense and unstable relationships with others. This is seen in what transpired with Charlotte at the start of the film, but also through her relationships with Dan and Taylor. It’s unclear whether or not Ingrid and Charlotte were good friends, or whether Ingrid misinpretered a kind gesture for more, but either way, Ingrid doesn’t know how to regulate her emotions (wide mood swings) in order to maintain healthy and stable relationships with others. She latches onto people as an attempt to fulfill the emptiness she feels, but her frantic attempts to make them stick around often result in pushing them away. 

Ingrid inserted herself in Taylor’s life in a way that became old news to Taylor over time. As an influencer, Taylor goes wherever the party takes her — to who or whatever is most popular at the given time, including friends and opportunities that don’t include Ingrid. Ingrid notices these changes and seess them as a form of rejection, and engages in passive aggressive  comments and other desperate behaviour in an attempt to keep Taylor close to her. People with BPD are reactive to situations and sensitive to other people’s tones and behaviours, hence the wide mood swings. Ingrid was happy but suddenly became irritable when Taylor ditched their plans for something better — to meet a famous influencer. This would make anyone feel upset, but Ingrid becomes sad and angry and shuts down. She tries to pretend that everything is fine, but the fact that it’s not is something Ingrid cannot hide. 

Ingrid doesn’t believe she’s good enough to be friends with someone on her own merit. She lies about who she is and what her interests are in order to befriend someone like Taylor, because she has an unhealthy desire to be liked and accepted. By never letting anyone get to know the real her, Ingrid is destined to isolate herself even further. None of her friendships are based on genuine honesty. For Ingrid, Taylor is her only friend, but Taylor has multiple friendships, so it was always hard for Ingrid to share attention, should she feel left out. All the while, Ingrid ignored Dan’s genuine attempts at friendship, and even romance, because she was too focused on pleasing Taylor. She even used Dan to further her friendship with Taylor, and didn’t keep her promises to him — not returning his truck on time, keeping a dog in her flat when he said no pets. 

Suicidal behaviour is the last BPD symptom that Ingrid engages with. At the end of the film, she feels deeply rejected and abandoned due to the breakdown of her relationship with Taylor and the ways she hurt Dan. She doesn’t have anyone else to support her in times like this, reinforcing how alone and empty she feels. She records herself overdosing, even saying what’s the point of living if you have no one to share life with. She publishes the video on her Instagram account and her life is saved because Dan saw it and called an ambulance. Suicidal behaviour is common in BPD because of the weight of the symptoms — for example, the intense and overwhelming mood swings, chronic emptiness, depression, and more are exhausting and absolute hell to endure. Ingrid felt worthless and alone in the world, but when she wakes up, she realises that this isn’t the case. Dan is there and she knows he genuinely cares for her, despite her previous outlandish behaviour, which usually drives people away completely. She also sees that her video went viral and she has followers of her own now. 

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The implication that Ingrid will be fine now she has fans is a murky message for the film’s ending, and while it could definitely be strengthened, it can also be viewed differently and more in-line with BPD. Imagine a sequel where being Instagram famous allows Ingrid to find stability in an unlikely place. She could start posting photos of what she thinks people want to see, but realise she needs to figure out what her own interests are and be herself. To be accepted for who she really is and draw in the right people will be huge for Ingrid. It might be chaos and  trigger BPD symptoms at first, but eventually she confronts the trauma of losing her mother and goes on to rebuild her life, with Dan supporting her along the way. She will develop meaningful relationships and find a true sense of purpose and identity, which being an Instagram influencer, no matter how silly, could give to her, providing she sets sensible boundaries. Ingrid might even realise that what she craved for so long isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and isn’t actually what she needed. 

Ingrid Goes West plays Ingrid’s mental instability for laughs, suggesting it’s nothing more than quirky and eccentric behaviour, which many people find inappropriate. However, the film is a black comedy and I think people are offended by the (mis)handling of mental illness because they’re not used to seeing such a disorder portrayed on-screen. People are used to anxiety and depression, which are easier to understand, but the film wasn’t aiming for that. Even grief alone can make people do weird things. BPD is considered a serious mental health disorder and, although it’s the most common personality disorder, it’s highly stigmatised and heavily misunderstood — even by mental health professionals, who have been known to use the diagnosis against their own patients. Depicting BPD in cinema creates a lot of complex characters, some of whom are unlikeable, but they’re also just acting like human beings. 

Ingrid isn’t particularly nice, but her emotions and behaviours are simply heightened versions of what we consider “normal” responses to stimuli. It’s much easier to sympathise with her once you gain a deeper understanding of BPD, which is often rooted in some form of trauma and/or emotional neglect. Ingrid doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t know why she feels empty inside or how to meet her own needs effectively. She doesn’t know how to control her intense, overwhelming, and ever-changing emotions. She just wants someone to help her, and unfortunately, she kept choosing the wrong people. But now she has Dan, and supporting someone goes a long way when aiming for stability. 

by Toni Stanger

Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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