What is borderline personality disorder?
People with borderline personality disorder deal with instability in almost every area of their lives—their relationships, their identity, and their actions. They have a hard time holding back their emotions, which means glowing positivity can quickly turn to outrage. BPD can be confused with bipolar disorder, which affects mood rather than personality, says Jill Weber, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Building Self-Esteem 5 Steps: How To Feel “Good Enough” About Yourself. “Personality is a habitual way of being in the world, the way you interact with people in life most of the time,” she says. “It’s disordered because it’s self-defeating and constantly causing problems.”
They have love-hate relationships
One telltale sign of borderline personality disorder is a pattern of idealizing and then devaluing other people. For instance, a person with BPD might gush about how perfect another person is when they first meet. But as soon as the other person says one wrong thing or a conflict comes up, the feelings will flip, says Ben Michaelis, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. “Let’s say that person says something rude or they have a bad date together. Suddenly that person would think he’s evil, intolerable, draws you in only to abuse you,” he says. “They’re really extreme attributes.”
They always have the same relationship problems
That flip between idealizing and devaluing can make it tough to maintain a relationship. People with BPD will probably experience a pattern develop in their love lives as they deal with the rollercoaster of emotions. “It’s not just an isolated incident with one person,” says Dr. Michaelis. “The same types of relationships over and over again tend to be common.”
It’s hard to control anger
When most people get in a fight with a loved one, they’ll know in the back of their minds not to say things overly hurtful. But people with borderline personality disorder are too focused on their emotions to worry about sparing the other person’s feelings. Their fights will turn to screaming, and they aren’t afraid to argue in public. “The anger is so intense that people can’t think about ‘I can be angry and also want to preserve the relationship at the same time,’” says Dr. Weber. “All they can think about is the anger.”
They feel guilty after an outburst
After the heat of the moment has passed, people with BPD are able to process what happened. They might experience guilt or shame after realizing their actions weren’t proportionate to the situation, or embarrassed if they’re afraid the other person will think they’re crazy. “The next day they feel awful and know it made things worse, but in the moment they couldn’t control their emotions enough not to participate in that behavior,” says Dr. Weber. “They think it through and recognize it was an overreaction.”
They’re afraid of abandonment
People with borderline personality disorder are often convinced that people are abandoning them, even if there’s no evidence that person will be gone for good. For instance, if a partner is going on a trip, a person with BPD might say they’ll never see each other again, says Dr. Michaelis. But that fear can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Dr. Weber. “They’re overbearing or their needs become too much or their emotions become too much, and the person leaves,” she says. “Then there’s a void and desperate feeling when they’re abandoned.”
“Instability tends to go with impulsive behaviors that aren’t fully thought through,” says Dr. Michaelis. Someone with borderline personality disorder might be inclined to abuse drugs and alcohol, spend too much money, or get too involved with strangers, he says.
They have out-of-body experiences
Between 40 and 76 percent of people with BPD report that they’ve been sexually abused as children, says Dr. Michaelis. Often people train themselves to disassociate with the moment during trauma, and those habits could carry on through adulthood, which could explain why people with BPD might have out-of-body experiences, says Dr. Weber. “A person vacates their body. They say ‘I’m here but I’m not here,’” she says. “That’s a way to cope with something horrendous when it’s happening … but it can come up when it’s not good to come up, and when you need to be present.”
They have love-hate feelings about themselves
Tumultuous emotions aren’t just limited to relationships with other people—a person with BPD will go through extremes in self-image too, says Dr. Michaelis. They might think they’re amazing one moment, then suddenly switch to self-loathing. “Most people, as you get older and become healthier, tend to think of yourself in generally more balanced terms that no one is perfect, but you have positive self-image,” says Dr. Michaelis. “People with borderline personality disorder have a very unstable sense of self.”
Those extreme feelings about the self to veer more on the side of negativity, says Dr. Weber. Between the self-hatred and anger toward others that people with BPD contain, might self-injure as a way to release that emotion. “They want to rage at somebody but know they can’t. They can’t take it anymore so they hurt themselves,” says Dr. Weber. “Sometimes it’s a way to force the anger to leave, to force the self to focus on something else.” Learning the skills to manage those emotions can prevent self-harm. If you or someone you know shows signs of BPD, seek dialectical behavioral therapy, which helps people cope with strong emotions and react less intensely.
- Jill Weber, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Building Self-Esteem 5 Steps: How To Feel “Good Enough” About Yourself
- Ben Michaelis, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy