As one of the Cluster-B disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is often mentioned alongside sociopathy and narcissism. While some of the features are similar (cycling between idealization and devaluation, unstable/intense relationships), there are also many differences.
The DSM lists some pretty clear diagnostic criteria for BPD. In this article, I'm going to share some lesser-mentioned (but common) themes I've encountered while researching my new book.
I want to be clear the following are signs of untreated BPD. Plenty of people with BPD seek therapy and DBT, which can make significant improvements in their recovery (more on that later).
In friendships and relationships (and even strangers), people with BPD often jump quickly into sharing their life story: traumas, abusive exes, mentally ill parents, etc. Their loves ones start to feel more like therapists than partners. While it's important to be vulnerable and honest, it's also a good idea to be on the lookout for "too much too soon".
People with BPD have a habit of upgrading trivial situations to "abuse" or "crisis", when it is simply not in line with reality. This can quickly become exhausting to even the most patient loved one, who often begin to experience "crisis fatigue". Whenever one crisis is resolved, another pops up a week later.
People with codependent or rescuing qualities may feel happy to help at first, only to find that it is never enough. Constantly soothing someone else's emotions and offering comfort is not a healthy friendship or relationship.
3. Victimhood / Sympathy
Like NPD, people with BPD tend to carry a strong victim mentality, making it hard to discern between reality and fiction. They may think others are "screaming" at them, when the person is simply disagreeing with them.
For example, their boss might make a criticism about a project they're working on. But throughout the day, as they re-tell the story to their friends, it slowly transforms into "my abusive slave-driver boss yelled at me that I'm worthless and pathetic!" People with BPD may also feel deeply uncomfortable or jealous when others receive sympathy. This can lead to fabricating illnesses and manufacturing crisis situations when you're at a time of need.
4. Obsession & Lack of Boundaries
Lacking a stable identity of their own, people with BPD tend to become obsessed with new things (people, jobs, clothes, etc). In the BPD world, there is a concept known as "favorite person", which is the person they latch onto for validation and identity. They tend to obsess over this person, treating them like royalty, but also frantically analyzing their every move ("why haven't they texted me back in an hour?").
When a person with BPD latches onto you, there is a low barrier to entry, which can seem quite flattering to a person who fears rejection. You don't need to go through the usual awkward / uncomfortable stages of dating! They're just instantly obsessed with you. They can quickly become inappropriate with people they just met, including behavior like flirting, seducing, touching, sobbing, and ranting.
Similar to NPD, the sky-high idealization usually ends with devaluation. The core problem is that they're viewing external things as the solution to their internal emptiness / unhappiness. Even if they get everything they ever wanted (the perfect partner, best job, etc) it will never be enough. They still feel empty, because the problem is internal (although their disorder relentlessly convinces them the problem is external).
So they "split" on the object of their idealization, suddenly vilifying something they used to love. In the face of feeling shame or rejection, they tend to lash out and turn you into the "bad one", so they can avoid feeling the internal discomfort. This can often involve false accusations. This can be very confusing coming from someone who tells you how empathetic and romantic they are.
While narcissists primarily want praise and adoration, people with BPD tend to be more drawn to sympathetic and romantic attention. They are often dreaming of a non-existing "knight in shining armor" -- the perfect partner who will save them from the tragedy of their life. They may even fantasize about situations where they are in danger so someone else could help them. Unfortunately, this constant quest for rescuing attracts rescuers, who have issues of their own. In the end, the rescuer inevitably becomes the "villain", and the cycle repeats itself ad nauseam.
In order to get out of this cycle, participants must be willing to explore the role they are playing and stop playing it. People with BPD need to stop searching externally for someone to save them and manage their emotions. Loved ones need to stop seeking false self worth from managing someone else's emotions.
Partners and friends caught up in these dynamics tend to get stuck because the person with BPD seems so sensitive and helpless. But being sensitive and helpless does not excuse abusive behavior. It is important that we grow and learn as human beings, to improve ourselves and soothe our own emotions (rather than relying on someone else to do it for us).
In my research, I've talked to many people with BPD and their partners. More than anything, they just want to understand how to get better. DBT and trauma therapy are the evidence-proven ways to get better. The people I've spoken with have seen great progress using mindfulness to focus on their body sensations (emptiness) rather than talking through more stories. The story tends to reinforce and distract from the actual truth in the body.
Every time I share this quote it bothers people, but I still think it's really important: "The story as to why you feel what you feel is not important. When you get into explanations, stories, reasons or justifications of 'why', then you are splitting off from the experience itself. The story comes after the experience and it is a justification and a distraction. You cannot think your way out of the False Core-False Self because it is doing the thinking. Your mind is driven by it" (Stephen Wolinsky, PhD).
I want to be clear that telling your story after trauma and abuse can be very important and therapeutic. In doing this work, you are not in any way pretending that the story wasn’t real or lessening its impact. We are simply trying to explore why the mind latched so hard onto this particular story, and what it is trying to protect us from. By keeping you in analytical mind/story-telling mode, you are being kept out of your body. This is where truth, darkness, and eventually freedom can be found.
Whether you're suffering from these disorders, codependency, C-PTSD, Cluster-B relationships, avoidant behavior, or something else entirely, my goal with this new book is the same: to transform your body from a place of pain and numbness, to a source of light and happiness.
I've written a new book about long-term healing. Whole Again is now published! If you would like to be notified about future books, you can enter your email address below. This is not a mailing list. Just a one-time notification:
5 Signs of Borderline Personality Disorder
While narcissists primarily want praise and adoration, people with BPD tend to be more drawn to sympathetic and romantic attention
Article Author: Peace