Video Library and Short Essays

For Family and Romantic Partners

When a loved-one has traits of Borderline Personality

Monday, December 13, 2010

Do people with Borderline Personality Disorder lack of Empathy?

To show empathy is to identify with another person’s feelings.  Empathy is a sophisticated human response.

It begins with awareness of another person's feelings. It would be easier to be aware of other people's emotions if they would simply tell us how they felt. But since most people do not, we must resort to asking questions, reading between the lines, guessing, and trying to interpret non-verbal cues. Emotionally expressive people are easiest to read because their eyes and faces are constantly letting us know how they are feeling.

Once we are aware of another persons feelings, we briefly imagine ourselves in their place - feel what they feel - and then respond to them in ways that would comfort us. This requires great deal of emotional maturity.

When Do Our Empathy Skills Fail

Having empathy isn't so easy when we are in a distraught emotional state ourselves. It can be hard to give when we are needy. We have all been there at times. Showing empathy isn't so easy when the person we are trying to comfort is having an experience we can't relate to - either in terms of noticing it or it terms of how to respond to it. We have all found ourselves in this situation at times.

A Person With BPD Fails for the Same Reasons as We Do

Having empathy isn't so easy when one is in a distraught emotional state. Keep in mind that BPD sufferers are often flooded with conflicted and painful emotions. During times of dysregulation, an emotional response that is more intense than normal, Borderline Personality sufferers can be so overwhelmed with emotion that makes them, at worst, incapable fo normal functioning , and at best, internally focused, self centered and self absorbed.

Often a person with BPD doesn’t have emotional energy to spare to consider the emotions of others. 

Showing empathy isn't so easy when it's an experience we can't relate to.  People suffering from BPD have a problem with poor emotional vocabularies, meaning they find it hard to label and understand - their own feelings - let alone understand others. This inability to understand or accept their own feelings leads to feelings of confusion, shame and self hatred, one of the defining traits of a BPD sufferer. Additionally, a person suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder is often not very kind to themselves. They often comfort themselves by dysfunctional means - cutting and self injury are a good examples of dysfunctional soothing.

Even worse, if a pwBPD perceives they are being attacked or criticized by our pain and suffering, or that there is even the possibility of being attacked, their defenses may go into over drive and the attack rather than empathize.

What Can We Do?

Being hurt and defensive doesn't help.

Being the target of someones dysregulation (which can often feel irrational and unjustified) is painful. And while the natural reaction is to become defensive – this takes us further from receiving the empathy we desired or need. This is why independent support is very important to individuals in relationships with people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. 

BPD is a true mental disorder. A person with this disorder often can't be empathetic. We need to recognize this and find comfort elsewhere.

If we see that the person with BPD can't respond appropriately we need to just step away - let it go - find support in another way. Family, friends, and support groups are very important for those in a relationship with a person suffering from this disorder.

Do We Need to be Show Empathy for the Person with BPD?

When we try to understand others behaviors from a logical standpoint, we are judging our loved one based on how we believe they “should” perceive. This focus on “logic” leads to the conclusion that the pwBPD "should" be able to do better. Believing these “should’s” prevents us from full acceptance that our loved one is mentally ill. But, lets face it, it’s hard to comprehend how someone’s emotions can get in the way .

A recent study at Harvard Medical school using brain scanning to analyze how anger is processed, demonstrated that people who were depressed had a decrease in blood flow to critical areas of the brain, reducing their inhibitions and interfering with their ability to consider the consequences of their actions. They experienced what researchers described as a double hit, “A decrease in blood flow to these areas of the brain reduces both their ability to control impulsive acts and their feelings about the consequences of those acts, say punching someone in the mouth. There is both a lack of emotion and a lack of control. A double hit that adds up to inappropriate, even violent rage.”

Someone who suffers from BPD is constantly on the alert for any possible invalidation. Even the slightest criticism or hint of rejection hurts them and drives them into defense and attack mode. They become hyper vigilant to any possible threats (often making mountains out of molehills in the process) as a defensive measure to protect themselves.

Until we can accept this, we won't be able to adjust and make our lives and theirs less chaotic and hurtful.

Authors: Skip and United for Now provides support, education, tools, and perspective to individuals with a loved one affected by Borderline Personality Disorder. BPFamily is a non-profit, co-op of nearly 75,000 volunteer members and alumni formed in 1998. We welcome you to join our free 24 hour on-line support community with its nearly 3 million postings and grow with us as we learn to live better lives in the shadow of this disorder. For more information or to register, please click here.

Write comments
  1. Thanks so much for this post. I am working really hard to understand my sister who has this new diagnosis. I want our relationship to be as healthy as possible.

  2. Very clever way to explain empathy by using empathy.


  3. everything i read about bpd describes my ex girlfriend exactly she needs help but doesnt know it ... its too bad

  4. he article sheds some light on an issue many nons experience, that being, feeling little or no empathy from our pwBPD. One of the biggest keys to consider is the fact that we often make judgements about how someone else should think or should feel, and application of logic. It reminds us how judgements can create problems for us, and how applying a DBT technique like taking a nonjudgemental stance can actually help our well being!

  5. I am so glad to have done a research using my ex-boyfriends description. However, really sad to have found out that his problem relates to everything i have found on the net about this disorder. After a confusing type of relationship I can finnaly understand it all and stop trying to figure it out what exactly went wrong, the blame, the stupid dissagrements, the control over everything, the inconsistancy of his reasons to complain about something I did. Omg, how sad this is. I still love him but is like a weight has been lifted off of my sholders.

  6. I think being with a bpd partner was very frustrating due to the lack of empathy. As the article stated, my logical brain knew this was in intelligent person, capable of many things. I'd seen that empathy inaction from time to time - just not toward me. I realize now, that the little things I did to trigger him did not generate little internal reactions. They generated very large reactions. In my on hurt and defensiveness, I often failed to give empathy as much as I accused my partner of the same. It's a very difficult journey, but every bit of knowledge helps to understand this was less about hurting me than I originally believed.

  7. As a 35 year old male suffering from BPD, I can unequivocally tell you I have empathy. I have a hard time expressing that empathy in a manner that my partner understands. It's like two people talking in two different languages. While she is expressing.. I love you, or I am sad for you, etc. in English (her language), I'm also expressing those exact feelings back to her in, say...French (my language).

    People assume people with BPD are cold, self-absorbed, etc. People with BPD often feel emotions to the extreme which doesn't sound cold to me. The perception of self-absorption can in part be derived from the fact that we speak French and are with partners who speak English. If you are trying to get someone to understand what you are saying/feeling who is speaking a different language, you have to go out of your way sometimes to get it across and accurately translated. I find that seems to come across to the other person as being self-absorbed.

  8. He could never understand why I would cry,in 8 yes I never saw him cry, he'd say the most deplorable hurtful things without batting an eyelid,once he took my daughters Xmas presents on Xmas eve no less,it almost seamed as if my feelings were an annoyance especially the watch things on TV war death etc I would be concerned about children getting hurt,he would usually laugh and say he'd love to be there killing "the enemy" that it would be a great adrenaline rush,he was all about the rush.he could never see anybody else point of view,had no reasoning skills,when he was in a rage is often refer to him as the shark,his whole appearance would change,he'd be darker somehow,his eyes appeared black,no whites to them,if he'd hurt me,he'd look at me like he was looking through glass,oblivious to my pain my tears,even blood was quite unbelievable,astonishing really,then when the mood ended he'd be fine ,maybe I'd get a cursory apology mostly he'd say it was my own fault and here's the kicker,he'd deny anything had happened at all

  9. My ex-girlfriend, whom I had hoped to be with for a long and indefinite future, showed many of these BPD traits, and I just couldn't take it any longer -- the intense passion and expressions of love, followed by cold, sudden, inexplicable and very painful distancing; the passive/aggression of snide, hurtful remarks and contemptuous facial expressions; the sudden outbursts of rage; and through it all, an unwillingness to discuss nay of it beyond casting blame. I'd like to help, but I have no interest in getting lashed again.

    My question is, if a BPD is incapable of expressing empathy and often behaves so cruelly and is incapable of giving, why should someone stay in a relationship with someone like that? The love is one way. In return, there's hostility, tumult, flashes of hate, and great unhappiness on both sides. Isn't the healthy thing to get out, and offer/point them to help if they'll listen?

  10. My wife has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, depression, low dopamine, post traumatic stress and signs of bpd. She also experiences separation anxiety from her two adult daughters. We are both Christians, with myself being the spiritual leader of the family. We have been married for twelve plus years. She has left me two months ago, and is living with her two daughters and their families. The daughters are supportive of her leaving me. I have showed nothing but love and compassion to the entire blended family. I am deeply concerned that I may end up thinking in a unhealthy state. The marriage vows are taken very seriously by me. I keep praying for a union of our marriage. However, if this does not happen then this is on her. I have gotten in depth solid counseling, she has very little counseling. We both have gone to the same counselor, and the counselor has told me what she could, without breaking confidence. I have had years pass by, with her not telling me she loved me. I told her I loved her at least twice a day and said it most of the time with meaning, I would do something constructive for her or the marriage, sometimes she would acknowledge and sometimes not, If she did acknowledge than she would forget it the next day. I got very little praise or affirmation, my love language. Her love language was service, which I tried, but with mixed or poor appreciation. My wife appears to show compassion and empathy to other people, but craps on the one that is closest to her. I have not been perfect in our marriage, but I have not done anything to deserve this kind of treatment either. Life is life, and many times you may not get a fair shake. But, it is important to God that you try to make a marriage work! The time you spend on this earth is nothing at all compared to eternity! So, I am still keeping the door open for my wife to come back. If she does come back, then the Lord must show me the way for boundaries in our marriage. I will tell my wife Merry Christmas tomorrow. Hopefully it will no be the same response that I received on Thanksgiving which was "Thanks!"