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When a loved-one has traits of Borderline Personality

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Importance of Empathy Skills when Supporting a Person with BPD

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Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You effectively place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

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When someone asks what is the most important tool for supporting a loved one with borderline personality disorder, I say "empathy". I typically follow with "and many of us over estimate our own empathy skills".

What is empathy?

It is often confused with sympathy. Empathy it is distinctly different. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You effectively place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Seeing things from another person's perspective isn't simply understanding their point
of view -- it extends to understanding, without disclaimers, why they feel their point of view is just and appropriate and honest.

So, when your child returns from a therapy appointment and proclaims "I really like this one", it's most likely related to the therapist's ability to empathize and communicate it. We will not be able to motivate, coach, lead or redirect anyone without having this knowledge, too.

When Perry Hoffman (Harvard) conducted a study to determine the predictors of BPD patient recovery, the researchers found the #1 predictor to be the presence of a caring and empathetic person in the patient's life. They were surprised with this #1 rating.

It is also interesting that the architects of the DSM 5 proposed that a personality disorder be diagnosed when a person has diminished skills in two of the following -- either "empathy or intimacy" and either "identity or self direction". This raises two practical issues for us. First, our loved one may very well have impaired empathy skills and so we don't want to mirror that back as a way to "teach them a lesson".  Secondly, if we are supporting a BPD child, it is important to remember that BPD traits tend to run in families and we may have had a parent that wasn't very empathetic and in turn, we didn't develop effective empathy skills ourselves. As such, we may have to become very deliberate in developing empathy skills now and seek the advice of others to help us to better "step in the shoes" of our child.

The five levels of empathy proposed by the DSM 5 architects are listed here. Want to know where you stand? Ask someone very close to you - ask your children - don't make a self-assessment.

Helping each other to grow to be more empathetic is one very important way we help each other at

Author: Skip
Video Short: Scott Peck

Scott Peck earned his Masters Degree in Education and Doctorate in Divinity and has worked professionally as an educator, national advertising manager, reporter, photographer, copywriter, & real estate broker.

Write comments
  1. Scott, thank you for this really important message in a very understandable format for me. I know empathy but don't always employ this skill properly. This message has re-enforced my ability to be a more effective listener.

  2. You are right. Learning to distinguish between empathetic listening and enmeshment is the key.

  3. It appears to be a very important tool but so often we lack it. How to work on this tool so I could be empathetic to my loved/one when she talks about her things?

  4. How do I listen with empathy when the person is extremely delusional? Whether she is saying I am her abductor or rapist, or she is the devil or a witch? I have a difficult time being empathetic using words because I feel it's wrong of me to validate her delusions. How do I empathize when she says I am bleaching her and poisoning her because I don't want her to be Japanese and she wants to return to Japan? BTW she is Scottish, French and Irish. is it a bad thing to go along with her delusions?

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