One of the best ways to tell whether someone has borderline personality disorder (BPD) or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is to look at the way they express emotions. Depending upon which subtype they are (vulnerable vs. invulnerable), narcissists have shallow or limited emotions. People with BPD, on the other hand, are far too emotional. In fact, most of the borderline personality disorder criteria have to do with problems people with BPD have regulating their emotions. In this blog post, I'll look at BPD; the next, we'll explore the shallow emotions of those with NPD.
Just like people with diabetes have a problem regulating their blood sugar and must test it several times a day, people with BPD find it difficult to be emotionally consistent. This is why you're continually walking on eggshells, never knowing what to expect when you walk in the door.
Individuals with BPD feel the same emotions that we all do. The difference is that whether they're good or bad feelings, they're off the charts. "People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90 percent of their body," says Marsha M. Linehan, Ph.D., founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. "Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement."
Of the nine criteria for BPD, four of them deal directly with emotions. They are:
Intense and quickly changing mood swings, irritability or anxiety. Most people can take steps to feel better when they feel bad. And they can control, to some extent, how they express their moods. But people with BPD find this difficult or impossible. Anxiety and irritability are part of the everyday landscape.
Chronic feelings of emptiness: BPs experience chronic feelings of emptiness, which is tied into their lack of identity. A borderline woman says: "I feel empty inside, so I try to keep busy all the time. I throw parties, get into new relationships, smoke, drink, change jobs, or go to a movie. But nothing fills the void." A man says, "My former partner consistently makes comments of feeling empty and worthless, even though she has many people in her life and a very successful business. She received cards in the mail often from friends. But she still felt this pervasive feeling of emptiness and sadness."
Inappropriate anger or difficulty controlling anger. "My ex-wife can be as sweet and kind as a saint one moment, rage the next, and then just as abruptly switch back. I can see the changes coming by watching her eyes," says Mark, the ex-husband of a BP.
Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. This is probably the hallmark of BPD. Because of that fear, people with BPD constantly seek affection and reassurance to combat their lack of self-esteem. For example, they may constantly call or text you just to make sure you are still there and care about them.
A woman with a BPD husband says:
"He would physically block entrances and exits so I couldn't leave. When I was gone he would drink himself silly, not go to work, and call me at all hours of the night telling me how much he missed me and needed me. If I wanted to go out with friends, he wanted to come with so he wouldn't be home by himself. He often had dreams in which we would be at a party and I wouldn't talk to him or acknowledge him. If people didn't return his emails or calls within a very short period of time, he would think they didn't want to be his friend anymore, or they were mad at him, or he had done something wrong to upset them."
The difference between the emotions of people with BPD and everyone else can be summed up as follows:
1) Their emotions are more intense. Brain studies show that the "emotional" centers of the brain actually overpower the "logical" centers. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being high, once the emotions of an individual with BPD are at a six and over you can't really reason with them. They may kick or hit walls, slam doors, punch a car, break household items, and even become physically violent.
2) Their emotions are unpredictable, flipping quickly from one to another. You feel lost and confused as to what just happened. A woman says:
"His mood can change in the blink of an eye. Usually, we could be joking about something, having a really great time and even bonding, and then something I said would trigger something in him and he would get upset, then pissy, then angry, then raging. Sometimes it would take a few days for this to build up. But once it started, I could always tell what was going on. It's like feeling a storm front move in.You can feel the change in the atmosphere."
3) One triggered, they take much longer to come down to baseline (a 1-3 on the scale). At the same time, once the emotion is gone, it's gone, and they don't remember feeling differently. They may not understand why you're still mad at them.
4) Because of their lack of impulse control, they act on their emotions before they've had a chance to think through the consequences of their actions. While their actions are intended to help them feel better, in the long run they feel worse. So emotional dysregulation leads to behavioral dysregulation.
A man explained,
"My girlfriend self-medicated with Xanax. She was bulimic after intense emotional feelings. She would eat a whole pint of ice cream and then say she was emotionally eating. She would drink a lot when she was stressed. She was pretty promiscuous sexually before our relationship and she had been sexual with a few other people while she was with her husband."
5) They can hold a grudge forever about something that happened years ago and continually bring up what hurt them as if it happened yesterday.
Next we'll take a look at the two types of narcissists, vulnerable and invulnerable, and contrast the way they experience emotions with those who have BPD.