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Borderline Personality Disorder

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Borderline personality disorder is a condition characterized by instability and impulsivity. The term originates from being on the “border” of psychosis—those with the condition seem to have a different sense of reality.

Instability manifests in relationships, emotion, and self-concept. Terrified of abandonment, people with BPD cling to those close to them, crave reassurance and validation, and are upset by seemingly small changes. Turbulence in emotion and self-concept can involve angry outbursts, severe mood swings, hopelessness, paranoia, self-harm, and suicidality; 10 percent of those with the condition die by suicide.

BPD often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. It affects around 1.6 percent of U.S. adults, according to the NIMH, although other estimates place the prevalence closer to 6 percent.

Committing to treatment with patience and consistency can help individuals and their loved ones navigate the condition. Various forms of therapy, particularly dialectical behavior therapy, and medications to manage symptoms can help those with BPD lead a fulfilling life.

For more, see the Diagnosis Dictionary.

Signs and Symptoms

To be diagnosed with BPD, a person would have at least five of the following symptoms, as determined by a mental health professional per the DSM-5.

  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
  • A pattern of unstable and intense relationships characterized by alternat­ing between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
  • Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
  • Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, or binge eating).
  • Recurrent suicidal behavior or threats, or self-harming behavior.
  • Instability of mood (dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety).
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness.
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.
  • Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
How can I tell if someone has borderline personality disorder?

Whether in moods or relationships, instability is a hallmark of BPD. The person may have wide mood swings, switching from effusive praise and love to intense criticism and blame. In moments of anger, they may do things like scream at you in public, hit you, or harm themselves—things that other people wouldn’t do in the same situation. A fear of abandonment may manifest as constant, clinginess or manipulating a relationship you have with someone else. If the person demonstrates these behaviors as a pattern, they may have BPD.

Here are a few more clues to look for in the person’s words, emotions, and behaviors that can identify borderline personality disorder.

Does BPD appear differently in women and men?

Yes, BPD seems to manifest differently in women and men. With regard to impulsive behavior, men tend to demonstrate substance use, antisocial behavior, and intermittent explosive disorder while women more often have eating disorders. With regard to self-harm, men may engage in more varied forms including bruising, head-banging and biting in addition to cutting.

With regard to treatment, women more often seek out therapy and medication while men more often seek substance use treatment. Both men and women enter treatment with equal levels of emotional distress.

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Causes and Risk Factors

The roots of borderline personality disorder still aren’t fully understood. As is the case for many mental health conditions, it seems to be caused by complex interactions between one’s biology and environment.

The disorder has a strong genetic component, because the condition is five times more common in people whose first-degree relatives have BPD, according to the DSM-5. The balance of activity in key brain regions—namely the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala—may be shifted in people with BPD. Life circumstances also play an important role, as BPD is more common in those who experienced childhood adversity, such as abuse or abandonment.

Is borderline personality disorder more common in women?

Past research has found that BPD occurs three times more in women than in men. Yet newer research suggests that the rates may actually be comparable. Past discrepancies may be due to the condition presenting differently in men and women, diagnostic bias, and more women seeking treatment. Therefore it’s important to remember that men and women, and people of all races, struggle with BPD.

What brain changes are linked to borderline personality disorder?

The extreme way people with BPD experience the world may reflect a glitch in brain dynamics. Typically, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the forebrain responsible for self-control and decision-making, governs the limbic system, an evolutionarily ancient set of brain regions that generate primal emotions such as fear, centered in the amygdala. But people with BPD seem to have less input from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. This leads to an overactive amygdala—perceiving threat and rejection where others would not.

Treatment and Support
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Historically borderline was thought to be nearly impossible to treat. But today experts recognize that the condition is treatable with commitment to therapy, greatly improving the lives of those with borderline.

The first-line treatment for BPD is dialectical behavior therapy, which teaches patients to tolerate emotional uncertainty and distress along with coping skills to regulate their emotions and build stable relationships.

Other forms of therapy can be effective as well. Cognitive behavior therapy targets distorted patterns of thought. Transference-focused psychotherapy helps patients work through the emotional challenges that trigger borderline behavior. And mentalization-based treatment helps patients regain curiosity about others’ mental states to leverage another perspective.

In addition to therapy, medications may be prescribed to help address symptoms such as anxiety or depression.

What is dialectical behavior therapy?

The go-to treatment for BPD has long been dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), an intensive program of group skills training on mindfulness, distress tolerance, conflict management, and emotion regulation, supplemented by psychotherapy and phone coaching.

Developed by University of Washington psychologist Marsha Linehan—herself a BPD sufferer—DBT focuses on controlling the behaviors that characterize the disorder. Clients use techniques of mindfulness and distress tolerance to endure painful emotions instead of acting out through cutting, suicide attempts, unsafe sex, substance abuse, or disordered eating.

Can people recover from borderline personality disorder?

Recovery is possible, but it requires long-term treatment; a 10-year study found that 85 percent of those with BPD were in remission by the end of the study. These individuals also showed improved social abilities, although overall they still faced difficulties.

Relationships with People Who Have BPD
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Close friendships, romance, and family bonds are often what people on the borderline crave the most, and they often move in whirlwind style to win over others. But sustaining intimacy is a colossal challenge, as the disorder embodies a poignant paradox: Sufferers yearn for closeness, but their overriding insecurity tends to drive away those most dear. Despite the self-defeating actions they typically deploy, it is not impossible for them to get beyond the histrionics to maintain closeness—and the very stability of a partner often proves curative.

Am I in a relationship with someone who has borderline personality disorder?

Instability, volatility, and drama are central features of relationships with borderline individuals. You may feel fantastic when the person is in good spirits and crushed when they are not. People with borderline respond to fears of abandonment with neediness, which may come across as clingy text messages or stalking behaviors, or they may respond with anger and fury. They may be hypervigilant for real or imagined signs of rejection or abandonment should you, for example, be late, cancel an appointment, or talk to someone they see as competition. A continual sense of distrust may lead to a distorted sense of reality and paranoia.

How can I support a partner with borderline personality disorder?

Even those who recover from BPD are unlikely to ever be low-maintenance partners and friends. Loved ones need to develop skills such as stress management, self-care, and maintaining good boundaries so they can look out for themselves while helping their partner. 

The following tips can help a loved one with BPD and strengthen bonds:

• Avoid discussions about conflicts in your relationship until your partner feels calm and safe.

• Stay curious and ask your loved one what they are feeling.  

• Emphasize that it's okay for both of you to not be perfect.

• People with BPD may threaten suicide or self-harm to keep you close. If you're staying with a partner or a friend only because you're worried he can't survive without you, it's time to seek help. Couples therapy can be a safe environment to express the impact of the person's behavior on your life.

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