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Does Amber Heard Have BPD? Does It Matter?

Compassion and learned skills can turn around a chaotic BPD life.

Key points

  • Borderline personality disorder involves extreme emotion dysregulation, making life difficult for the individual and their loved ones.
  • To be effective, loved ones and therapists need to better understand the sensitivities and struggles of BPD.
  • Compassion and practical help can improve emotion regulation and relationship harmony. Research shows that there is hope for many with BPD.

Many people have heard of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and much of what they have heard is negative. People with this disorder face damaging stigma, partly due to being portrayed in unfair and extreme ways in movies like Fatal Attraction.

BPD is once again in the public eye as Johnny Depp has won his civil suit against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. The final ruling was that she hurt his career by claiming she was a victim of domestic abuse. Much of the testimony against her emphasized her aggression and other extreme behaviors, like allegedly defecating on his bed. Heard admitted to hitting Depp with her hands and objects; Depp claimed that she also severed his finger. Their couples therapist testified that Heard often initiated their fights.

On the other side, Depp wrote Heard gruesome messages in his own blood, used extremely offensive language, and displayed addictive behaviors. It seems they both engaged in coercive and hurtful behaviors—triggering each other.

Some of the many disparaging comments shared online about the case were posted by women with BPD: “I am so ashamed at the fact that Amber Heard has BPD," for example, and “Amber isn't a terrible person because of her BPD, she’s a terrible person WITH BPD.” Depp seems to have triumphed both legally and in the court of public opinion and unfortunately, part of his strategy was to use the BPD label as a socially acceptable way to discredit Heard as a “psycho” wife. I understand the stigma, but don’t buy into it. In reviewing whether BPD can help us understand and help Amber Heard, I am in no way promoting judgment.

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

BPD is a serious condition characterized by chronic and broad dysregulation–unstable emotions and behaviors, self-image concerns, unstable relationships, and difficulties functioning in life. Individuals with BPD struggle with episodes of depression, anxiety, shame, and anger, leading to a range of impulsive behaviors. Because a diagnosis requires a person to meet only 5 of 9 symptom criteria, many who are diagnosed do not engage in physical aggression, even if they often feel angry or say mean things.

It’s unfortunate that a psychologist’s testimony in the Depp trial implied that most BPD people have aggression problems: “One of the common tactics is physically assaulting and then getting harmed themselves and making legal threats," this expert witness stated. Many with BPD suffer quietly, even as others express their suffering by lashing out. A majority have deep empathy for others. Although there is a correlation between BPD and relationship violence—both as perpetrators and victims—studies suggest that the violence is more typically due to antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, which can co-occur with BPD. Of the hundreds of BPD patients I have worked with, few have used dirty tactics such as harmful lies, physical violence, or threatening others.

People with BPD do, however, easily feel invalidated and hurt, and often misinterpret others’ behaviors. A primary sensitivity involves their frantic efforts to avoid abandonment and rejection. These over-reactions to this perceived threat often lead to conflict, as they alternate between avoidance, appeasement, and retaliation. They sometimes use physical aggression, threats, or self-harm to prevent someone from leaving them.

Depp emphasized Heard’s aggression, fears of abandonment, and other insecurities. Their couple's therapist said that when Heard was "triggered" by something Depp did, she considered it a "point of pride" to "initiate" a fight, and "if he was going to leave to deescalate the fight, she would strike him to keep him there." She said that Heard started fights with Depp to "keep him with her because abandonment and having him leave was her worst nightmare." These feelings and behaviors are common in BPD.

How to Diagnose Borderline Personality Disorder

In my work helping people with BPD, I ensure that the diagnosis is accurate, useful, and compassionate. In general, diagnoses can be unreliable. Going to a second mental health professional, for example, fails to confirm a diagnosis about half of the time, usually because inadequate methods are used by one or the other professionals.

The gold standard for diagnosis is to include a validated semi-structured interview rather than relying on the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) or other self-report questionnaires, which can contribute to overdiagnosis.

Diagnoses are even less reliable when a person underreports their symptoms to avoid stigma or distorts the truth to help them in a potential court case. Depp’s expert-witness psychologist said the evidence of Heard's behavior “was consistent with" BPD, but did not say that Heard had BPD, even though many listeners understandably drew that conclusion.

We Should Have Compassion and Hope for BPD

We don’t know enough to definitively conclude that Amber Heard has BPD, but let’s examine what it would mean if she did: Although BPD is distressing to the people around them, it’s even more distressing to the people living with it. They often hate themselves more than others dislike them for their symptoms. They sometimes resort to hurtful behaviors when emotions take over and they lack the skills to influence others with tactful assertiveness and collaboration. Courtroom evidence suggested that Heard’s deep insecurities fueled her retaliations.

No one chooses to have BPD. Many with BPD developed their insecurities and relationship problems from childhood traumas, including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is very common among this cohort. As a child, Heard was physically abused and saw her mother get abused. Such experiences can combine with biological vulnerabilities to create severe dysregulation problems.

Criticizing BPD people for being intentionally difficult is unhelpful because the problem is automatic emotion-driven behaviors. Because they are sensitive to feeling invalidated, it's crucial to validate that their struggles “make sense” and then set limits and help them change. This balanced approach can build collaboration. Assume they have been trying the best they can—again, their failures to regulate have real causes—while also asking them to use therapy to learn skills and resolve their traumas. Successful treatments including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Schema Therapy, and Mentalization Therapy. Despite what you may have heard, there is hope for those with BPD.

References

Newhill, C., Eack, S., & Mulvey E. 2009). Violent behavior in borderline personality. Journal of Persality Disorders, 23(6), 541-554.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20001173/

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