Relationship Troubles Start Early in Borderline Personality

A study shows first impressions falter for those with borderline personality.

Posted Sep 15, 2020

Difficult relationships with others create significant stress for individuals with borderline personality, stress that can continue throughout their adult lives. If you know someone with this personality disorder, then you’re aware of how hard it can be to manage your ordinary interactions with them. You might make a seemingly innocent comment, only to have this individual explode in a torrent of verbal abuse. Eventually, these situations are so painful that you might decide to avoid contact with this person altogether. 

It’s this negativity that can become the central feature of borderline personality disorder (BPD), not just in the long-term but in the first few moments of new relationships. Heidelberg University’s Johanna Hepp and Pascal J. Kieslich (2020) note that the interpersonal dysfunction of people with BPD manifests itself “in a multitude of ways, including poor romantic relationship quality, high levels of loneliness, and social networks that are characterized by low support and high levels of conflict” (p. 1). Indeed, if your negative interactions involving someone with BPD occur in a relationship you can’t easily end, such as with an in-law, boss, or coworker, then you know you’re in for a rough ride when it comes to your own psychological well-being.

Although you might figure that the interpersonal problems of people with BPD don’t emerge until well into a relationship, Hepp and Kieslich propose that the fault lines begin to develop in the earliest moments of contact, or first impressions. People with BPD, the authors maintain, are constantly on the lookout for negative signals from the people they meet. Their negativity in judging others could help account, in part, for “the small and conflictual social networks observed in this population” (p. 2).

Conversely, people with BPD themselves may be judged more negatively by people they first meet. This perceived negativity leads non-BPD individuals to stay away from what they sense can become potential trouble. Unfortunately, by turning away, they only confirm the negative expectations of people with BPD, further compromising the world view of the person with this disorder. 

Recall your own first impression of that coworker or in-law. Something seemed off, and you immediately sensed that this is a person who could create trouble for you. Perhaps it was a lack of eye contact or the expression on the person’s face. You decided that although you will work with this person or attend the same family functions, you won’t go out of your way to be friends.

To create a scenario in which they could study first impressions, the German researchers used what they call the “Thin Slices” paradigm. Participants rate a short excerpt of behavior, either from a photo or a video clip, along a set of personality trait dimensions. In previous research using this method, people with BPD were rated by observers more negatively than healthy controls (HC’s) on a variety of traits, ranging from being less trustworthy, less likable, less agreeable, less extraverted, less conscientious, less open, and even having less “joy.” Other studies have shown that BPD individuals also are more negative in their evaluations of others. However, no previous studies have investigated both aspects of first impressions in the same study.

To investigate how BPD individuals are perceived, the authors recruited an all-female sample of raters consisting of 40 women with BPD, 29 with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), and 37 with no prior psychiatric diagnosis (Healthy Controls; HC’s). The target participants, those whose Thin Slices were rated, consisted of 26 individuals with BPD and 26 without, of whom 46% were male. The average age of participants was approximately 30 years, ranging from 18 to about 50 years old.

To obtain the Thin Slices materials, the research team filmed participants while they briefly named their favorite meal, color, hobby, book, movie, animal, car, and holiday destination, all relatively innocuous subjects. The videos were about 30 seconds long. In a second experimental task, participants played a simulated economics game testing their cooperativeness in the form of willingness to share a monetary reward. This method provided an actual measure of how cooperative people were which could then be compared to how cooperative the raters believed them to be (on the basis of the Thin Slices videos).

To give yourself an idea of what you’d do if you were in this study, ask yourself how you rate people you first meet after only saying your initial hello’s. What snap judgments do you form? What leads you to want to talk to a person at greater length, and what leads you to walk away? You might have some idea of how this works in the virtual world by considering what you do either on dating apps or while scrolling through new requests from people in your social media feed. Whose do you pause on and whose do you delete? According to the German authors, these first impressions will be determined in part by whether you sense that they have BPD. Similarly, when you’re being judged by others, how do you think your own cues come across?

With this background, you should be able to relate now to the findings of the Heidelberg University study. Looking first at how the BPD raters evaluated targets, as predicted, those with BPD were more negative than the HC’s, though no different in their negativity ratings than those with SAD. The BPD raters also were less likely to want to interact with new targets than the HC's, but no different again from the SAD raters. There were no group differences in ratings of the three types of participants for cooperativeness in the economic game simulation.

When it came to ratings of the BPD people vs. the HC targets by raters, those Thin Slices revealed a negative bias toward the participants with BPD, a bias that extended to a negative bias toward lower cooperativeness on the economic game. HC’s also rated themselves as less similar to the BPD targets than they did to the other categories of targets.

Finally, taking advantage of the dual nature of the study’s design in which people served both as targets and raters, the authors examined how BPD raters would evaluate BPD targets compared to the other targets. As it turned out, BPD raters didn’t distinguish at all among any of the target groups, rating all of them equally negatively. This finding emerged on measures of trustworthiness, approach, cooperativeness, and similarity. No matter what the rating category, BPD raters came down equally harshly on all targets they evaluated.

From the standpoint of interpersonal attraction theories, the findings regarding the similarity effect were particularly interesting. Ordinarily, people tend to perceive positively the people they regard as similar to themselves. This generality, though, did not apply to the BPD individuals who showed no such similarity bias. As the authors concluded, “the lack of perceived similarity that BPD raters indicated reflects the identity disturbance that is part of the BPD syndrome… It is conceivable that BPD raters did not have the impression that someone else is “like them,” because it was not clear to them what they themselves are like” (p. 10).

As the authors predicted, then, people with BPD tend to approach, and be approached in terms of, negative first impressions. Unfortunately, there is probably little they can do to appear more cooperative or trustworthy, but the situation isn't hopeless. By tending to the way they perceive others, the impressions people with BPD make could potentially be improved.

Further, as the authors suggest, by tuning into the qualities they do share with others, such as interests or preferences, the more positively they might approach the new people they meet. Returning to the example of your in-law or co-worker, you may not have the most favorable impression of that person, but if that individual reaches out to try to connect with you in terms of finding some type of similarity, some tentative basis for a relationship could be made.

To sum up, the complex factors that create interpersonal difficulties for people with BPD may not respond to one simple fix. However, some of those problems may be headed off by starting with the moment in which first impressions are formed and building up from there.

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Hepp, J., Kieslich, P. J., Schmitz, M., Schmahl, C., & Niedtfeld, I. (2020). Negativity on two sides: Individuals with borderline personality disorder form negative first impressions of others and are perceived negatively by them. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. doi: 10.1037/per0000412