Could You Have High-Functioning BPD?

The psychology of high-functioning borderline personality disorder.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

Nate Neelson/Unsplash
Source: Nate Neelson/Unsplash

Although in recent years, public awareness of borderline personality disorder (BPD) has increased, many people afflicted with this painful, invisible diagnosis remain misunderstood and misjudged. 

Most information on BPD focuses on its classic symptoms but having high-functioning or "quiet" BPD could mean your suffering remains unseen and missed by most. 

When you have high-functioning BPD, you may not have stereotypical symptoms like anger outbursts or self-harming behaviors. Your BPD tends to only come out in "pockets," such as when you are triggered by certain people or situations. On the surface, you are calm and collected. You may be highly competent at work, and perhaps many look to you for leadership and advice. You may be popular and friendly amongst friends, and appear energetic and optimistic. Behind the screen, however, you suffer from intense loneness, shame, and may be extremely critical of yourself.

Regardless of how much praise you receive, you tend not to recognize your own gifts. Even when others express affection for you, you may not believe you are worthy of love. Relationships feel shallow, and underneath the surface of an apparently normal life, you feel empty on the inside. 

Even when you try to seek help, you may be let down by the system. Professionals or institutions may render you as not "sick enough" to fit into their diagnostic criteria or dismiss your pain just because you don’t show it enough. Unfortunately, these experiences may reinforce the subconscious belief that you are not worthy of help, or even make you feel guilty or ashamed for having reached out. 

The Psychology Behind High-Functioning BPD

High-functioning BPD is a complex issue that involves multiple psychological mechanisms, such as dissociation, splitting, and experiential avoidance. Below, we will discuss some of the psychological dynamics behind the screen of high-functioning BPD. If you suspect you have high-functioning BPD, you may resonate with some of them. 

The Original Split 

High-functioning BPD is the result of trauma—an overwhelmingly painful experience in your life. This trauma may not be visible but comes in the form of chronic emotional abuse or neglect. Due to having dysfunctional or immature parents or siblings, you might have been burdened with too much too soon. There was an early rupture, separation, or abandonment, and your wound remains hidden or unhealed.

No matter what had happened, the pain that you suffered was too enormous for your young psyche to handle. As a result, the only way you could cope was to create a "split," so a part of you was given the task of carrying and containing the unthinkable pain, while the rest of you could go on with life as though things were normal. Without any support or guidance, this was the only way you knew how to survive. 

After the split, the "traumatized part" of you remains frozen in time. This part of you thinks and feels like a frightened child. When triggered, you feel vulnerable, confused, or ashamed, and you tend to blame yourself for everything. You may fall into black-and-white thinking, experience extreme abandonment fears, and feel as though you cannot go on with life. 

The other part of you, in contrast, operates as an over-developed grown-up. Like a brave warrior, this part of you has advanced you into adulthood and thrust you into life with a stoic outlook. When you are operating in this mode, you are productive, charming, effective, and hyper-independent. You see a dog-eat-dog world in which you must stand on your own two feet to survive. 

You may believe that people only want to see the competent, "normal" part of you. When you had dropped into a child-like mode, they did not know how to handle that and left you feeling abandoned and rejected. Eventually, you have learned to show only the competent side of yourself and hide the rest of it. As you do this, however, you pay the hefty price of forgoing spontaneity, intimacy, and creativity

Counter-Dependency  

Having high-functioning BPD may mean you have adopted "counter-dependency" as a strategy to survive in a world in which you find no ally. If your parents were cold, unemotional, and neglectful, you would have learned from an early age that there is no point in reaching out or seeking help. Never in your life had there been anyone you could lean on, as experiences have taught you that entrusting anyone with your heart will only lead to further hurt and disappointment. As a result, you would rather not let your high-functioning facade crumble.

A part of you even fears that as soon as a crack is revealed, a floodgate would open, and you would not be able to recover yourself. In counter-dependency, you become incredibly self-reliant; so much so that it is unthinkable anyone would be there to take care of you and to comfort you. Having to be dependent on anyone makes you feel unsafe and overly exposed. Unfortunately, while it was a temporarily useful strategy at some point in your life, ultimately this pattern only sustains your pain and aloneness in the world.

Emotional and Intimacy Anorexia 

Another core mechanism that drives high-functioning BPD is "emotional anorexia"—in which, consciously or unconsciously, you refuse to internalize nourishment from love and kinship. When others offer you compliments, you immediately dismiss them or change the subject. When someone genuinely loves you, you either do not believe them or walk away. Perhaps on the surface you are friendly and social, but on a closer look, you do not allow anyone to truly get to know you. You may even be attracted only to people who are non-committal.

Your inability to trust people and allow them in may be a shield developed against disappointment. Many people who suffer from BPD are innately sensitive and empathic. From a young age, you were always the one who loved too much, gave too much, and trusted too much. Repeatedly, however, the depth of your feeling was not reciprocated. Having been hurt so many times, you now opt to restrain your passion.

Underneath emotional anorexia might also be the fear that you are "too much" for others, so you would rather be silent and edit yourself than risk overwhelming others with your fire. 

Even though you feel lonely, rather than risk being hurt again, you would rather stay in a state of deprivation. Unfortunately, by being "anorexic" to love and affection, you are neglecting to see the gifts and qualities that others see in you. Even when others are genuinely drawn to you, they are not given a chance to get to know you. Your aloneness then becomes a self-sustaining cycle. 

An Invisible Void

As a child, there was little you could do about your circumstances. Even if your family were abusive to you or your siblings bullied you, you had no escape. The only way to not feel pain was to dissociate.

As you cut off from your painful feelings, you also forgo the ability to feel excitement, love, joy, or other positive feelings. You may also suffer from "derealization" or "depersonalization"—in which, at times, you are dissociated from your own body, as though you were an outsider watching yourself. You may also have resorted to using substances or addictive behaviors as a part of your dissociative strategies.

Eating, alcohol, compulsive behaviors, and repetitive rituals can become addictive because they function to fill an inner void. Despite your heart’s yearning to feel alive again, whenever you try to open, you hit a wall. Ironically, the deep sadness and loneliness that come from such a non-living state can be as painful as, if not more painful than, the original emotional turmoil you were trying to avoid. 

Not Waving but Drowning

The predicament of someone with high-functioning BPD can be summed up in a poem by British poet Stevie Smith called "Not Waving but Drowning": 

Nobody heard him, the dead man,  

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought  

And not waving but drowning.

As it is poignantly put by this poem, you may be drowning in sorrow, but when others see your arm thrashing above water, they think you are "just waving." 

Behind the scenes, you may suffer from social anxiety, uncontrollable rage at yourself or others, or chronic depression. These symptoms erupt when you are on your own or when you put your guard down. They are, in essence, what your inner child is going through. 

Behind high-functioning BPD is a constant fight within your psyche between the two parts of yourself. You have dislodged the part of you that is vulnerable, hurt, and angry to the basement of your psyche and pretended that it was never there. Because of this split, things become furthermore polarized. Your "inner BPD" is forced to hold all the wounds, sorrow, and rage, while the tough facade remains rigidly held in place.

Just like a house that has festered, no one sees what has been slowly crumbling until the pillars break and the ceiling falls. Until the day you collapse in a crisis, most people do not see your vulnerability and how much it takes for you to put on a stoic outlook.  

The first step to healing is learning to trust yourself. You must start believing that unlike the helpless child you once were, you are now capable of much more. You now have the ability to seek resources, protect, and support yourself. 

See if you can slow down, soften your heart, and hear from the part of you that you have shoved into the shadow. At first, facing your true vulnerability may be a daunting idea, but this is an essential first step to integration. 

The part of you that has been split off—your "splinter personality"—is waiting to be remembered and re-accepted into your inner family. Like a hungry child, they sometimes cry, sometimes yell, and sometimes protest to get your attention. You may resent and reject your own vulnerability and wish it would just go away, but that would only perpetuate an unhealthy, dead-end cycle. Imagine that there is a weeping child in you; rather than condemning them for being needy and intense, you can understand and comfort them. 

Your main task in life is not to repeat what has once been done to you—the cruelty, misunderstanding, and neglect—but to become a better parent, friend, and companion to yourself. Once you have adopted a befriending stance, these crying demons will be transformed. Instead of erupting as depression and rage, they are now friendly messengers from your psyche, signaling you to slow down when you need to rest, reminding you to soften when you want to wall up, allowing you to be spontaneous when your soul wants to be expressive. At the end of this alchemical process, you would have regained your ability to love, to soften, to connect with others, and to feel alive. 

Healing from high-functioning BPD, while not easy, is entirely possible. 

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