Do people with Borderline Personality disorder have empathy? Depending on who you ask you will get answers ranging between “super empath” and “low grade sociopath”. So which is correct?
What is Empathy? Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being.
Yesterday I posted an ‘Empathy’ test. For that experiment researchers began with 30 individuals diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and 25 Healthy Control individuals that they put through a personality and mood assessment, and then administered the test.
The results of this experiment indicated that those with Borderline Personality Disorder performed significantly better than the control group. It did note that depression and mood severity at the time of the test partially mediated the status of the BPD test scores though.
In conclusion, “This study suggests that, when not under elevated emotional stress, individuals with BPD have an enhanced ability to discriminate mental states based on only the eye region of the face, particularly for “neutral” states. This experimental evidence is consistent with the “paradoxical” theory of the appraisal of social communication in BPD. That is, it seems that BPD is characterized by both unstable interpersonal relationships and enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others.” [source]
However, having an enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others may be a basis for social impairment. I’ve talked before about Hypersensitivity in Borderline Personality Disorder. I am often extremely aware of the moods, emotions, and mental states of those around me. In fact, I have been told I can pick up on someone else’s mood and thoughts before they really know what they’re feeling themselves. My hypersensitivity makes me very perceptive. There are even experts that have deemed this quality “Borderline empathy”. The problem with this comes in the interpretation. Someone with BPD is often in an emotionally turbulent place that leaves them in a position of perpetual fear. Even if it only feels like a constant low grade anxiety, there is abandonment fear lurking in the recesses of the mind at all time. This fear leads to an unintentional self-centeredness. Often it is easy to read the emotions on another person, but the fear interprets those emotions as a response to the Borderline her/hisself. Someone with BPD will personalize and internalize someone else’s feelings and emotions automatically, even when what is going on in the other person head may not have anything to do with them. This can be a source of much inner turmoil and distress for someone with BPD. When you are constantly aware of how the people around you feel and fear that it is a reaction to you, and potentially a cause for rejection, it can feel traumatic.
For example: if someone is irritable, or angry (from a stressful day, a fight with a coworker, or unresponsive spouse) and a Borderline picks up on it, she/he may interpret the emotion as being directed at them and fear that they did something wrong, that the person believes they did soemthign wrong, is going to reject them, abandon them, hurt them (if they have a history of abuse), which will have a direct effect on their own mental and emotional state. If I’m afraid someone is angry at me, and I don’t understand why, I can begin to panic. You would think this could easily be cleared up with a little communication. Some Borderlines react in a volatile way that does not lend well to rational discussion if their emotional space is too unstable. Others are like me and suppress the need to dissect each and every expression because we’re afraid we’ll ‘look crazy’. Voicing the fear, expressing the concern could make someone think you are being stupid or irrational. Instead of having them actually be mad at you for one thing, now they will think you are crazy for another. It’s a lose-lose situation.
This hypersensitivity coupled with the enhanced ability to accurately judge emotion accounts for what many people see as a paradox in those with Borderline Personality Disorder. We can see, and sense what another person is feeling, but due to an inappropriate projection of fear the response of a Borderline may be in opposition to what the other person really wants or needs. From the perspective of an emotionally ‘normal’ person it would appear that the reaction is coming out of nowhere and very confusing. It might look like an emotional switch just flipped, but to the Borderline there is very real reason. Fear. The Borderline may not even be aware of this constant fear on a conscious level and could just be reacting, but it’s often there regardless. I think this constant state of hyperawareness is part of a maladaptive coping mechanism that was formed as a response to traumatic environments when it was necessary to be keenly aware of what was happening to the Borderline. The problem with defense mechanisms though, is once they are no longer needed, they don’t necessarily go away.
Signs seem to be pointing to ‘yes’ in terms of empathy in Borderline Personality Disorder. Not all experts agree though…. Stay Tuned
So what do you think? What has your experience been?
So what do you think? What has your experience been?