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The Connection Between BPD and Lack of Empathy

Borderline Personality Disorder is a disorder which is characterized by a specific set of traits and behaviors. Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder experience a variety of symptoms that vary in level of intensity and exhibition. The various levels of the symptoms of the disorder are categorized into two subgroups where an individual must experience some symptoms from each category to be diagnosed. One of those symptoms is a difficulty establishing empathy for others.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is a cognitive and emotional process in which one individual has compassion or understanding for another person’s emotional or physical experiences. Individuals are said to have high levels of empathy when individuals can hear another person’s story and share their feelings. For example, a person might be said to be empathetic if they are saddened at another person’s loss of a loved one.

Scholars and professionals alike suggest that having empathy can make individuals more successful in business and throughout their life as they can anticipate and articulate the emotional needs and desires of other individuals. Without empathy, individuals may find it difficult to experience full connections with other individuals. Many personality disorders share a trait of a lack of empathy. However, individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder simply have a difficulty establishing empathy with others.

Recent Research on BPD and Empathy

Recent studies have utilized medical technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the brain activity of individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder. Their study looked at the areas of the brain which are said to be responsible for empathetic behavior. Their results yielded data supporting that individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder exhibit less brain activity in these areas than those without the disorder. The decreased activity indicates that these individuals have a more difficult time predicting and understanding the emotional experiences of others.

There are conflicting reports and studies which suggest that there is a specific kind of empathy that only those with Borderline Personality Disorder can possess. Some research has suggested that individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder can pick up on disruptions in the emotional psyche in others. For example, someone with Borderline Personality Disorder may be able to experience emotional disturbances in someone with PTSD where other individuals may overlook these subtle cues. However, these occurrences may be unnoticed by the individual with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Effects of a lack of Empathy

For individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the more difficult aspects of the mental illness is an inability to maintain stable and emotionally healthy relationships. Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder often have an extreme relationship with one specific person, typically referred to as the Favorite Person relationship. This person becomes a catalyst for some of the more difficult symptoms, including jealousy, mirroring behaviors, and a difficult time distinguishing between ideation and devaluation of this person.

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In addition to the Favorite Person relationship, individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder struggle with romantic relationships as a direct result of their difficulty with establishing empathy. For romantic relationships, it is important that both partners understand each other and can share their emotional experiences. However, for the individual with BPD, this is a more difficult task to accomplish as they often are unaware of their partner’s emotional states or they are unable to fully articulate what these experiences mean for their partner and the relationship.

Some of the problems associated with a lack of empathy include:

  • Being misunderstood
  • Not knowing when to express sentiments or emotional statements
  • Being unable to step outside of the person’s own problems or fixations
  • Accusations of being selfish

Partners of individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder often become the target for a variety of symptoms. From excessive mood swings and unstable behaviors, the partner of someone with BPD can feel the extent that the difficulty of establishing empathy can cause. When a partner needs space or is having a bad day, the individual with BPD cannot fully articulate these experiences and may, in turn, react negatively to their partner, causing further discord and animosity. Additionally, the difficulty in establishing empathy for their partner’s feelings can cause the individual to feel as though they do not understand what is wrong. Their partner may express extreme frustration at not being understood or validated in their relationship.

Social Relationships

Much like romantic relationships, many social relationships require a standard of empathetic behavior as part of the social exchange benefits. For individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, understanding frustration, desperation, ambition, or other emotions is a requirement of social relationships that are not experienced in the same manner.

Social relationships with those with BPD can be filled with frustrations at having a friend who seems selfish at times in their inability to demonstrate a shared experience. Special events such as formal dances, engagements, or even baby showers come with a level of expectancy that those within the social circle will share in the joy and excitement, yet this may be difficult for the individual with BPD to demonstrate.

Individuals who experience Borderline Personality Disorder must deal with a wide variety of difficult issues which stem from their mental disorder. While many of these symptoms may seem easy to control, without proper assistance and awareness, they can become overwhelming and a source of destruction of the various components necessary for a successful and happy lifestyle.

As part of many of the programs available to those with Borderline Personality Disorder, empathy training programs help individuals with understanding the importance of establishing empathetic connections as well as when it is appropriate to express emotional statements. Furthermore, these programs include counseling services which can help to alleviate the internal struggles that the individual with BPD experiences as a direct result of their lack of empathy.

Relationship counseling can help to mitigate some of the frustrations experienced in relationships with individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder. A therapist or counselor can provide an outlet for the frustrated partner as well as offering insight to the individual with BPD about ways to mitigate the damage caused by the lack of empathy.

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Angela Sartain, PhD Psychology
Angela Sartain, PhD Psychology

Angela is currently finishing up her doctoral degree program in General Psychology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and crafting crochet dolls for her small business.

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