Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is one of those illnesses that’s absolutely soaked in stigma and stereotypes that just aren’t true. It’s terribly misunderstood, as most mental illnesses are in general, but I’ve found BPD is especially so considering it isn’t talked about quite as openly as illnesses like anxiety and depression are (yet, anyway; thankfully, the discourse surrounding all mental illnesses is rapidly changing lately).
While it’s true BPD is a serious illness with life-altering effects that can be incredibly damaging to yourself and others if left untreated, it is also completely possible to lead a fulfilling, meaningful life with healthy and rewarding relationships while also living with the disorder. As someone with borderline personality disorder, I’ve found the ways in which people with this illness are treated often makes life even more difficult than dealing with the actual symptoms day-to-day.
To help give people a better understanding of this illness and why it’s so bogged down by harmful perceptions and stereotypes, I’ve compiled a list of five common misconceptions about people with borderline personality disorder. I want to address why these myths exist and how we can look past them to have a more compassionate view of not just BPD but mental illnesses as a whole.
1. People with borderline personality disorder are selfish, narcissistic, and/or egotistical.
It’s disappointing how many times I’ve seen cautionary tales about forming relationships with people with BPD claiming we’re all sadistic, self-centered monsters who can’t feel empathy for or function around other people.
This is unfortunately a common misconception regarding several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, and several others, but I personally see it especially often when people talk about their opinions of people with BPD.
It’s certainly true being borderline makes emotional regulation a challenge, but that’s not the same thing as being emotionless or self-centered. If anything, I often feel as though I experience emotions more strongly than people without this disorder; when I’m happy, I’m ecstatic, and when I’m sad, I’m miserable.
On the flip side, though, when I care, I REALLY care, and I’ve found other people with BPD are similarly highly passionate and empathetic. I think this can make us seem just a tiny bit intense, though, which might contribute to the very false idea that we have enlarged egos.
2. People with borderline personality disorder are violent and dangerous.
There’s a small amount of truth to this, but not how you’d expect. People with this illness are actually far more likely to harm themselves than other people.
In fact, studies have shown people with BPD are several times more likely to experience childhood abuse and trauma than those without the illness. Across all mental illnesses, people living with BPD are among the most likely to experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. We’re also among the most likely to commit suicide.
While BPD is known for high levels of impulsivity and difficulty controlling anger, my outbursts are always directed at myself rather than others. It’s no coincidence BPD is also strongly linked with feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem. Developing appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with the urge to self-harm is crucial when it comes to treating this illness.
3. Borderline personality disorder is untreatable.
Although BPD is considered more difficult to treat than some other mental illnesses, it is not untreatable by any means. Many common treatment options have high success rates, including:
DBT, or dialectical behavioral therapy, which centers around mindfulness exercises and addressing and controlling emotional impulsivity
Medications, primarily antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers
MBT, or mentalization-based therapy, a form of talk therapy that helps people with BPD better understand and recognize their own and other people’s thoughts and feelings
TFP, or transference-based therapy, which focuses on understanding the underlying causes of the illness
Developing new coping mechanisms and means of self-care to better handle episodes of emotional instability, anxiety, depression, and impulsiveness
In many cases, a mixture of these treatment options will give the best results for long-term improvement. Successful treatment requires diligence and dedication on behalf of the patient and their healthcare providers.
4. People with BPD only claim to harm themselves for attention and aren’t serious.
This one is particularly dangerous. As I touched on earlier, people with BPD have extremely high rates of self-harm and suicide, so every attempt or desire to self-harm must be taken very seriously.
Nobody harms themselves solely for attention, and even if they did, attention-seeking is still a cry for help that needs to be heard and addressed. Never dismiss or shrug off someone who expresses wanting to hurt themselves; always listen to them and offer help.
Studies have shown as many as 80% of people with BPD have engaged in some form of self-harm, and many, around 9% of all people diagnosed with the disorder, go on to attempt or commit suicide if not treated.
5. Only women get BPD because they’re overly emotional/more prone to mental illness/more impulsive.
There are quite a few insidious layers of sexism to this one. Although a 3:1 majority of people diagnosed with BPD are female, there’s still a significant population of men living with the disorder.
Many socioeconomic and cultural factors are at play here; men are generally encouraged to be less outwardly emotional than women and are taught that expressing their emotions is a sign of weakness or femininity.
Masculinity is often associated with extreme stoicism and simply “manning up,” so to speak, when confronted with hardship. Additionally, men with mental illnesses are often viewed as inferior to or weaker than their non-mentally ill peers.
Because of these rigid and limiting gender roles and societal expectations, fewer men are diagnosed with illnesses like BPD, and even fewer who are diagnosed seek treatment or speak openly about their disorder.