Are people with borderline personality really more empathic?

People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are emotionally fragile, impulsive, suffer from low mood, have intense unstable personal relationships and – according to a handful of studies – they also have enhanced empathy.

But new research by Judith Flury and colleagues shows the idea that BPD patients have enhanced empathy is a spurious finding reflecting the methodological design of prior studies combined with the fact BPD patients are particularly difficult to read.

The 76 lowest and highest scorers on the Borderline Syndrome Index were selected from among 789 students. These 76 were then arranged into pairs of low and high borderline participants. The members of each pair were videoed chatting to each other for ten minutes, after which each person completed a personality questionnaire about themselves, and about how they thought their partner saw themselves. This latter part of the design mirrors the methodology of earlier studies that seemed to show BPD is associated with enhanced empathy.

As in the earlier studies, it turned out that the high borderline students were better than the low borderline students at predicting how their partners scored their own personalities – a sign of empathy, you’d think. But further analysis showed that this finding was caused by the fact that all the students tended to score their partners’ personalities in a fairly stereotypical way. This tactic worked if a participant’s partner was low borderline (with a less unusual personality profile), but not if they were high borderline with an unusual personality profile – hence the apparent finding that high borderline scorers are more empathic.

The students also watched the videos of themselves meeting their partners, and recorded the main thoughts and feelings they had experienced during the encounter. They then watched the video again and attempted to predict what their partner had reported thinking and feeling during the encounter. Again, the high borderline students scored better at this task, but as before, this simply reflected the fact that within each of the student pairs, it was the low borderline students who had the more predictable, less outlandish thoughts and feelings.

FLURY, J., ICKES, W., SCHWEINLE, W. (2008). The borderline empathy effect: Do high BPD individuals have greater empathic ability? Or are they just more difficult to “read”? Journal of Research in Personality, 42(2), 312-332. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.05.008

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

13 thoughts on “Are people with borderline personality really more empathic?”

  1. Again it’s hard to say anything to cover all of such a heterogeneous population as those dx with BPD or suffering from it. However a well done study on “Borderline” empathy by Lee C. Park and others from John Hopkins University has shown that many, even a majority of BPD sufferers score impressively high on an emotional intelligence test (especially men!). The most discriminating among the four criteria of empathy looked at, was “intense preoccupation with and/or sense of the feelings of others”.The clear capacity for empathy in BPD, they suggest, is enough to distinguish it from all other PDs. This study further maintains that a sensitive “gifted” child born with innate “talent and need to discern the feelings and motivations of others” would be particularly vulnerable to a mismatch with an unempathic parent. Psychological abuse in a case like this could be enough to condemn the child to a lifetime of painful dysphoria and BPD. What is clear is that this is a disorder that we are only beginning to understand. It may well be more accurate to describe it as an emotional dysregulation or developmental disorder than a personality disorder.Here’s the reference:

  2. Interesting that we continue to call this a disorder. Why is the “order” not a “disorder” and the “Empath” an order. This apparently depends on which we choose to label more desireable. I agree that the BPD or BP are harder to manage but these beautiful people, myself included have an insight into the world which is not possesed by those clinging only to logic. Passion is scarry and those of us who must live as empathics necessarily live rather separate lives, quiet lives and have unique and incredibly special minds. Everything reveals an intensity that is unfathomable. Please learn all you can so you can really, TRULY know. Oops, that is redundant; scientists cannot KNOW. You can only study stats and logic and that is all you will ever get – You are not in our world and we are not in yours. But thank you for your efforts. We know we must appreciate you.

  3. I am very interested in this link I have Bpd and have always known that I was extremely you could say almost not of this species empathetic. If it is true that bpd patients are very emotionally fragile and if this sensitivity is applied to other people, (meaning the person with bpd is not just concerned with their own feelings, but more with the feelings of others as the study suggest) then i think a re evaluation should be made about why we are calling this a mental illness or disorder, simply because it is the minority not the norm, has any one tried to see this brain “abnormality” as possibly a evolution of the human brain from the primitive instinctual need to only care for ones own needs to a more evolved mind that is made to care for others and better able to live peacefully for others as a means for the species to survive? just a thought.

  4. I do feel BPDs are more emotionally sensitive and in a way more empathic than many others. But I have a rather cynical view that this is to serve the BPD disorder rather than any altruistic reason. BPDs lack self confidence even if they appear otherwise, they manipulate and have chameleon abilities to change to who they think others want them to be. This requires a high level of people reading skills. A high emotional sensitivity is a symptom of the disorder and a necessary safety device for BPDs. I'm BPD and I certainly am very good at reading people's emotions.

  5. The above post hit the nail on the head.

    I'm a [male] BPD, and I am unusually gifted at reading body language/non-verbal cues (especially around the eyes). I'm also a wonderful chameleon.

    I have the sociopath's abilities, but I'm driven by fear and anxiety rather than personal accomplishment. I hate it. I hate it so much.

  6. Perhaps the title of the post should have been “People with BPD: good or evil?”

    Being abused so badly that you don't have the capacity to meet other people's needs doesn't make you a bad person.

  7. According to my experience, a borderliner's empathy – if indeed present – is always but a means to the end of manipulating their friends, children and partners. There's nothing caring and peaceful about it, as another commenter above would like to suggest.

    I have never ever met a partner of a borderliner who derived any benefit from the borderliner's empathy. In the end, those couples always split up pretty soon. If there is empathy, it's never being used to a good end; it's always selfish, it is always used to bind and engulf the partner.

    This disorder seems to cause nothing but anguish, fear and suffering in their partners, children and friends. This is why I am still very much enclined to see it as a disorder.

    1. I find this comment extraordinarily unkind, prejudiced and uninformed. A someone with BPD, a classical musician, educator and motivator of young musician, a supportive friend and loving daughter to a father who has complex psychological needs, this type of thinking belongs in the dark ages. How fortunate you must be to be able to take the moral high-ground. I am sorry if your experience with-reading between the lines-a former partner has resulted in you feeling this way. One size does not fit all. Do your research.

  8. Says the person with BDP. An inflated sense of themselves and a devaluing of others is a symptom.

  9. First off, I'm very sorry all of your experiences with BPD have been bad. But that doesn't mean you should generalize.. It's like people who complain “all men/women are the same” because they've been on a few bad dates.

    I will admit, I've come to realize how easy it is to 'direct' people's lives emotionally.. When you spend your life fine-tuning your emotional senses and learning how people react to things, it becomes almost second nature. THAT BEING SAID – not all BPs (borderline personalities) manipulate others.

    In fact, many of us hate how much we can influence people's feelings; I personally have felt immense amounts of guilt over situations where I was accused of manipulating or leading someone on emotionally, when in reality I thought they were legitimately trying to help me or be a good friend. It takes a while before one might realize what they're doing at all, because it's so hard to see a problem from the inside (like ANY problem).

    If you know so many people with past BP partners that are telling you the unbiased truth, then you've definitely heard about how, after the fact (for example, after a fight caused by the BPs overreaction to something small that triggered much deeper and more upsetting feelings they couldn't express properly), there is lots of over-compensating, and extreme amounts of guilt and self-loathing over hurting/distressing their partner; hardly selfish at all.

    You have to take into account one of the basic needs of a BP: constant emotional validation. If a BP's unknowing family member/ friend/ partner isn't giving them what they need (which may or may not fall into the normal boundaries of the relationship), they will find ways to get it. It is not willful manipulation, it is an uncontrollable and unconscious string of emotions that cause the behaviours, essentially screaming, “I'm distressed, oh good you're paying attention, now come save me”. It's the same way we learn to cry when we are babies, if we cry then someone will comfort us, right?

    Not all cries for help come in obvious packages. Most people aren't destructive of their interpersonal relationships because they get something out of it…

  10. Sure, the heightened empathy is an adaptive trait for us Borderline folks, but that doesn't imply it's not 'real'. It's absolutely the same experience that another 'normal' person would feel, only instensely more so. Think of the sheer strength of emotions when you were going through puberty and developing as a teenager, and you will recognize the same depth of feeling in people with BPD. It's the same with our love for others; it's not that we don't have a healthy love for our partners, in fact we more than likely feel it stronger than the average folks. What's hard about BPD folks is how deeply we actually feel stuff, and how it crowds out the intellectual side. To assert that 'it's all about ourselves' and that there isn't 'altruism' really reflects the person asserting feels about people in general. We are so dependent upon others for our identities and consistency of emotions that we are too sensitized to the moods of our partners; we have a hard time recognizing where our lovers 'stop' and we 'begin'.

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