Common Misconceptions About Borderline Personality Disorder

Common Misconceptions About Borderline Personality Disorder Through popular culture—in movies, TV, magazines, books, comics, Web series and social media—Americans view representations of mental illness on a daily basis: anxiety, OCD, hoarding, hearing voices, depression. But rarely does the media reveal accurate information about mental illness, or convey a more balanced story beyond the extremes. For example, many more people have heard of bipolar disorder than have heard of borderline personality disorder (BPD), even though the latter is much more common. 

Over 6 million Americans suffer from borderline personality disorder, a mental illness that creates “unstable moods, behaviors and relationships.” BPD is less well known but more common than bipolar disorder and schizophrenia combined. BPD impacts the lives of its sufferers most directly by impacting their relationships and their sense of self. People with BPD tend toward an unstable sense of self—shifting, even dramatically, from a positive and grandiose self-concept to a negative and self-destructive one. People with BPD are highly changeable, often taking on the characteristics of the people around them. Their likes and dislikes, political and religious ideals, and even gender or sexual orientation may shift as they search for a more firm sense of identity. They experience frequent mood swings, and their behaviors may feel erratic to others, especially when they feel they are being rejected. People with BPD often have a history of stormy relationships with friends and family—alternating from intense closeness (idealization), to dramatic anger (devaluation). People with BPD may engage in self-injury, recurring suicidal behaviors or threats.

Common Myths About BPD

Despite the fact that BPD is relatively common, it remains poorly understood. Fairly common misconceptions abound.

False: People with BPD can’t live a normal life. While BPD presents serious challenges to sufferers, people with this diagnosis can and do live lives similar to anyone else. They have jobs, spouses, children and friends. After learning emotional regulation skills—the key component in BPD recovery—people with BPD can go on to have very happy lives.

False: People with BPD threaten suicide only to get attention. This is a very harmful misconception. About 10 percent of people with BPD die of suicide, so it’s important to take every threat seriously.

False: BPD only impacts women. In the past, researchers believed more women experienced BPD, but many are now rethinking the validity of the statistical difference. It may be that men were not diagnosed with the disorder due to social conceptions about gender and emotional behavior. When men present with emotional dysregulation, an important aspect of BPD, oftentimes they show more anger and aggression than women (though not always). When this happens, they are more likely to be diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, a disorder that sees more men than women diagnosed. It may be that more men suffer from BPD than were previously believed.

False: People with BPD are just manipulative and conniving. People with BPD are known for reaching to extremes to get their needs met, a tendency marked by impulsive behavior. As a result, it can be easy to believe they are being manipulative. But manipulation implies premeditation, while impulsivity precludes it. It is far more likely that a person with BPD is simply doing in the moment whatever he or she thinks has to be done to get needs met.

False: People with BPD were abused. One theory of the cause of BPD is early trauma, and it is true that many people with the disorder experienced childhood physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. But not all people with this diagnosis come from troubled backgrounds. Many come from functional homes and with good parents.

False: People with BPD can’t get better. Because BPD can be so problematic for sufferers and the people in their lives, it is easy to dismiss the disorder (and the people who have it) by believing it can never be overcome. But as troubling as BPD is, it is called the “good prognosis diagnosis” and recovery is very possible.

There are many kinds of treatment for BPD, including individual cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and schema therapy, all of which have shown real success in the lives of sufferers. It is important not to give in to the myths and misconceptions, but to search actively for the many hopeful truths surrounding BPD. There is hope after all, and those who have recovered frequently report back that life “after BPD” is better than they’d ever dreamed.