Understanding borderline personality disorder is a challenge.

In fact, it is difficult to understand all of the ten personality disorders. Even professionals have a hard time really grasping their nuances.

However, it can be worthwhile to learn more about the issues faced by people with various personality disorders. Doing so can give you important insight into your own experiences.

It can also help you to navigate different relationships, whether you or a loved one is the one with symptoms.

What Are Personality Disorders?

We recently looked at the different types of personality disorders in another blog post.

In short, they are inflexible, ongoing patterns that cause problems in a person’s life, particularly in their relationships with others. These patterns relate to a person’s thoughts, emotions, behavior, and specifically to their interpersonal interaction.

closeup of young red headed, freckled beautiful woman and orbs of light

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5) outlines ten different personality disorders:

  1. Anti-social
  2. Avoidant
  3. Borderline
  4. Dependent
  5. Histrionic
  6. Narcissistic
  7. Obsessive-Compulsive
  8. Paranoid
  9. Schizoid
  10. Schizotypal

In this post, we will look in more depth at Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). (Keep your eyes on my blog for future posts, in which we will discuss the details of the other personality disorders.)

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder as a Cluster B Disorder

The DSM-5 has created subcategories for personality disorders. Understanding borderline personality disorder starts with understanding its subcategory, or cluster. BPD is one of the Cluster B disorders.

Cluster B disorders are related to problems with impulse control and difficulty regulating emotions.

BPD Characteristics

Since understanding borderline personality disorder is so difficult, only a professional can make a diagnosis. However, there are some characteristics to look for if you suspect that you or someone you love is struggling with BPD.

For example, people with BPD tend to exhibit:

  • Behavior that appears very unstable
  • Black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking without shades of grey
  • Impulsive decision-making
  • Extremely harsh judgment of others
  • Extremely harsh judgment of self
  • Moods that seem very impulsive
  • Strong reactions to external factors including stress and perceived wrongs
  • Unstable relationships

Someone with borderline personality disorder desperately wants to avoid abandonment in their relationships. However, in doing so, they sometimes create big schisms in the exact relationships that they want to save.

For example, their black-and-white thinking might lead them to idealize a romantic partner. Then, as soon as they perceive a criticism from that person, they might swing completely in the opposite direction and hate everything about them. As a result, relationships suffer.

Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder

In addition to the above characteristics, you can look for specific symptoms of BPD.

The DSM-5 recognizes nine common symptoms:

  1. Desperate attempts to avoid real or perceived abandonment
  2. History of unstable, intense relationships (family, work, friendships, and romantic)
  3. Impulsive and risky behavior in two or more areas (sex, money, drugs, eating, etc.)
  4. Inconsistent sense of self
  5. Ongoing pervasive feelings of emptiness
  6. Self-harm behavior and/or recurrent suicidal behavior (or threats)
  7. Short-term highly reactive moods, such as despondency or anxiety that last only a few hours
  8. Short-term paranoid thoughts usually brought on by stress
  9. Trouble controlling anger

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder as Different from Bipolar

person standing at ocean cliff's edge with arms wide open

Personality disorders are distinct from other mental health issues. A person can have just a personality disorder or just a mental health issue or show symptoms of both. In many cases, there is some overlap in the symptoms. For example, there is a lot of overlap between the symptoms of bipolar disorder and those of BPD. As a result, people often get misdiagnosed as one or the other.

The primary similarity between the two is that they both feature extreme mood shifts. People with either diagnosis can have intense highs and lows. They may quickly shift from one to the other. However, that quick shifting is more common in BPD than bipolar.

Bipolar is characterized by periods of mania (the “highs”) as well as depressive periods. During an intense phase of either of these, the person with bipolar might seem to react quickly. However, as a general rule, their moods aren’t strictly reactions to external forces. They are more about the individual’s own biology and psychology. People with bipolar will usually be in either an “up” or “down” mood for weeks or months at a time.

In contrast, shifting moods in borderline personality disorder are very reactive and short-term. For example, a person’s spouse forgets to call to say that they will be late and the person with BPD gets violently angry or makes a suicide attempt. Later in the day, their mood may shift again.

Do note that there are different types of bipolar illness. Some types more closely mimic the symptoms of BPD than others. Likewise, BPD itself exists on a spectrum, so one individual with that diagnosis might not appear to react as extremely as another.

What Causes Borderline Personality Disorder?

We do not entirely understand what causes BPD. However, it develops most likely due to a combination of factors and the ways in which they interact with one another.

These factors include:

  • Biology and individual chemical makeup
  • Childhood trauma
  • Genetics (BPD has a small risk of being passed down between generations)
  • How stress was handled in family of origin
  • Individual personality and temperament
  • Interaction with others during early childhood

In other words, BPD is bio-psycho-social. The interaction of a person’s biology, psychology, and social environment likely all come into play.

Are you interested in better understanding personality disorders? Take a Personality Disorder Quiz.

If you would like to know more about my approach to relationship therapy, please learn more HERE.