What does it mean to have a Borderline Personality Disorder?

If you have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) we would like to help you think about what that might mean for you in the context of living with or having lived with an abusive man.

We are finding the diagnosis of BPD being widely applied to women who have experienced abuse. What is meant by this diagnosis? Psychology Today’s definition includes the following:  “People with BPD have emotions that can quickly spiral out of control, leading to intense states of anxiety, tension, and, anger. Moreover, turbulent emotional states are often at the center of stormy relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners.”[1]

This definition could easily be describing a woman in an abusive relationship. That is, a woman experiencing intense emotions and a “stormy relationship”. What some helping professionals view, as symptoms of mental illness might be better understood as impacts from abuse. A woman living with a man who demonstrates the turbulent behaviour of the Cycle of Abuse will herself display constantly changing emotions. Furthermore, from the outside a woman might be blamed for the “stormy” nature of her relationship when it is the man, in fact, causing the conflict and explosions.

There is some interesting research to back up our caution and concern when it comes to this label being used to diagnosis women who have experienced abuse. The first is that 75% of people who are diagnosed with BPD are female.[2] The second is that 60-90% of people diagnosed with BPD were abused either in childhood or by their partners.[3]

Maybe a question you could ask yourself is, do you think you would suffer from BPD if you had not experienced any abuse in your childhood or as an adult? If you would answer “no” to this question, then maybe a better way to understand your “symptoms” is to understand them as normal impacts and reactions to having been abused.

A third concern we have is that it has been widely noted that some helping professionals use the diagnosis of BPD to label women who challenge them or make them uncomfortable. Because of the negative implications that seem to come with this diagnosis, namely, that “borderline women” are “difficult”, often women with this diagnosis become more marginalized as service providers prefer not to work with them. For all these reasons, we are not sure this diagnosis helps women. What you need most is to be believed, supported and affirmed. You can ask yourself if this diagnosis helps you to get the kind of support you need.

Having expressed our concern about this diagnosis we also want to say that maybe you have found this diagnosis helpful. Maybe it has opened up doors to medical help and support. We are not trying to take away anything that might be helpful to you; we are trying to offer a broader way to understand your experience, which includes your experiences of abuse. We also do not want to rule out the possibility that your diagnosis of BPD pre-dates the abuse you have experienced. In this cases, we would invite you consider how the abuse has likely exacerbated your psychological distress.

[1] Psychology Today Website

[2] Reference to be added

[3] Herman, Perry & vander Kolk, 1989: Silk et al., 1995

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  1. Very very interesting post. I have often though there was a huge crossover with CPTSD, which is often seen in women who have been abused. The self-harming behaviour is the main trait that I dont think fits the PTSD diagnosis but I think almost anyone who is crushed & not allowed to display emotional reactions and/or has their emotions dismissed as inaccurate may end up with self harming behaviour within circumstances that trigger them.

    Thank you so much for publishing this, it makes a huge difference to me & gives me some validation that all my research (as a complete layperson) is on the right track.

  2. After he was arrested for trying to choke me, one of the first things my ex did was get me “diagnosed” with BPD, although I had never talked to the “professional” that he claimed told him that I had BPD. Of course, that led to constant accusations that I was “crazy”. Which led in turn to him telling me that I would lose custody of our child and be “committed to the nuthouse”.
    So, I have a very personal anger toward those who label women with BPD.

  3. Thank you for sharing this! Sadly, this seems quite common. Women in our support groups tell similar stories.

  4. I understand that women are perhaps overrepresented in BPD diagnoses (although it’s hard to know because many people with BPD do not fall into countable statistics). I understand abuse aftershocks cause symptoms similar to BPD. I know all abused women need validation, support, and encouragement.

    As the daughter of a mom who definitely is both BPD and an abuse survivor, I am concerned that your post may encourage/enable women who should in fact get help for their BPD (and the abuse) to avoid doing so. My mother’s BPD-fueled antics have devastating effects, and always have. She uses her trauma history as an excuse to emotionally abuse others.

    Also, BPD people and Narcissist Personality Disorder people often end up in relationships. Dangerous, volatile mix. Both need help.

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