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How to Describe Borderline Personality Disorder for Those Who Don’t Understand

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a severe, complex illness that is marked by frequent mood changes, an unstable self-image and intense, unbalanced relationships. While this is the basic description for BPD, the complexity of this disorder is extreme.

There are nine possible criteria for diagnosing BPD, but an individual only needs to present five of the nine criteria in order to be diagnosed. This means that there are a large number of possible variations of the disorder, indicating that each person’s experience is incredibly unique. However, BPD is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses, and it tends to come with a plethora of misconceptions that negatively impact the lives of those who have the disorder — including my own.

Helping others understand what it is like to have borderline personality disorder, particularly those who are close to us, often becomes a daunting task; however, it is not impossible. All that matters is that we speak our truth to the best of our ability. Speaking out is how we can increase understanding and, subsequently, empathy for everyone impacted by borderline personality disorder.

In order to describe what it is like to live with BPD, I often choose to first show the nine diagnostic criteria to those who have never heard of the disorder, or don’t know very much about it. However, while presenting someone with the criteria is an excellent way to introduce them to the basis of what the disorder is, it can be difficult for them to fully comprehend and relate the symptoms of BPD to your personal story. This is why I try to communicate the symptoms that I personally experience with BPD and translate them in ways that are more understandable.

One thing that I have told people about my experience with intense emotions and mood swings is that they feel as though they are physically painful. When I am heartbroken, it feels as though I have full-body injuries and I am unable to think clearly, which often leads to impulsive actions. My actions may sometimes come off as though I am being manipulative, but often come from a place of experience intense emotional pain. I have found that likening my symptoms to physical symptoms that someone else can relate to is the most effective way to describe the severity of my experience. 

Throughout my mental health journey and my work as a mental health specialist, I have found that people generally do not understand how severe the symptoms of mental illness are, especially how debilitating they can be, but they do tend to understand the severity of physical injuries. Comparing mental health symptoms to physical symptoms provides a higher chance of validation, while also creating a connection and igniting empathy.

Unfortunately, I have come to find in my journey that BPD and those with the illness are often portrayed negatively. The symptoms of the disorder seem to be described to inspire fear in those who don’t personally have the disorder while producing stigma and oppression for those living with it. While it is important to highlight the difficulties of the disorder, it is also important to highlight the positives. Such as the fact that individuals with BPD tend to feel emotions stronger, which means that we experience love, happiness and excitement to a higher degree, which often makes many of our relationships more exhilarating. We find that we experience intense connections, and while our relationships may be labeled as unstable, they are often deeper and more meaningful.

Finding the positives in my symptoms of borderline personality disorder has helped me to better connect to myself and release the hard feelings I placed on myself for having the disorder in the beginning due to the stigma I experienced.  Those with BPD are often some of the most empathetic, understanding people that I know, and we all deserve to be understood and not judged based on the stigma surrounding this illness. My hope for you is that you are able to see borderline personality disorder in a more positive light and relay your experience more easily to those close to you. You deserve to have others understand the severity of this illness, while also seeing the positive side of your symptoms. You already have my validation.

Photo by Vladyslav Tobolenko on Unsplash