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To Those Who Think People With Borderline Personality Disorder Can't Be Empathetic

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I can say there is hardly anything to like about having a disorder like borderline personality disorder (BPD). If I had to wish this disorder on my worst enemy, I would never. There are, however, certain aspects of the condition that I feel make us special, or set us apart from “normal people.” I remember, since childhood, I had the innate ability to read people’s feelings and personalities. I could immediately sense their body language and know if they were upset or happy. I just took this for granted when I was young. It has developed and morphed into a great asset as I have matured.

Marsha M. Linehan, creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), quotes: “People with BPD are like people with third-degree burns over 90 percent of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.”

People often think of people with BPD as being manipulative, angry, evil people. Yes, I believe we can be all of those things. We are also very emotionally intense people. It turns out, there is also a good side to this emotional intensity. I have found that having this certain sixth sense or strong feeling of empathy goes as far as understanding and instinctively knowing what a person wants or needs. I feel their pain, be it physical or emotional, even if we are logistically separated by miles. It can actually be overwhelming at times.

Crowded venues can become a challenge as I have the ability to pick up on other people’s emotions. This makes it very hard for me to regulate my own emotions and I often find myself drawn in to talk or interact intimately in conversation with total strangers. It happened to me just yesterday and the young woman said to me “But how could you possibly know that? How did you know to come to me about this?” I answered her quite simply and frankly: “I just knew.” How do you explain to a person that you can sense what they are feeling almost as if you are feeling it yourself?

When I allow myself to take on another person’s feelings, such as I did yesterday, it can take me hours, or sometimes days, to come down and separate myself from it. I can actually experience mood swings that coincide with the person’s feelings. Over the years, I have had to find ways to disconnect myself from these situations. It is not just people. It happens with movies and books as well. My family have long teased me and they either “allow” or “disallow” me to read a book or watch a movie.

Many find it in them to demonize BPD and act as though we aren’t capable of love. The fact is: We just love too much. We come on too strong or overbearing and feel compelled to help the other person. This can often cause us to cross boundaries that should not be crossed in the social/societal norm.

People who live with borderline personality disorder and have extreme emotional sensitivity as we do are, at the core, very sensitive, deeply feeling people. Because we have been so hurt in our own lives, we have the ability to show unconditional love and support in a non-judgmental way. We know abuse and pain and we have had to learn to cope with it in the very fabric of our being. An extremely famous person suspected as having BPD is Princess Diana. She was the people’s princess and could feel and relate to the pain of others. This is what made her so relatable to the people. They adored her. At times, I can find myself so sensitive to emotional stimuli that I feel the pain acutely. It can feel similar to having exposed nerve endings. This is what we mean when we say that having BPD actually hurts us physically and emotionally.

I find that people with BPD respond much more intensely and quickly than others do. We do not seem to have the filter that exists in normal people and we feel and act first, before we think. We feel other people’s pain and condition almost like a shock wave of emotion going through us. This is also a reason why we are so physical and touchy toward others. The feeling we have to physically connect is very strong for those living with BPD. We have no problem reaching out to hold the hand of a stranger or even give a full-on hug to someone we have never met before.

To those we do love and who are in our circle of friends and family, I feel a constant need to physically touch them and I have been told many a time that it is just “too much.” For someone with BPD, it is never enough! We are connectors emotionally and physically and it is very important to keep that in mind when dealing with us. To refuse our gestures or empathetic ways can leave us feeling abandoned and shamed, as if we have done something wrong. I especially find that, with our daughter, I have the need to be in physical contact with her when I am in her presence. Many a time she has told me to back off, or that she needs her space. I immediately feel the pain of rejection at these times and I have had to train myself on this boundary in order for us to get along.

Unfortunately, at certain times, when I am feeling super sensitive or empathetic, it can leave me feeling helpless and I find I have a harder time self-regulating my own emotions on those days. If there is a feeling of the unknown or much unpredictability with a certain situation, I become even more sensitive. This is because the majority of my early years were waded down in such trauma and dysfunction as a child. I had no control. Now, as an adult with BPD, I must search out ways to calm myself from unpredictable situations. A person with BPD can be left feeling helpless, hopeless and alone, afraid to make a decision one way or another. Remember: Many with BPD were brought up in an unstable environment and we lack logic-based decision making skills. Without the ability to predict our environment, we seek others to regulate us and tell us what to do.

If I had to say so: For all of the upheaval and distress that having BPD has brought into my life, I do value the ability to have this certain type of empathy. In the long run, I have found it enriches my life very much and my ability to connect almost instantaneously with people has been a profound and positive thing, especially having had a career in sales. I am also able to make new friends quite easily as I am open and demonstrative when someone first meets me.

Therefore, BPD is not all bad after all. What is the saying? “There is always a silver lining.” To me, living with this disorder, what I have just shared with you is the silver lining for those with BPD.

With you on the journey.


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Originally published: July 6, 2018
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