9 Signs of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Imagine yourself on moving sands—the ground underneath your feet continually changing and startling you, leaving you terrified and guarded. That’s what it’s like if you have borderline personality disorder (BPD). Almost everything in your world is unstable: your relationships, moods, thinking, behavior, and even your identity. It’s a frightening and painful way to live. But there is hope. There are effective BPD treatments and coping skills that can help you feel better and back in control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
What is borderline personality disorder (BPD)?
If you have borderline personality disorder (BPD), you probably feel like you’re on a rollercoaster—and not just because of your unstable emotions or relationships, but also the wavering sense of who you are. Your self-image, goals, and even your likes and dislikes may change frequently in ways that feel confusing and unclear.
People with BPD tend to be extremely sensitive. Some describe it as like having an exposed nerve ending. Small things can trigger intense reactions. And once upset, you have trouble calming down. It’s easy to understand how this emotional volatility and inability to self-soothe leads to relationship turmoil and impulsive—even reckless—behavior. When you’re in the throes of overwhelming emotions, you’re unable to think straight or stay grounded. You may say hurtful things or act out in dangerous or inappropriate ways that make you feel guilty or ashamed afterwards. It’s a painful cycle that can feel impossible to escape. But it’s not.
Signs and symptoms
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) manifests in many different ways, but for the purposes of diagnosis, mental health professionals group the symptoms into nine major categories. In order to be diagnosed with BPD, you must show signs of at least five of these symptoms. Furthermore, the symptoms must be long-standing (usually beginning in adolescence) and impact many areas of your life.
The 9 symptoms of BPD
- Fear of abandonment. People with BPD are often terrified of being abandoned or left alone. Even something as innocuous as a loved one arriving home late from work or going away for the weekend may trigger intense fear. This can prompt frantic efforts to keep the other person close. You may beg, cling, start fights, track your loved one’s movements, or even physically block the person from leaving. Unfortunately, this behavior tends to have the opposite effect—driving others away.
- Unstable relationships. People with BPD tend to have relationships that are intense and short-lived. You may fall in love quickly, believing that each new person is the one who will make you feel whole, only to be quickly disappointed. Your relationships either seem perfect or horrible, without any middle ground. Your lovers, friends, or family members may feel like they have emotional whiplash as a result of your rapid swings from idealization to devaluation, anger, and hate.
- Unclear or shifting self-image. When you have BPD, your sense of self is typically unstable. Sometimes you may feel good about yourself, but other times you hate yourself, or even view yourself as evil. You probably don’t have a clear idea of who you are or what you want in life. As a result, you may frequently change jobs, friends, lovers, religion, values, goals, or even sexual identity.
- Impulsive, self-destructive behaviors. If you have BPD, you may engage in harmful, sensation-seeking behaviors, especially when you’re upset. You may impulsively spend money you can’t afford; binge eat, drive recklessly, shoplift, engage in risky sex, or overdo it with drugs or alcohol. These risky behaviors may help you feel better in the moment, but they hurt you and those around you over the long-term.
- Self-harm. Suicidal behavior and deliberate self-harm is common in people with BPD. Suicidal behavior includes thinking about suicide, making suicidal gestures or threats, or actually carrying out a suicide attempt. Self-harm encompasses all other attempts to hurt yourself without suicidal intent. Common forms of self-harm include cutting and burning.
- Extreme emotional swings. Unstable emotions and moods are common with BPD. One moment, you may feel happy, and the next, despondent. Little things that other people brush off can send you into an emotional tailspin. These mood swings are intense, but they tend to pass fairly quickly (unlike the emotional swings of depression or bipolar disorder), usually lasting just a few minutes or hours.
- Chronic feelings of emptiness. People with BPD often talk about feeling empty, as if there’s a hole or a void inside them. At the extreme, you may feel as if you’re “nothing” or “nobody.” This feeling is uncomfortable, so you may try to fill the void with things like drugs, food, or sex. But nothing feels truly satisfying.
- Explosive anger. If you have BPD, you may struggle with intense angerand a short temper. You may also have trouble controlling yourself once the fuse is lit—yelling, throwing things, or becoming completely consumed by rage. It’s important to note that this anger isn’t always directed outwards. You may spend a lot of time feeling angry at yourself.
- Feeling suspicious or out of touch with reality. People with BPD often struggle with paranoia or suspicious thoughts about others’ motives. When under stress, you may even lose touch with reality—an experience known as dissociation. You may feel foggy, spaced out, or as if you’re outside your own body.
Signs of Hidden BPD
Spotting hidden or “quiet” BPD can be extremely difficult because it is not as outward as regular BPD. The symptoms mentioned above for regular BPD are easier to see because the individual shows them outwardly. With “quiet” BPD, individuals keep their intense emotions hidden. They tend to deal with everything internally where it is not as noticeable. It is important to understand normal BPD because it can help you notice the more subtle signs of “quiet” BPD. Here are some signs to look for when trying to spot “quiet” BPD:
- Struggling to maintain relationships.People with “quiet” BPD often have a history of failed relationships, including friendships. They might talk about how they have trouble keeping relationships. Some of those relationships might have been ended by the other person. However, people with BPD sometimes end relationships because they have a deep fear of being left. These fears make it difficult to maintain relationships.
- Having unhealthy boundaries. Individuals tend to fall on extremes when it comes to having boundaries with others. At times, they almost seem to obsess over certain people. They may want to spend time with them as much as possible. It can also look more subtle like being overly concerned by what that person thinks. On the other end, individuals can isolate and avoid, completely shutting others out because it feels safer and easier. They struggle to set healthy boundaries with a good balance.
- Experiencing low self-esteem.Often these individuals have low self-esteem. People with “quiet” BPD may be able to hide these feelings a little better. It is important to notice the language they use when talking about themselves. They are likely going to speak about themselves more negatively or negate certain accomplishments.
- Displaying self-harm tendencies and suicidal ideation.The self-harm might be easier for them to hide, so it might not be noticeable unless you ask them. They might make off-handed comments like, “I didn’t want to wake up today” or “I was so upset I just wanted to slam my head into the wall.” These statements can be said lightly in a way that makes them seem less serious. However, the undertones of anger and sadness could indicate some self-esteem issues. Oftentimes, people with BPD take out their anger and sadness on themselves.
Living with BPD
Borderline personality disorder affects 1.6% of the population and it is one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood mental health conditions and its devastating effects can be found in a thousand untold stories by those who live with it, those who exist in a world where no matter how loudly they scream, no-one seems to hear their voice.
One such story is that of 30-year-old Savanna. Her symptoms began in early adolescence, as she quickly became aware that she was not like her peers. Separation anxiety, fear of abandonment, self-harm and emotional instability prevented her from experiencing what should have been the typical life of a teenager. She spent her days in isolation, not understanding the overwhelming emotions that attacked her from every side, often crying herself to sleep wondering why the feelings just wouldn’t go away, and why she couldn’t put a name to them.
Throughout her teens she failed to develop an identity, falling behind academically, socially and emotionally. It felt like she had gotten ‘stuck’ at age 11 when the problems began and that her body and mind were developing but her sense of self and capacity to regulate emotion lagged way behind. It wasn’t until she was finally diagnosed with BPD that she began to realize what all these symptoms meant, and she was finally able to start unpacking her past in order to understand her present.
Now in her early 30s, she feels that a new understanding of life with her diagnosis is beginning to make sense. The inability to hold down a full-time job owing to her condition has turned into the most positive career move, as she now works as a self-employed professional musician.
Living with BPD does not have to be devastating, in fact, weekly dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and schema-focused therapy from an experienced professional as well as education about the disorder, family support, and social and emotional skills training can treat most BPD cases.