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Borderline Personality Disorder — 18 Critical Factors to Understand

Have you ever heard someone describe a person as “borderline?” They’re usually referring to borderline personality disorder

Similar to how people say, “that’s depressing” or “you’re acting bipolar,” “borderline” is a term that often gets used colloquially without understanding the heavy weight behind the word.

In the ever-important fight against ending the stigma around mental health/illness, we need to begin by understanding what these different illnesses are.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) or emotional dysregulation disorder impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life.

This includes self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions and behavior, and a pattern of unstable relationships.

BPD involves an ongoing pattern of varying moods and behavior, with symptoms resulting in impulsive actions.

People with borderline personality disorder may experience a variety of other mental health-related illnesses, such as intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that can last from a few hours to days.

Is borderline personality disorder genetic?

Like many other mental illnesses, BPD can be a genetic disorder, oftentimes amplified or brought about by environment.

Studies of borderline personality disorder in families show that first-degree relatives (siblings, children, or parents) of people treated for BPD are ten times more likely to have been treated for BPD themselves than the relatives of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Genetics play a big part in a person developing a disorder like this — our brain’s chemical makeup is important to consider, given that a person may be lacking certain chemicals.

Their neurotransmitters — which are responsible for sending/receiving chemicals and messages to the body/brain, including serotonin — do not work properly. 

However, we must consider that these first-degree relatives have had similar upbringings and environments, which also play a role.

In fact, there have been a few twin studies of borderline personality disorder that have shown that 42% of variation in BPD is caused by genetics and 58% is caused by other factors, such as the environment.

How does environment play a role in a person developing borderline personality disorder?

While genetics and chemical makeup of a person’s brain are important to consider, so are the environmental factors contributing to a person’s overall mental health. Some common environmental factors include:

  • being a victim of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • exposure to long-term fear or distress as a child
  • being neglected by one or both parents/caregivers
  • growing up with another family member who had a serious mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder or substance abuse disorder

These kinds of high-stress environments can damage a person’s mental health as well as their overall ability to develop a healthy brain.

Additionally, a young person’s mind is easily molded and shaped by the relationship they have with their parents or family. These relationships at a young age have a strong influence on how they come to see the world and what they believe about other people.

So, any unresolved fear, anger, or distress from childhood can lead to a variety of distorted adult thinking patterns, such as: 

  • idealizing others
  • expecting others to be a parent to you
  • expecting other people to bully you
  • behaving as if other people are adults and you’re not

10 Symptoms of borderline personality disorder

People who have borderline personality disorder present with mood swings and can display uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world.

As a result, their interests and values can change quickly, and they can view things in extremes, called black or white thinking.

This means that how they feel about a friend or a relative can change suddenly, which brings about unstable emotional relationships.

Symptoms of BPD also include: 

  1. Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, such as rapidly initiating intimate (physical or emotional) relationships or cutting off communication with someone in anticipation of being abandoned
  2. A pattern of intense and unstable relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often swinging from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  3. Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self
  4. Self-harming behavior, such as cutting
  5. Recurring thoughts of suicidal behaviors or threats
  6. Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days (not to be confused with bipolar disorder)
  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness
  8. Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
  9. Difficulty trusting, which is sometimes accompanied by an irrational fear of other people’s intentions
  10. Feelings of dissociation (i.e., feeling cut off from oneself, seeing oneself from outside one’s body, feelings of unreality)

It’s important to note that everyone experiences mental illness and disorders differently.

So, while these are a few of the symptoms someone with borderline personality disorder might be experiencing, some may experience a few, while others might experience all, in varying intensities. 

Borderline personality disorder triggers

Like many other mental health-related illnesses, someone who has BPD may have a variety of triggers that set off their symptoms.

Even ordinary or “normal” experiences may trigger them.

These triggers can stem from their relationships. For example, someone with BPD might become distressed over being separated from a person they love for a temporary period of time. 

Triggers can also be cognitive, such as internal events/feelings that come out of the blue. This is particularly true for people who have BPD related to traumatic events like child abuse.

A memory or image of a past experience (like a traumatic event or a loss) can trigger intense emotions and other BPD symptoms.

However, a memory does not need to be distressing to trigger symptoms. Some people are triggered by memories of happier times, which may remind them that things are not as good in the present.

Treatments for BPD

Someone who is experiencing borderline personality disorder first needs to get a confirmed diagnosis with a psychiatrist. 

Treatment generally includes psychotherapy/talk therapy, and, if needed, the patient may also take medication to supplement and help ease their symptoms, such as anti-depressants or other mood-stabilizers.

Some of the types of therapy that have been found to be effective include:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Schema-focused therapy (helps identify unmet needs that have led to negative life patterns) 
  • Mentalization-based therapy (MBT)
  • Systems training for emotional predictability and problem-solving (STEPPS)
  • Transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP) to help you understand your emotions and interpersonal difficulties through the developing relationship between you and your therapist. You then apply these insights to ongoing situations.

There is hope

People living with borderline personality disorder can often feel hopeless, but there is hope — you can have a good, happy life while living with BPD with the right treatments and the right doctors.

Let me know in the comments if you’re struggling with borderline personality disorder.

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Samantha Mineroff

Samantha Mineroff is a writer, mental health advocate, and aspiring author. In 2018, her paper, “The Rhetoric of Major Depressive Disorder: Performativity and Intra-activity of Emotions in Major Depression” won best seminar paper award at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. At the Poetics And Linguistics Association (PALA) Conference in 2019, she went to The University of Liverpool to present her paper “An Application of Scripts, Schemas, and Negative Accommodation Theory in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.” She currently works as a marketing writer for clinical research. She enjoys live jazz, good conversation, and writing letters. You can reach her at sammineroff@gmail.com