Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms isn’t as easy as cracking open the DSM and saying, “Oh yes… pervasive thoughts and abandonment issues… mmhm… sounds right.”
Most people can look at the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder and see themselves fitting most of the criteria. In this post, I’m breaking down the symptoms of BPD a step further and putting it into layman’s terms.
If you are a loved one caretaking a Borderline, you can find notes beneath each symptom, to help you.
Caveat: This post isn’t meant to diagnose you with Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m hoping to help put perspective behind BPD and provide insight for the newly diagnosed and their loved ones, to help alleviate trying to figure it all out by yourself.
Borderline Personality Disorder Symptoms
Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
Borderline Personality Disorder includes the symptoms of thinking everyone is going to leave you.
When the person you love the most has to leave for something completely reasonable, such as work, a meeting, or even to run to the grocery store, there is a terrifying fear that that person will never come back.
The fear of abandonment could be anything from they’re going to leave me by myself because they hate me or something terrible is going to happen and I’ll never see them again.
Sure, everyone misses their loved ones when they leave, but with Borderline Personality Disorder, it feels like they will never come back.
You’ll beg for them to stay. In extreme cases, you may hurt yourself in efforts to get them to stay.
Note for loved ones: Sometimes it feels like Borderlines are being manipulative or controlling by hurting themselves to make you stick around.
The reality is that the pain of losing you is so real, so overwhelming, that the Borderline feels like he or she MUST hurt themselves or you will be gone forever.
A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
Another invasive symptom of having Borderline Personality Disorder is putting someone on a pedestal and then feeling disgusted by them.
The Borderline brain is black and white, meaning you either love someone or hate them. In betweens don’t exist (and people who fall in the ‘in between’ are normally not important enough to warrant love or hate for the Borderline).
For you, meeting someone incredible is an elating feeling. You think this person is the best thing you’ve ever came across and you’ll want to be best friends or immediate lovers.
There’s no such thing as taking it slow.
Then this person will inevitably do something that will destroy that image. It could be something like taking too long to text back or yawning while you were speaking.
These little gestures will hurt so badly that your mind will immediately come up with reasons why that person wasn’t that great anyway.
The illusion of wonderment shatters and you are left feeling numb or spiteful of that person.
This destroys a lot of relationships for people with Borderline Personality Disorder. You’ll emotionally invest 110% and your body will suddenly feel repulsed by the thought of that person.
Note for loved ones: This can be a hurtful experience when you are on the receiving end of this repulsion. Please know that for most Borderlines, these are fleeting and very temporary emotions.
During these episodes, which are understood as “splitting”, you cannot reason with someone with BPD. The best thing to do is say, “I understand that you’re upset. I’m going to give you some space. I’ll be back in a few hours/tomorrow to check on you.”
Know that it is not always *you* that the Borderline is upset with, but sometimes something you did or said, no matter how minor, triggers a hurricane of negative emotions.
Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self
It’s difficult to create a sense of self (which makes it hard to practice self-love) when your personality can change in a matter of days.
One day you might dress like a punk rocker and you will listen to Paramore and Linkin Park and three days later, you’re obsessed with Selena Gomez and wearing chrome leggings.
You might dye or cut your hair a lot, spend tons of money on different clothes, only to hate the style you chose, a few days later.
It can be hard knowing what is you and what is an extension of another person. You start morphing into your friends or lovers to the point where you adopt their personality and quirks.
People that don’t understand Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms will comment that you’re unpredictable, or even fake.
This lack of solid, one-dimensional identity that you can be boxed into, creates a sense of fear and distrust in other people.
On the upside, you’re not one dimensional.
You’re the person that might be an adventurous wandering soul backpacking through New York City and the next, you’re a die hard gamer hooked on competitive gaming.
Who knows who you’ll become three months from now?
While this may seem unstable and unconventional to others, you have the ability to live several different lives and experience so many perspectives in one lifetime.
One of the books that helped me with this sense of not knowing who I am was this book, which a friend recommended to me.
Note for loved ones: Please do not let this lack of stable identity be a source of your frustration.
You might feel like, “I don’t even know this person!” and get upset because this type of personality defies traditional sense of self.
To help, note consistencies in all the different personalities that are exhibited.
Is your loved one obsessive over art?
Maybe it’s less obvious, like they love doing things that have structure (sudoku, wood crafts, architecture).
Don’t chastise or show disapproval to the erratic personalities of the Borderline. It’s okay to step back when it’s too much for you.
Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms can be pervasive.
Impulsivity goes hand in hand with the short term mood swings where you may make quick decisions to satisfy your new emotion or personality.
You often feel empty, like a shell.
The lack of identity creates a darkness when it comes to having self-worth. This numbness can be countered with impulsive spending, one night stands, drugs, etc.
You can become addicted to anything that can create a high.
Anything, to feel anything.
Note for loved ones: This impulsivity can cause chaos in relationships.
Your loved one might constantly beg you for money to pay off debts from their impulse spending or if you have a joint bank account, your savings might get cleaned out over mindless purchases that they don’t even want by the time they get home.
Having these impulsive ticks is a way to cope with discomfort because prolonged moments of discomfort can trigger a mental breakdown, panic attack, or blackout.
Borderlines may self-medicate with any of the above “bad habits”, to prevent the breakdown.
To help a Borderline with the impulsivity, create healthy self-awareness techniques and be mindful of initial feelings of discomfort.
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills workbook may help your loved one cultivate mindfulness.
Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
It could be a fine day. Nothing could be going wrong.
Yet there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that maybe you should die. No one would really care and the world may be a better place.
Or you might be so tired of feeling numb all the time so you hurt yourself to feel some semblance of being alive.
You could have regrets. Guilt. A world of pain.
Time lapse doesn’t work for Borderlines the way it does for non-Borderlines. Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms you may face are consistent pain and inability to move on, over past events.
Your mind may replay thoughts over and over- especially of things that everyone else seemed to get over but you can’t let go of.
It churns at you until you hurt yourself and it’s the only way to make yourself feel better.
Being alive might feel unbearable.
Note for loved ones: This symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder might be the most terrifying of all.
Feelings of wanting to commit suicide, combined with impulsivity and lack of self-worth is a toxic cocktail. Borderlines will often feel like dying or say things like, “No one will miss me anything.”
Know that this is not something Borderlines “just say for attention.”
This is truly, deep down, what a Borderline believes and you cannot make this about yourself. Don’t assume that they are saying these things to make you feel guilty.
During these moments, sometimes there is nothing you could say or do.
Refrain from reminding them of all the “good things,” because Borderline minds are black and white.
When it is bad, it is ALL bad, including you (do not take this personally or offensively.)
Just listen to them cry or complain. Maybe change the subject- bring a glass of water, tell them you’re going to order take-out and you’ll order something special for them, or bring them a pillow and a blanket.
If your loved one is self-harming, taking drugs, drinking heavily, or seriously seeming like they are about to go through with suicide, please call your local emergency number immediately.
They may say they hate you for doing it now, but in these situations, it is best to let the professionals handle it before it escalates.
Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood
Oh man, this one is not fun and goes along with the unstable identity and impulsivity.
Bipolar Disorder is known for prolonged mood swings, while Borderline Personality Disorder is known for quick, spontaneous mood swings that could last a few hours or a day or two.
You could feel completely euphoric because breakfast was amazing but the clean up process switches you to immediate irritation.
Then you look at the clock and realize that you only have an hour to finish cleaning before you have company and anxiety nauseates throughout your gut.
By noon, you are so exhausted by the myriad of emotions you’ve felt only this morning that you are near incapacitation.
Note for loved ones: Sudden mood swings of Borderlines can be startling because your happy, optimistic loved one suddenly becomes The Incredible Hulk within an hour, smashing everything in sight.
These mood swings are a huge reason why Borderlines find it hard to keep friendships and why we may be labeled as “crazy.”
When you suspect or experience a sudden mood swing from the Borderline, give them some space.
My husband is aware of when my moods shift because I start snapping at him and accusing him of raising his voice.
I apologize for the snapping but he will ask me to please lay down or take a moment to myself so I can marinate in my own emotions.
Being in a more secluded area where I can let my mind rest and emotions even out will prevent mood swings from becoming more intensified.
Help your loved one notice when his or her mood swings are happening so you can both prepare appropriately.
Create a plan of what to do when the mood swings come on, that you both can agree on.
If your loved one has a hard time determining when the mood swing is happening, the book Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder may help.
Chronic feelings of emptiness
One day you feel everything so deeply and the next day, you feel nothing at all.
Feelings of emptiness or being numb can be a nice change if you’re in constant pain, though the numbness begins to get to you after a while.
It’s doing all of your favorite hobbies but no longer feeling any sort of affections.
It’s looking at the person you’ve fallen in love with and feeling absolutely nothing.
The Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms of emptiness and numbness can be disorienting and can lead to self-harm (again, anything to feel anything.)
Note to loved ones: You may feel hurt that your loved one with Borderline Personality Disorder is showing zero signs of caring about you, especially if you do everything in your power to keep them happy.
Trust that they don’t *want* to feel this way. They want to be able to love you and care about you in the same way you care about them, but their body has gone numb.
It’s so important that you, as a loved one of a Borderline, take the time to practice self care for yourself (here’s a gigantic list of self care you can do right at home.)
You can wish with all your might that your Borderline would feel something for you and not act like you’re nothing, but this is another symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder that can destroy a relationship.
At this time, the best thing for you to do is take a step back so you are not overwhelmed by why you’re not getting affection in return.
You’re probably tired of me telling you this… but remember that it’s not personal. Do take care of yourself.
Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger
You get set off by moments like someone making a snarky comment or a broken promise and then you explode.
You say the cruelest, meanest things your mind can summon and then tomorrow, or a few days later, you regret it. The anger got the best of you and blinded you.
You’re embarrassed and ashamed, but the damage is already done.
This also goes back to the lack of time lapse.
With Borderline Personality Disorder, you never truly get over anything. Emotional and traumatic events get played over and over again in your mind until something irrelevant can trigger you and push you into a meltdown.
The people in your immediate vicinity are hit with the shrapnel and you start burning bridges.
You might also be physically aggressive and put your hands on people, even when you know you can’t do that.
If you have issues managing your temper and you fear for the safety of those around you, do let a medical professional know.
Note for loved ones: First off, if you ever feel that you are in danger or if you have been physically assaulted by someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, please seek immediate help.
The National Domestic Abuse hotline is 1-800-799-7233 or please report it to your local authorities.
Alternatively, head to your nearest hospital and let them know that you are in danger.
If your loved one is angry but not physically abusive, help them find outlets for the bursts of anger.
Like with Borderline Personality Disorder symptom #6, cultivating mindfulness of when these emotional shifts happen is necessary to prevent future outbursts.
If the issue is that your loved ones is getting into fights with strangers or other people, besides you, your loved one may need their exposure to toxic situations limited (for example, going out too late, drinking, being in environments known for causing tension).
Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms
Lastly, the symptom of not being here.
You might tune out or fade away.
It’s hard to concentrate on what someone may be staying or on staying present. Your mind always wants to go to a different place.
In a nutshell, you’re disconnected from the present.
This could be a coping mechanism.
If you’re in stressful situations, you could completely tune out and go to a safer space.
Alternatively, if you’re under constant duress, being in a a calm environment could be so startling that you disconnect and your mind goes into a state of stress.
Note for loved ones: For this symptom, it can be alarming for you to “snap them out of it.” Don’t grab them suddenly, or shake them, or snap in their face.
Instead, say something like, “You seem disassociated,” or “Are you here with me?” Unless they specifically say they respond well to touch, do not touch them. Be gentle in your voice and ease them back into the present.
Here are the 9 DSM traits of Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms and what it potentially feels like to have it.
This is not a way to self-diagnose.
If you suspect that you have Borderline Personality Disorder, I encourage you to seek a professional that could test and validate your suspicions.
Recovery and treatment for BPD and other disorders vary, and while you may feel like you’re Borderline, there could be something else going on. (I thought that with my mood swings, I was definitely Bipolar, though the doctors strongly disagreed.)
If you are a loved one that suspects someone you care about has Borderline Personality Disorder, encourage them to seek a diagnosis.
Be there with them, if they want. Drive them there.
Help them research for places that they could get help, if they are ready to be helped.
Never force someone to seek diagnosis or insist they have a mental health condition.
This only works if they are ready to acknowledge that there is something going on that they need help with.
Credit for the DSM requirements: Psychology Today
Gifs courtesy of Giphy.
What do Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms feel like for you?
Let me know in the comments below.