Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Written from a lived and living experience perspective.

Untitled design 1

What is borderline personality disorder?

The way we could describe borderline personality disorder (BPD) is when a person has significant difficulty with intense, overwhelming emotions, which affects the way they developed in childhood, their relationships throughout their life and their ability to develop a strong sense of self. It can also involve a person’s ability to feel safe within themselves, particularly during highly stressful events or circumstances. Many people, but not all, who develop BPD have also experienced trauma.

The author of this page has a lived experience of being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. They have written what follows using their lived experience within the context of the criteria used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM; the psychiatric manual used to classify mental health diagnoses) to describe BPD.

Intense emotions

People who live with BPD experience emotions differently – the ‘emotion centre’ in our brain is more sensitive, making emotions more easily activated, higher in intensity and taking longer to settle back down again. This is often described as 'dysregulation'. Intense, overwhelming emotions can be highly distressing and extremely painful to live with. We also might feel numb or detached at times, particularly during highly stressful or overwhelming circumstances. Some people describe feeling 'on the edge' all of the time, like they’re constantly irritable or easily agitated and can begin to feel out of control really quickly. When we do feel out of control, it can take such a long time to feel calm again that we find it hard to cope. These experiences can be extremely challenging to live with, so we are likely to try to avoid emotions, or avoid emotionally activating events, in order to feel less discomfort and distress. We may also try to control or soothe ourselves in unusual, sometimes risky or dangerous ways. Experiencing such distressing emotions, without the skills to manage, can lead us to seek coping strategies that appear to match or drown out the intensity of the distress.

Difficulty with relationships

We are also likely to have a really hard time within our relationships if we’re living with BPD — not just one or two of our relationships, but across nearly all of them in some significant way. For example, we might feel like we can go from feeling very positive about someone to feeling very negative within a very short period of time. We might also have trouble when it comes to developing and asserting boundaries in our relationships, making it hard for ourselves and others to know if a line has been crossed or respected. We may also express ourselves in particularly intense ways, find it hard to trust others, and have difficulty interpreting other people’s intentions.

These tendencies might make us appear 'overly sensitive' or 'over reactive' to other people. While relationships often have their ups and downs, the way we experience these ups and downs can be particularly painful for us, making it hard to feel content and secure. In other words, we may experience a lot of instability or overwhelming difficulty across many of our relationships – instability amongst friend groups, with family members and amongst school or workplace relationships. It’s not that we are to blame and others aren’t, that’s not what we’re saying – it’s that we may notice that we struggle within relationships, even when it seems that everyone is doing their very best. It is very common for people with BPD to try so hard to develop strong, close and safe relationships, but struggle so much to make it happen. This can be very painful.

Our sensitivity to emotions means that relationships can be extremely hard, especially when it comes to dealing with hurt, loss and separation. People might describe us as being 'clingy' or 'over-dependant', or they may sometimes describe us as really 'distant' and 'cold'. These perceptions can lead to us feeling a lot of pain, loneliness and isolation.

Impulses, urges, risk

We might also have difficulty with impulses, urges or behaviours when we live with BPD. This means that after a particularly stressful event, we might be prone to doing something impulsive without really thinking it through, or doing something very dangerous and risky that we ordinarily wouldn’t do. We may find ourselves having to manage serious consequences later on.

To people on the outside, it might look like impulsive spending, excessive gambling, binge drinking, binge eating or a combination of such things. It might look like expressing intense emotions, such as anger or distress, in a particularly extreme way, or getting into high risk situations where we are at risk of serious harm. It could also look like intentionally inflicting physical injuries to our bodies, like cutting, bruising, burning ourselves or overdosing on medications.

These experiences can be described as 'expressions of pain'. They are a sign that we are experiencing an overwhelming level of distress and trying to find a way to cope in any way we can. Further information about these experiences can be found in our lived and living experience resource page.

Identity and sense of self

Difficulty developing and maintaining a consistent sense of self is also common for us. This reflects the lack of opportunity we’ve had to develop a strong sense of who we are as an individual, including our sense of knowing where we fit in the world and what we find meaningful and valuable about ourselves. We might rely very heavily on how we think other people see us, basing our identity on these perceptions and not so much our own, independent ideas. We might define ourselves by the way others appear to define us and then go to great efforts to shape and mould ourselves according to other people’s standards. This means we may not feel like we know who we really are. We may feel like we have to hide or ignore our own values and core beliefs in order to fit in. This causes us to struggle to feel content, accepted and truly valued as an individual.

A chronic feeling of emptiness

We may also describe ourselves having a deep, lingering feeling of emptiness— like a void that just can’t be filled no matter how hard we try. This is sometimes a very difficult feeling to describe and each person may describe it very differently. One way to describe it would be to say that it is like always feeling like there’s a dark, hollow void inside us and no matter how hard we try, it can’t seem to be filled or illuminated.

Suicidal thoughts, urges and actions

It is also common for many people who live with BPD to experience suicidal thinking. This can involve struggling to feel safe within ourselves for short, intense periods during times of distress. It may also be experienced over long periods of time — feeling like wanting to end our lives in order to end our ongoing distress. Thinking about suicide can sometimes be the only way we can ‘see a way out’, and it can become very distressing, both for us and for the people that support us.

Is borderline personality disorder common?

It is estimated that up to 1-2% of the community could be living with BPD. This means that there could be somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 people living with this condition in Victoria alone. Many of us experience this, many of us may know or have met someone who is living with this, and knowing how to understand them and be supportive is incredibly valuable.

Living with BPD can be very challenging, for the people themselves and for the people in their lives.

The good news about BPD is that effective treatments do exist and with good support and psychological treatment the majority of people can and do recover.

Is BPD often misunderstood?

There are many misconceptions, misperceptions and myths that people believe to be true about personality disorders. These mistaken beliefs can contribute to considerable community stigma, self-stigma and discrimination. We address some of the most common misconceptions in our fact sheets.

Other places to find helpful information about BPD: