The gift inside borderline personality disorder (BPD)
What it means to be ‘hyper-empathic’?
BPD is also known as emotional dysregulation disorder or emotionally unstable personality disorder (World Health Organization, 1992). Despite being referred to as a ‘personality disorder’, it is not a character flaw but is best understood as a limitation in a person’s capacity to regulate emotions. This means that the person with BPD often experience emotions as rapidly changing, or spiralling out of control. These symptoms go alongside impulsive self-soothing behaviours and a chronic sense of internal hollowness.
Although the link between BPD and empathy remains controversial, many people with BPD identify with the traits of being an “empath”, or being hyper-empathic.
Empathy is broadly defined as the way we react to one another (Davis, 1983), and it defines how we conduct ourselves in this world. An empath is extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of other people, animals and places (Orloff, 2011). Although the term ‘empath’ has not been used very much within the academia, psychologists have extensively studied what it is like to have high empathy, and they have found the following phenomenon:
- Individual differences in empathy level affect the way people recognise facial expressions (Besel and Yuille, 2010) and react to social cues (Eisenberg and Miller, 1987).
- People with high empathy are better at recognising emotions in others. However, they also have a ‘bias’ towards negative emotional expressions, meaning that they are more sensitive and alert to negative feelings in others. Perhaps due to these propensities, they are also more likely to experience ‘empathic distress’ (Chikovani, Babuadze, Tamar Gvalia, Surguladze, 2015).
- Interestingly, it was found that women with high empathy are better than their male counterparts in noticing and recognising sadness.
- Excessive empathy – an intense sharing of other’s negative emotions – is linked to emotional disorders in health professionals and caregivers. Their empathic distress is often framed as compassion fatigue or burnout. (Batson et al., 1987, Eisenberg et al., 1989, Gleichgerrcht and Decety, 2012).
It is important that naturally empathic people learn to hone their empathic skills, such as emotional regulation, perspective taking, empathic accuracy (the ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others) (McLaren, 2013). Without these skills, many empaths ended up ‘absorbing’ the emotions of others to the point of being burned out.