The gift inside borderline personality disorder (BPD)
The ‘borderline empathy paradox’
It has long been recognised that individuals with BPD seem to possess an uncanny sensitivity to other people’s subconscious mental content – thoughts, feelings and even physical sensations. They also seem to have a talent in involving and influencing others (Park, Imboden, Park, Hulse, and Unger, 1992, p. 227).
In the first study that explicitly investigate this observation, Frank and Hoffman (1986) found that individuals with BPD showed a heightened sensitivity to non-verbal cues when compared with people without BPD. This finding has been validated through other follow-up research (Domes, Schulze, and Herpertz, 2009). A well-known study, for instance, compared the way people with BPD react to photographs of people’s eyes to those without BPD. The researchers found that the BPD group was more able to correctly guess what emotions these eyes expressed, which showed their enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others (Fertuck et al., 2012).
At their best, these highly intuitive individuals’ ability would constitute what giftedness psychologists call ‘personal intelligence’ (Gardner,1985) . This kind of giftedness consists of two components: ‘interpersonal intelligence’ – the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people, and ‘intra-personal intelligence’ – the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations.
Despite their enhanced empathic ability, many people with BPD have difficulties navigating social and interpersonal situations. Without the ability to regulate their emotions and manage attachment relationships, their hypersensitivity may end up showing up as emotional storms and mood swings (Fonagy, Luyten, & Strathearn, 2011), being easily triggered by stressful situations, and a constant fear abandonment and rejection (Fertuck et al., 2009). This phenomenon is known as the ‘borderline empathy paradox’ (Franzen et al., 2011; Krohn, 1974).