The research is all over the place on this question. Though “lack of empathy” is a usual textbook symptom of BPD, some researchers believe that people with the disorder have a peculiar sensitivity to others’ emotional states. I don’t intend to examine all the research here but to share some reflections on BPD’s paradoxical nature.
Here’s my observation. People with BPD do lack empathy and are at the same time exceptionally empathetic, showing exquisite sensitivity to those with whom they identify. If they recognize a victim in another person – someone who’s not loved enough, who’s not appreciated, who’s abused, or underestimated – if they, in short, can make over the other person into themselves, they can be quite insightful, intuitive, and empathetic. Their empathy and self-involvement (paradox everywhere!) go hand in hand.
I’d also suggest that the person with BPD does this better with a stranger or a character in a movie or book than with relatives or significant others.
For example, I perceived Olive Kitteridge (the main character in Elizabeth Strout’s fine novel by the same name) as a person with BPD or with borderline traits. And though I liked Olive, she reminded me of my mom, and so I identified with Olive’s son Chris. Though Olive loves Chris and wants the best for him, she seems utterly unable to understand the damage her criticisms and rages have had on their relationship. Within her own family, she can perceive only her own pain.
When she encounters “victims” outside of her family, however, she’s instinctively understanding and supportive. She helps prevent a young man’s suicide, and she takes a troubled runaway girl under her wing.
For family members, this “empathy-deficiency” at home can be devastating. You want your mom to feel for you, to be on your team, to share your joys and sorrows! But if your mom suffers from BPD, she’s desperately trying to get family members to recognize her suffering, to acknowledge her pain. There’s very little room for feeling yours. When I asked my sisters if our mother loved us, my oldest sister responded that she did but was so wrapped up in her own pain that she couldn’t show her love.
I never witnessed my mom expressing the slightest empathy for my dad, who became a paraplegic at the age of 42. Instead, she’d refer to herself as a widow in his presence and never notice him flinch from the blow.