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Do People with BPD Lack Empathy?

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.

3 Comments

  1. victoria wrote:

    I would love to read the book. I have some questions about the logic behind emotional interactions with a BPD partner from their eyes I can’t help but wonder about. The familiar paradox as described above is a liberating read. So amazingly exact to what I have experienced. Very helpful and comforting to see it exactly, from someone else in black and white. Vicki

    Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  2. alexandra wrote:

    I have bpd, but no therapist will dare diagnose me with it. They prefer to call it PTSD. Whatever. I used to have that heightened sensitivity you speak of, but lately I have zero empathy, and I must say, I like it this way. I love it because most people don’t care about you anyway, and they’re fake. Empathy therefore is a timewaster made for wussies and loser types.

    Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 2:03 am | Permalink
  3. Kathy wrote:

    Keep reading and commenting, Victoria and Alexandra! I hope “Missing” is available to you in print someday!

    Friday, May 18, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

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