Understanding borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms isn’t as easy as cracking open the newest DSM and saying, “Oh yes…pervasive thoughts and abandonment issues…mhm…I have those…sounds right to me.”
In fact, most people in general can look at the symptoms of borderline personality disorder and see themselves fitting most of the criteria. In order to combat this, I’m breaking down the symptoms of BPD a step further and putting them into layman’s terms so as to better equip people who either think they may have BPD or have a loved one they suspect may have it.
Note: If you are the caretaker of someone with BPD, you can find notes beneath each symptom to help you better navigate your unique situation.
I’d like to mention one caveat before I begin: This post isn’t meant to diagnose you with borderline personality disorder. All I’m hoping to do is to help put perspective behind BPD and provide insight for the newly diagnosed as well as their loved ones; perhaps this can help alleviate the pressure of having to figure it all out by yourself.
Borderline Personality Disorder Symptoms
1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
One of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder is a habit of thinking everyone is going to leave you in one way or another.
When the person you love the most has to leave for something completely reasonable, such as work, a meeting, or even to run to the grocery store, there is a terrifying fear that this person will never come back.
For people with borderline, the fear of abandonment can be anything from a feeling of “they’re going to leave me by myself because they hate me” to “something terrible is going to happen to them and I’ll never see them again.”
Sure, everyone misses their loved ones when they leave, but with borderline personality disorder, it feels like they will never come back.
You’ll beg for them to stay. In extreme cases, you may even hurt yourself in an effort to get them to stay.
Note for loved ones: Sometimes, it may feel like borderlines are being manipulative or controlling by hurting themselves to make you stick around.
The reality is that the pain of losing you is so real — so overwhelming — that the borderline feels like they MUST hurt themselves — or you will be gone forever.
2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
Another invasive symptom of having borderline personality disorder is putting someone on a pedestal one day and then feeling disgusted by them not long after.
Unlike people’s brains without BPD, the borderline brain is black and white; you either love someone or you hate them. To people with BPD, in-betweens don’t exist (and people who fall in the “in-betweens” are normally not important enough to warrant love or hate from a borderline).
For you (a borderline), meeting someone “incredible” is an elating feeling. You think this person is the best thing you’ve ever come across and you’ll undoubtedly want to be best friends or immediate lovers with them.
For you, there’s no such thing as taking it slow.
Inevitably, this person will do something that will destroy that image you hold of them; it could be something like taking too long to text back or yawning while you’re speaking (things everyone does).
Though not the intention of these people, these little gestures will hurt you so badly that your mind will immediately come up with reasons why that person wasn’t that great anyway — maybe even bad.
At this point, the illusion of wonderment shatters and you are left feeling numb to or spiteful of that person.
This symptom destroys a lot of relationships for people with borderline personality disorder. You’ll emotionally invest 110% at first, and then before you know it, your body will suddenly feel repulsed by the mere thought of that person.
Note for loved ones: This can be a hurtful experience when you are on the receiving end of this kind of repulsion. Please know that for most borderlines, these feelings are fleeting, very temporary emotions, and you probably couldn’t have prevented them anyway.
During these episodes, which are understood as “splitting,” you cannot reason with someone with BPD. The best thing to do is to say something like, “I understand that you’re upset. I’m going to give you some space. I’ll be back in a few hours or tomorrow to check on you.”
Know that it is not always you the borderline is upset with. Sometimes, something you do or say, no matter how minor, triggers a hurricane of negative emotions; it’s not your fault.
3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
It’s difficult to create a sense of self when your personality can change in a matter of days. Not only this, but not having a good sense of self makes it that much harder to practice self-love.
One day you might dress like a punk rocker and you’ll listen to Paramore and Linkin Park while three days later, you’re obsessed with Selena Gomez and wearing chrome leggings.
You might dye or cut your hair a lot and spend tons of money on different clothes, only to hate the style you chose a few days later.
It can be hard knowing what is “you” and what is an extension of another person; you start morphing into your friends and/or lovers to the point where you adopt their personalities and quirks without meaning to.
People who don’t understand borderline personality disorder symptoms will comment that you’re unpredictable, even fake.
This lack of solid, one-dimensional identity can create a sense of fear and distrust in other people.
Hey — on the upside, you’re not one-dimensional!
One day, you’re an adventurous, wandering soul backpacking through New York City, and the next, you’re a diehard gamer hooked on competitive gaming.
Who even knows who you’ll become three months from now?
While this may seem unstable and unconventional to others, you have the ability to live several different lives and experience so many different perspectives in one, single lifetime. Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
One of the books that helped me with this sense of not knowing who I am was this book, The Renaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life — A Creative and Practical Guide, which a friend recommended to me. My mind changes every few days or even hours. This book helps me navigate those impulses without disrupting my life.
Note for loved ones: Please do not let this lack of stable identity be a source of your frustration; your loved one with BPD cannot help it.
You might feel like, “I don’t even know this person!” You might even get upset because this type of personality defies traditional sense of self. But realize — it defies your traditional sense of self, not theirs.
One way to deal with this on your end is to note consistencies in all the different personalities that are exhibited by your loved one.
Are they obsessed over art?
Or maybe it’s less obvious, like they love doing things that have structure (sudoku, wood crafts, architecture).
Please, though, make sure not to chastise or show disapproval to the erratic personalities of the borderline. It’s okay to step back when it’s too much for you.
4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g. spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating, etc.).
Borderline personality disorder symptoms can be pervasive in different aspects of your life.
Impulsivity goes hand in hand with the short-term mood swings during which you may make quick decisions to satisfy your new emotion or personality.
Because of this, you often feel empty, like a shell.
This lack of identity creates a darkness when it comes to having self-worth. This darkness — or numbness — can be countered with impulsive spending, one night stands, drugs, etc.
You can become addicted to anything that can create a high.
Anything to feel anything…
Note for loved ones: This impulsivity can cause chaos in relationships.
Your loved one might constantly beg you for money to pay off debts from their impulse spending, or if you have a joint bank account, your savings might get cleaned out over mindless purchases they don’t even want by the time they get home.
Please know that having these impulsive ticks is a way to cope with discomfort; prolonged moments of discomfort can trigger a mental breakdown, panic attack, or blackout, and so these impulses help delay that.
It’s common for borderlines to self-medicate with any of the above “bad habits” to prevent their breakdown.
To help a borderline with their impulsivity, create healthy self-awareness techniques and be mindful of initial feelings of discomfort.
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook may help your loved one cultivate mindfulness.
5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats; self-mutilating behavior.
It could be a fine day; nothing may be wrong.
Yet there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that maybe you should die. Afterall, no one would really care if you were gone and the world may be a better place without you.
Or, you might be so tired of feeling numb all the time, you hurt yourself to feel some semblance of being alive (anything to feel anything).
But know this: You could have regrets. Guilt. A world of pain.
The passing of time doesn’t work for borderlines the way it does for non-borderlines. Borderline personality disorder symptoms you may face include consistent pain and inability to move on over past events.
Your mind may replay thoughts over and over — especially of things that everyone else seemed to get over but you just can’t let go of.
All these thoughts churn around in your head until you hurt yourself; it’s the only way to make yourself feel better.
Being alive might feel unbearable.
Note for loved ones: This symptom of BPD might be the most terrifying of all.
Feelings of wanting to commit suicide combined with impulsivity and lack of self-worth is a toxic cocktail. Borderlines will often feel like dying and say things like “No one will miss me anyway.”
Know that this is not something borderlines just say for “attention.”
This is truly, deep down, what a borderline believes, and so you cannot make the mistake of making this about yourself. Don’t assume they are saying these things to make you feel guilty, because odds are, they’re probably not.
Sometimes during these moments, there is nothing you can say or do.
One thing to be aware of, though, is to refrain from reminding them of all the “good things” because, again, borderline minds are black and white; when it’s bad, it’s ALL bad, including you (do not take this personally or offensively; it’s not meant that way!.
All you can really do is just listen to them cry and/or complain. Maybe change the subject — bring them a glass of water, tell them you’re going to order takeout and you’ll order something special for them, or bring them a pillow and a blanket; anything to distract them from what they’re feeling.
If your loved one is self-harming, taking drugs, drinking heavily, or seriously seems like they are about to go through with suicide, please call your local emergency number immediately.
They may say they hate you for calling in help for them now, but in these situations, it is best to let the professionals handle it before it escalates to the point of no going back. And, odd are, they’ll thank you in the long run.
6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood.
Oh, man, this one is not fun; it goes along with the unstable identity and impulsivity.
The marked difference between bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder are the length in mood swings: the former is known for their prolonged swings, while the latter is known for quick, spontaneous mood swings that could last a few hours up to a day or two.
Maybe you feel completely euphoric because breakfast was amazing, but then the cleanup process switches you into immediate irritation.
Then you look at the clock and realize you only have an hour to finish cleaning before you have company; anxiety radiates through your gut.
By noon, you are so exhausted by the myriad emotions you’ve felt just this morning that you are near incapacitation.
Note for loved ones: Sudden mood swings of borderlines can be startling.Perhaps your happy, optimistic loved one suddenly becomes the Incredible Hulk within an hour, smashing everything in sight.
These mood swings are a huge reason why borderlines find it hard to keep friendships; they’re also generally why we who have this disorder may be labeled as “crazy.”
When you suspect or experience a sudden mood swing from a borderline, give them some space.
Take what they say with a grain of salt. Allow them to marinate in their emotions, which is important to take the time to do. Being in a more secluded area where they can let their mind rest and their emotions even out will generally prevent mood swings from becoming more intense.
In these situations, you can help your loved one notice when his or her mood swings are happening so you can both prepare and react appropriately.
Create a plan of what to do when the mood swings come on that you can both agree upon.
If your loved one has a hard time determining when the mood swing is happening, the book Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder may help.
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
One day, you feel everything so deeply, and the next, you feel nothing at all.
Feelings of emptiness or being numb can be a nice change of pace if you’re in constant pain, but the numbness begins to get to you after a while; no one can be numb all the time.
It’s doing all of your favorite hobbies but no longer feeling any sort of affections.
It’s looking at the person you’ve fallen in love with and feeling absolutely nothing.
The BPD symptoms of emptiness and numbness can be disorienting and can lead to self-harm (yet again, anything to feel anything.)
Note to loved ones: You may feel hurt that your loved one with borderline personality disorder is showing no care for you, especially if you do everything in your power to keep them happy.
Trust me when I say that they don’t want to feel this way — they want to be able to love you and care about you in the same way you care about them, but their body has just gone numb, like when you’re outside in the cold too long.
It’s so important that you, as a loved one of a borderline, take the time to practice self-care for yourself.
- You can wish with all your might that your borderline would feel something for you and not act like you’re nothing, but this is just another symptom of BPD that can destroy a relationship.
At this time, the best thing you can do is take a step back so you are not overwhelmed by why you’re not getting affection from them.
You’re probably tired of me telling you this, but remember: it’s not personal. Do remember to take care of yourself.
8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.
You get set off by moments such as someone making a snarky comment or somebody harboring a broken promise; then you explode.
You say the cruelest, meanest things your mind can summon and then tomorrow — or a few days later — you regret it. The anger got the best of you; it blinded you.
You’re embarrassed and ashamed, but the damage has already been done.
This also goes back to the lack of passing time.
With borderline personality disorder, you never truly get over anything. Emotional and traumatic events get played over and over again in your mind until something irrelevant triggers you and pushes you into a meltdown.
The people in your immediate vicinity are hit with the shrapnel and you start burning bridges.
You might also be physically aggressive and put your hands on people, even when you know you can’t (and shouldn’t) do that.
If you have issues managing your temper and you fear for the safety of those around you, let a medical professional know.
Note for loved ones: First off, if you ever feel that you are in danger or if you already have been physically assaulted by someone with BPD, please seek immediate help.
The National Domestic Abuse Hotline is 1 (800) 799–7233. Otherwise, please report it to your local authorities.
Alternatively, you can always head to your nearest hospital and let them know that you feel you’re in immediate danger.
If your loved one is angry but not physically abusive, help them find outlets for their bursts of anger.
Like with borderline personality disorder symptom number six, cultivating mindfulness of when these emotional shifts happen is necessary to lessen and even prevent future outbursts.
If the issue isn’t that your loved one is getting in fights with you, but fights with strangers or other people, your loved one may need their exposure to toxic situations limited or eliminated altogether depending on the severity. Toxic situations can be things like going out too late, drinking, being in environments known for causing tension, etc.
9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
Lastly, the symptom of not being “here.”
You might tune out or fade away.
It’s hard to concentrate on what someone may be saying or for you to stay present; your mind always wants to go to a different, safer place.
In a nutshell, you’re disconnected from the present.
This may be a coping mechanism.
If you’re in stressful situations, you can completely tune out and go to a safer space.
Alternatively, if you’re under constant duress from your symptoms of BPD, being in a calm environment could be so startling to you that you disconnect and your mind consequently goes into a state of stress.
Note for loved ones: In regards to this symptom, it can be alarming for you to “snap them out of it.” Don’t grab them suddenly, shake them, or snap in their face.
Instead, say something like: “You seem disassociated” or “Are you here with me?” Unless they specifically tell you they respond well to touch, do not touch them. Let your voice bee gentle and ease them back into the present.
Here are the nine DSM traits of borderline personality disorder and what it potentially feels like to have it (or know someone who does).
Remember: this is not a way to self-diagnose. If you suspect that you have borderline personality disorder, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional that can test and validate your suspicions.
Recovery and treatment for BPD and other disorders vary, and while you may feel like you’re borderline, there could potentially be something else going on: I thought that because of my mood swings, I was bipolar, but the doctors strongly disagreed (and thus here I am!).
If you suspect someone you care about has borderline personality disorder, encourage them to seek a diagnosis.
Be there with them if they want. Drive them there.
Help them research places they can get help (if they are ready to be helped).
Never force someone to seek a diagnosis or insist they have a mental health condition — they may not be ready to face it just yet.
Receiving help only works if the person with a disorder is ready to acknowledge there is something going on that they need help with.
For more about receiving help, check out the resources page.
Please note that everything in this post is anecdotal and should not be taken as professional advice. These are based on my own experiences as someone living with borderline personality disorder.