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Are People With BPD Better Able To "Read" Others?

By June 23, 2008

In the 1970's and 1980's, a few borderline personality disorder (BPD) researchers proposed that individuals with BPD are unusually sensitive to other people's emotional states, a phenomenon called "borderline empathy." This hypothesis sparked several research studies examining whether people with BPD are better able to "read" others, with mixed results. Some studies demonstrated that people with BPD were more sensitive to others' emotional states, while others did not find evidence for borderline empathy.

However, a recent study adds another twist-- researchers paired people with BPD with non-BPDs, and compared how well each member of the pair could "read" the other's internal state. At first glance, it appeared that the people with BPD were more empathic than their partner. However, further analysis suggested that this effect was probably due to the fact that the person with BPD was more difficult to read, not that they were reading their partner better.

Clearly, more work is needed to fully understand whether "borderline empathy" exists. What do you think? Are people with BPD more sensitive to the internal states of other people?


Flury JM, Ickes W, Schweinle W. "The Borderline Empathy Effect: Do High BPD Individuals Have Greater Empathic Ability? Or Are They Just More Difficult To 'Read?'." Journal of Research in Personality, 42:312-332, April 2008.

August 15, 2008 at 12:14 pm
(1) Michael says:

Are people with BPD more sensitive to the internal states of other people?

I have been in a relationship with a woman with BPD for two years. I had to end it because of all of the drama that kept getting stirred up. My personal opinion is yes, she did have an enhanced innate ability to empathize with others. The problem comes with how it is used. She used it as a weapon. She would empathize with you in order to obligate you to empathize with her. I didn’t need or desire all of the “empathy” that she sent my way but I got it nonetheless. It came with a high price tag. I had to then spend countless hours trying to empathize with her and fill the bottomless pit of despair of which she was constantly teetering on the edge. She needed the rush of emotions she could get from you once you were as upset as she was. She needed… and I mean NEEDED to feel that emotion from you to know that she was real. It’s the only thing that brought her relief from the emptiness that she usually felt.

May 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm
(2) Anon says:

I have recently been diagnosed with BPD after a suicide attempt. I believe and so do others (since long before my diagnosis) that I am highly sensitive both to my own pain and the pain of others. I become very distressed and weep when I witness or hear of people or animals in pain. I have a special affinity for children and have always inserted myself into caregiving/maternal roles (ie volunteering at hospitals, orphanages, teaching the underprivileged). I donate blood and bone marrow and am an organ donor..I do not understand how anyone cannot be as concerned as I am with regard to the wellbeing of others.
I always knew I was different, and so did everyone else, but I could never put my finger on it. I had to be “let go” at the paediatric oncology ward where I worked as I became so emotionally attached to the children and could not control my emotions (ie crying in front of them). I am told that I am very perceptive, as I can tune into other people’s feelings (ie I can sense their pain), however, I have difficulty understanding feelings of elation or happiness. I also have the unusual ability to guess the endings of psychological type films/ series and it surprises people as they are often very complex insights.

May 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm
(3) Anon says:

I was physically and emotionally abused as a child, so i guess that my experience feeling pain gives me increased insight into other’s pain. However, I do believe that there are genetic factors at work, so despite my upbringing, I always had the predisposition to this condition. I am afraid to have children because I do not want them to be like me. I feel pain so intensely, in myself and in others, and it destroys my ability to function or detach myself from others. I have a heightened, acute experience of the world around me, and it leaves me with a sense of existential despair. Any criticism reverberates throughout my body, and although I can psychoanalyze myself and acknowledge my inappropriate emotional feelings and responses, I feel unable to change them. In other words, I can understand the cause but seem unable to change the effect (ie I can sense that I’m overreacting but still harbour those feelings so intensely).

I let things “get to me”, my own suffering and that of others. I do not feel anger or violence towards others though, I know what pain feels like and I do not wish it on anyone else. I instead am self-loathing in response to abandonment or criticism..I feel unlovable as a person, and am surprised when people express love for me. I feel that they do not know me because if they did, they would not love me, for I hate every inch of my being. This is how it feels to be me..and this diagnosis is so depressing as the abandonment we fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are no drugs to cure me, I would rather have another condition that is not egosyntonic and stigmatized. I often wish I had a serious physical illness to justify the pain that I feel. I can’t “snap out of it”, and so i try to end my life. Be it jumping of my bunk bed with a rope around my neck at the age of 5 or swallowing pills at 20 and being found unconscious in my flat..I just want to stop feeling, as I feel so intensely.

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