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Borderline Personality Myths

BPD Myths - Separating Fact from Fiction

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Updated October 28, 2008

Tired of borderline personality myths? There are a number of widely held beliefs about borderline personality disorder (BPD) that are just plain false. Learn more about the fact and the fiction of BPD.

Borderline Personality Disorder Myth #1: BPD is Not a Real Mental Illness — It’s Just a Personality Problem

Borderline personality disorder is a very real and serious mental illness. It is not a “personality problem” or just a set of maladaptive ways of coping with the world. BPD is the result of a combination of biological, genetic and environmental causes. It is recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the official guidebook used by mental health providers to diagnose mental illness (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and is severe enough to warrant being designated as a “serious mental illness” by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Borderline Personality Disorder Myth #2: People with BPD are Manipulative

Certainly, anyone who has been in a relationship with a person with BPD, be it a family member, friend or romantic partner, can understand where this myth comes from. To people on the outside, it may seem as if the person with BPD is trying to deliberately manipulate. The truth is, though, even if manipulation is the consequence of a person with BPD’s behavior, it is not the reason for the behavior. The reason people with BPD behave the way they do is because of intense emotional pain for which they are seeking any form of relief. While the symptoms of BPD may wreck havoc on relationships, that is not the intent of the behavior.

Borderline Personality Disorder Myth #3: BPD is Caused by Childhood Trauma

One very common belief is that child abuse or other forms of childhood trauma cause BPD. This is not the case. There is evidence that a large percentage of people who have BPD have experienced childhood maltreatment or early separation from caregivers, but there are also many people who have BPD who did not have these experiences. Also, many people who have had traumatic childhoods do not have BPD.

Borderline Personality Disorder Myth #4: People Who Self-Harm Probably Have BPD

Some people think that nonsuicidal self-harming behaviors (such as cutting, burning, scratching or piercing) are synonymous with BPD. The truth is, though, there are many people who engage in self-harm who do not have BPD, and many people who have BPD who do not self-harm. Self-harm is just one of nine diagnostic criteria for BPD, and a person must have at least five of the nine criteria to be diagnosed with the disorder.

Borderline Personality Disorder Myth #5: People with BPD Never Get Better

This is unequivocally false. Very large and careful research studies have examined the course of borderline personality disorder. These studies have found that 88% of people with BPD achieve remission (e.g., no longer meet criteria for a BPD diagnosis) over ten years. In addition, about one-third of people with BPD achieve remission within two years! This means that only a very small subset of people with BPD (about 12%) continue to have the disorder for more than 10 years.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed, text revision. Washington, DC: Author, 2007.

Linehan MM. Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.

Zanarini MC, Frankenburg FR, Hennen J, Reich DB, Silk KR. "Prediction of the 10-Year Course of Borderline Personality Disorder." American Journal of Psychiatry. 163:827-832, 2006.

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