Thursday, January 12, 2012

Empathy and Me – Part 5: Yes, Borderlines do feel Empathy

For the record. Yes. Those of us with Borderline Personality Disorder do feel empathy.

At least, I believe we do. In the face of scientific brain scan analysis that supports this but says we do so in a diminished capacity; we do feel for you. We may not always be capable of it if we’re in an extreme mood swing, or it may be a little limited depending on where our head is at, but yes, we absolutely can feel empathy.
There is a lot of stigma, a lot of damning testimonial, a lot of anger out there towards us because at times we can be very hurtful to those closest to us. This isn’t maliciously done, it’s usually just an impulsive reaction to a feeling we can’t control. Maybe sometimes it’s on purpose, but you don’t need a personality disorder to be occasionally cruel. Perspective. With us it’s just a little more extreme. A little more frequent. Requires a lot more effort to control if we can at all. If we even recognize what the problem is in the first place. Which many don’t. (Again, not trying to justify anything here, just an observation. I believe personal responsibility for our actions and behavior is very important).
I guess I can’t really know 100% for fact if how I feel empathy is the same as how a Non-Borderline would. I can’t literally put myself inside someone else’s psyche and experience the world through their mind to compare it with how I travel that same path. But I do know I have the capacity to care in a deep and meaningful way. The closer you are to me, the more I feel for you. The further removed, the less I probably do. But that’s just me. I have heard from plenty of Borderlines that they sometimes feel even more for strangers (I assume because there is less chance of being emotionally wounded by these people and is therefore easier to open up and give of themselves in a brief encounter). I do know that if someone I care about is frightened or in pain, it kills me, and I worry about them constantly.
A Reader had asked me about BPD and empathy a while back. I was in a dissociated state at the time so I told him it was complicated but I didn’t think I was in a place where I felt empathy.
“I do think that people with BPD experience empathy differently than regular people. We WANT to empathize with  people, we WANT to take care of people, we WANT to do all these things for people… but ultimately I think it does come back to motivation, and that motivation is along the lines of, doing things so people won’t leave us. Personally, I don’t think I am at all, at least not with strangers or acquaintances… unless it’s with someone that I’ve very attached to. If I’ve become engulfed with someone than I am very aware of how they feel and my own emotions are directly tied to how they are feeling… so if they are happy, I’m happy, if they’re upset, I’m upset and probably trying to figure out how to change this. My heart will break for them and I’ll do anything I can to help alleviate their pain… but I do wonder if this is because I want them to appreciate that I’m there for them, if I’m doing it so they’ll realize that they need me.  On another note, I’m also hypersensitive to people. I can easily see and feel a person’s emotional state, but depending on my own emotional state it can be too much for me, too overwhelming. I may want to be there with them, but their emotions on top of my own emotions is kind of like an emotional tidal wave. In order to keep myself from drowning in all that emotion I sort of shut down and pull away.”
When I said “Personally, I don’t think I am {empathic} at all, at least not with strangers or acquaintances” He responded with: Maybe. But the discussions we’ve had help me a lot. You've given a good chunk of your personal time to help a complete stranger. If that's not borne of empathy, then at a minimum it's very altruistic. Thank you.”
It made me stop and think. People write to me often (which I love – and no I will not blog your personal stories unless you explicitly tell me you want to share them), and because I can relate to the experiences they are going through I can feel for them. I do want to help them. I’m not “gaining” anything from it, except perhaps a little more self-awareness. But that’s secondary. I think my Reader was right, this is empathy, for a virtual stranger. My dissociation is a relatively calm state, but detached. Even when I’m in a dissociated state and don’t feel empathy, I can cognitively recognize the person I want to be and act accordingly. Even in this state of empathic detachment, my brain still works well and I can make decisions that are productive.
It is when I am most calm, but not dissociated, and not in a state of emotional frenzy that it is most possible for me to feel genuine empathy. I know it probably seems like Borderlines are never calm, or are always in an emotional uproar, but I assure you we are not. With work, therapy, medication, whatever the combination, it becomes easier.
That's not what this little girl is made of.
I’m not in the business of sugar coating things, or telling pretty little lies. On the very first introductory page of this blog I say “You will not be safe here. I will not tell you things you want to hear”. I know a lot of Non-Borderlines are probably unhappy that I seem to spin a sympathetic perspective. I know a lot of Borderlines may be unhappy that I am not pushing a purely pleasant perspective. This is my journey. This is my healing. My life hasn’t been beautiful. It hasn’t been pristine. It’s coarse, and dirty, with jagged little lines running all throughout the surface of it. But there are points of light as well. I am not JUST my disorder and diagnosis. There is beauty in the person I am beneath all of that. I forget that sometimes. I believe I am a bad person. I’m getting better. I have my darkness. I have my flaws. I have a lot of my flaws. But I have my grace as well. My own virtues.
I may not be the model of empathic perfection. But I don’t think I need to be. I manage to wind my way through life with little to none at times, limited amounts at others, even overwhelming quantities at still other points. And yes, even run of the mill day to day empathy. Regardless of whether I can feel empathy or not at any given time, I know when there are people in my world that I do not want to lose. Sometimes it just takes longer to push past my own emotional bullshit to focus on it.  

…and thus ends my series on Empathy and the Borderline Personality. This was hard for me. If you have any other thoughts or ideas you think I missed or want me to address, please, let me know and I’ll do my best.


Part 1 - Borderline Dissociation

Part 2 - When Empathy is Beyond Me

Part 3 - Self-Destructive Empathy

Part 4 - Grey Area in Empathy


  1. I love the Truth/Lies picture, Haven. It's fucking sexy. ;)

  2. Heehee thanks Raven =) Sometimes I think I spend more time picking out pictures than I do writing the actual post.

  3. " Even when I’m in a dissociated state and don’t feel empathy, I can cognitively recognize the person I want to be and act accordingly. Even in this state of empathic detachment, my brain still works well and I can make decisions that are productive."

    I love this quote because I live cut off from my emotions. 99% of the time I'm in a dissociated place where I find it very hard to really 'feel' empathy. But then there is the cognitive side of me that recognizes that if I was feeling this is what I would do and I make decisions that way. Since I've lived most of my life like this it is very easy for me to relate to everything in this manner. My daughter cries? Well while I may have very little emotions for her on a cognitive level I know I want her to be loved,secure and safe so I respond to her. It kills me sometimes that I can only really love her on a cognitive level although there is a minute amount of emotions with her more then anyone else in mylife but I do know again cognitively that I love her more then anything and would do the world for her.

    1. It's so difficult sometimes. People like to prejudge this lack of emapthy, or simply think it is something we should be able to control. The simple fact of the matter is that we can't. This is not a choice. We still have to make the best of what we have. Sometimes it's harder than others. It means a lot that you do what you know is right, even if you are detached from the emotional motivation that would normally trigger that action.

    2. Hi, I just discovered this blogspot and have been reading it thoroughly. I am a psychologist and find this site very educational for the public who would like to know about but also from a professional standpoint as well. I have had BPD patients and have some in my life as well personally so its good to read such in-depth perspective about the disorder from its many angles.

      Since Haven has no problem being controversial sometimes, I might be a little controversial here as well. In response to "just me" 's comment in which he states that he doesn't "feel" the emotion of empathy or that he doesn't feel emotions at all but recognizes what he is supposed to do from a cognitive standpoint and then states he "loves" his daughter more than anything. I have say that I don't think you can "love" if you are dissociated and can't "feel." How is that love? I think he is confusing, as many BPD or others with dissociative disorders do, "love" with "need."

      Haven has often talked about how she has people close to her that she knows cognitively she wants in her life etc....And in some of the posts this desire to have others in her life is described as "love." I would make a clear distinction between "love" and "need." True love is COMPLETELY related to being altruistic and being able to be empathetic emotionally at all times. Otherwise, wanting to have others in your life is all about the emotional "needs" of not being alone, not being lonely, taking you away from your empty, dissociative self, etc...... Just wanted to point out this distinction.

    3. This is a very interesting perspective. I think it is important to remember the difference between need and love.

      What I wonder is why people can't accept a cognitive recognition of desiring someone in their life versus an empathic love as being something that is acceptable and still genuine?

      I don't NEED to have Roommate in my life, but I completely appreciate her presence. I care about her, I want her to be happy, even when my feelings are dissociated from actually being able to feel for her. Just because I'm detached doesn't mean I don't still recognize that I would like good things for her.

      Just a thought.

      Keep up the controversy. I always enjoy hearing different perspectives.

  4. This was a really good article that shows how life with BPD really is. If anyone with BPD is interested in learning about ways to better communicate through passive response choices check out Hope people find it helpful.

  5. This was a really good article that shows how life with BPD really is. If anyone with BPD is interested in learning about ways to better communicate through passive response choices check out Hope people find it helpful.

  6. I'm not a BPD sufferer (at least, I don't know for sure if I am), but what you say makes a lot of sense. I tend to shut down and draw away from people due to my social anxiety and it's been increasing to the point where I'm agoraphobic and can't leave my house without taking something for the anxiety. When I was growing up, I wasn't interested in doing anything with the other kids and I never had a best friend. I still don't. I just can't see things the way other people do, and whenever I try to explain it to my family (they worry that I'm antisocial, ha) they can't understand how I can't understand. If that makes sense. I just feel bad sometimes because I can't seem to care about other people or empathize with their situations, unless the moment is right. For me, it is easier to "reach out" to strangers, if just for a moment, because I don't actually have to deal with that person consistently and they won't be an emotional drain. I suppose that's why I don't have very many close friends. They just suck my energy up like ravenous sponges. Thanks for posting this. I've been called cold-hearted more than once. I don't know if it's true or not. It's so hard to tell.

    1. I very much know how you feel. For all of my various empathic responses, I've never been called cold hearted. I think those people just don't understand.

      Growing up before I was diagnosed BPD I knew I had Major Depression and I knew I had terrible terrible social anxiety. It would take all of my energy to just go out sometimes. It's very hard.

      I like strangers because they put no emotional pressure on me and to be honest, I can usually just ignore them without feeling guilty. I have terrible guilt when someone I know needs my support but I'm not in a space to provide the empathy they're looking for.

      Unfortunately this is just one of those things that may be beyond some peoples capacity to really wrap their mind around because it is so foreign to how to function. ::hugs::

    2. Thank you. :) Guilt is the worst part of it sometimes. Because I know, logically, that I am capable of being "normal." It's just so hard though and it feels like an act. But, sometimes it's that very acting that keeps me functioning out there with people. Thanks again. You're providing some of that stranger empathy, haha.

  7. From what I've read on here over the past few months, I believe you have your own type of empathy. If not emotional, it is a kind of understanding of another individual.

    1. ::smiles:: I think you may be right Nuker. I know I don't experience things the way others seem to. However people seem to think this difference in perception is unacceptable. I just don't know.

  8. I know this had to have been horribly difficult. But you opened the eyes of so many people by pushing through this and getting it out. You don't have to tell us what you think society thinks is normal - we want to hear it true and understand it. Thank you sooooo much for your willingess to share and for being so brave. We know that the empathy is there - the reaction may be different, and at times the motivation, but it's there. EM

    1. This is probably one of the most exhausting series I've ever written. Some of what I feel shames me a lot. I don't like admitting (even to myself) that there are times when I can't care about other people, but the point of this blog isn't to pretend to be something that I'm not. The point is to face what I'm dealing with so I can become more self-aware, and hopefully, progress forward. Thanks Em. I really appreciate your support.

  9. I definitely think you are empathic. I think I am, too (and I know EXACTLY what you're saying about others' emotions being too overwhelming - sometimes I get the feeling I want to flee from it when others are in pain, because I will absorb it and take it in.) Maybe that's why non's think we DON'T have empathy. Because they don't understand why we react the way we do. I may seem cold and un-feeling in the face of another's despair, but the truth is, their pain affects me so much that I don't know what to do with it. Like a shockwave or something that leaves me stunned because it's too much for me to process, trying to keep a boundary of their pain being separate from my emotions. It's a thin veil. And no, you care about others, Haven, because you care about them! Nothing more, nothing less. Don't let your own self-concept try to talk you into thinking your empathy is actually selfish. It's not. Therein lies the trouble...our own self-concept keeps telling us we are bad. Anything good about us, must come from a bad place...I don't think that's true. And at the end of the day, you are not a label - you are not just a Borderline. You are Haven...and there's so much more to you than BPD. It cannot possibly all be explained by psychology. Some of it CAN be analyzed, but other aspects about you are special to ONLY you and can't fit neatly into a category.

    1. Everything you say in so right. I definitely think Nons believe we don't have empathy because they don't understand the way we react. Which is why I work so hard to put those feelings into words. To spread that understanding. When you have so much of your own inner turmoil, and you're being bombarded by the emotional turmoil of someone else, it's just too much. It's either build a dam or drown in the tidal wave. Neither is going to viewed as a good option, but they're the only one's we have.

      Thank you. What you say makes me feel, appreciated, and like I'm able to genuinely do something good. I do care. I care a lot. Sometimes I can only care so much though and I think I get too hard on myself when I can't care as much as everyone seems to want. So thank you again. It's really nice to hear good things occasionally.

  10. This comment thread is fascinating. Speaking as a Non, I believe that feelings begin and end in the mind.

    So, if Haven says she may not recognize the "feeling" of empathy for someone but does desire for them to be well, happy, etc ... it makes me wonder if the feelings aren't simply buried way down deep, in a place that can't be touched emotionally (for the time being, at least).

    The desire for someone to be happy vs the actual selfless feeling of that same desire .. well, they're a hair away from each other, aren't they? I read this as a sign that true empathy is attainable for Haven and lots of other folks with BPD. It's inspirational, really.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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