The simple answer to this is a plain, emphatic, resounding NO!!!
If anything people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are the most outstanding at empathy of all people, why?
Because when you feel emotions amplified at least 10x as strongly as ‘normal’ people, with an intensity one can only liken to being hit by a high speed train (and switching for one emotion to another with the same degree of force on a hairtrigger) who is better placed to understand what someone else feels?
Empathy is defined as:
the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Empathy and BPD – The falsehoods
There is a heap of misleading, unfair literature out there that suggests that ‘borderlines’ are incapable of feeling empathy (along with people suffering various other conditions from autism to psycopathy) but one of the most famous examples, which is also the most nasty, damaging and stigmatising is the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (Professor, Expert in Autism & cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen aka Ali-G) in his book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty.
First of all I would actively recommend against reading the book unless you want to be angered to the point you want to hunt this man down and show him who really lacks empathy – HIMSELF!
Baron-Cohen displays the most unempathic understanding of BPD throughout his section on the condition within the book, quite a feat for someone to write about the lack of empathy of others while clearly demonstrating his own inability to empathise! Examples of what Baron-Cohen has to say about people with BPD include:
Zero degrees of empathy does not strike at random in the population. There are at least three well-defined routes to getting to this end-point: borderline, psychopathic, and borderline personality disorders. I group these as zero-negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad for the sufferer and for those around them.
people with BPD are “evil”, “zero-negative” and have “zero degrees of empathy” (similar to the Nazis).
Dorothy Rowe (clinical psychologist and writer, and an expert on research into the biological basis of mental disorder) wrote in the Guardian review of Zero Degrees of Empathy:
In Baron-Cohen’s section on borderline personality disorder I counted 19 uses of the words “borderline” or “borderlines” as a noun, in sentences such as “Borderlines are very manipulative”.
Clearly this is a book to avoid, likening BP’s to nazi’s, describing BPs as ‘evil’ and having zero empathy it is a horrific example of Baron-Cohen’s own inability to empathise!
I say to Baron-Cohen – stick to what you know, Autism, you have done some outstanding work with this condition but you clearly don’t know BPD – maybe you should spend some time with Marsh Linehan if you want to know about BPD. But until you have done that stay the HELL away from borderlines, we don’t need unempathic, dangerous people like you in our lives!
Baron-Cohen is not alone though in his belief that Borderline’s lack empathy, there are many examples on the internet alone Shari Schreiber claims she can…
…save you years in therapy.
by reading articles on her website about Borderline Personality Disorder – yet all her work there is ignorant, ill-informed and damaging for those with BPD and anyone looking to support someone with BPD. at first glance even a BP will recognise some of the traits she describes but these glimpses of the truth are in murky waters, littered with scaremongering, misinformation and outright untruths! for example:
They are lacking in empathy and impulse control, which allows these violent acts to happen, and our prison system houses many Borderlines who’ve killed in a fit of rage.
Now let’s pick that apart…
lacking in empathy – untrue 100% misinformation
impulse control – true but not in this context, BP’s do have issues with impulsivity but this is 9as the DSM-IV criteria states) in “areas that are SELF – damaging”
Violent acts happen – Violent acts can happen with ANYONE BP or non BP, mental health issues or no mental health issues…
Prison system houses ‘many’ Borderline’s – Well to be fair I don’t have access to figures, but I am pretty certain they do not represent a higher proportion of the population than non-BP’s…
killed in a fit of rage – while not impossible (as for any other person) this is again misleading – proof please!?
This woman fails to provide sources for her ‘claims’ and if based on her own ‘professional’ experiences of BPD then she clearly has very little of this – meeting one very severely damaged person with BPD does not give you enough information to make sweeping generalizations about all people with BPD. Another example of someone that needs to spend some time with Marsha Linehan!
Empathy and BPD – The reality
One study showed that individuals with BPD are actually better than controls on a test of empathy designed by Baron-Cohen himself (Fertuck et al., 2009). That would be the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), “a measure of the capacity to discriminate the mental state of others from expressions in the eye region of the face.” The study showed that:
The BPD group performed significantly better than the HC group on the RMET, particularly for the Total Score and Neutral emotional valences. Effect sizes were in the large range for the Total Score and for Neutral RMET performance. The results could not be accounted for by demographics, co-occurring Axis I or II conditions, medication status, abuse history, or emotional state. However, depression severity partially mediated the relationship between RMET and BPD status.
Marsha Linehan and other BPD experts have been quoted as saying things such as:
Some people with BPD may have an unusually high degree of interpersonal sensitivity, insight and empathy
A Borderline can often be empathic to a fault, taxing his or her strength and putting others before him or herself until it becomes health-threatening.
I’m going to finish with sharing my own experience, being a person who has BPD I have numerous examples of my own displays of EMPATHY that show I am far more demonstrative in this area than most people.
- I can tell if someone is upset even if they don’t say anything
- I get emotionally involved with things I see (films etc) or read (books etc) and will often cry or get angry at things happening in these
- I like to help and care for other people
- I am highly sensitive to the feelings of others and work hard to avoid upsetting people – no matter the cost to myself!
Okay, so I could go on forever with this list, a simpler demonstration may be to use Baron-Cohen’s own tests… Both of these tests were designed by Baron-Cohen to assess empathy skills.
The Empathy Quotient Test by Simon Baron-Cohen
A test with 60 statements where you state how strongly you agree or disagree with each. Your score indicates your ability to empathise:
0 – 32 = low (most people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 20)
33 – 52 = average (most women score about 47 and most men score about 42)
53 – 63 is above average
64 – 80 is very high
80 is maximum
My score was 58, which means by Baron-Cohen’s own example I have ‘above average’ empathy skills
Reading the Mind in the Eyes – By Simon Baron-Cohen
“a measure of the capacity to discriminate the mental state of others from expressions in the eye region of the face.” In this test for each pair of eyes, choose which word best describes what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling.
A typical score is in the range 22-30.
If you scored over 30, you are very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.
A score under 22 indicates you find this quite difficult.
My score was 30, top end of the ‘normal’ range.
So by Baron-Cohen’s own assessment methods, me – a BPD has a high level of empathy, but I could have told you that without the tests…
Why not take the tests yourself and share your scores in the comments and whether you have BPD or not!?
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