Borderline Personality Disorder, Bisexuality, and Empathic Capacity

(Over 2% of the population have some degree of BPD. Of this population 8 to 10% commit suicide – this rate is more than 50 times the rate of suicide in the general population and ten times the rate of suicides due to depression alone. This does not even include high-risk behavior that can lead to drug overdose. Approximately one-third of people with BPD also identify themselves as bisexual. If we reversed that, the number of bisexuals who have BPD traits, I believe the numbers would be much higher.  This blog is an attempt to understand the nature of one of the sub traits of disinhibition – risk-taking.)

Pathological personality traits in Disinhibition – Risk taking: lack of concern for one’s limitations. (DSM5)

We now move on to pathological personality trait 21 – lack of concern for one’s limitations. According to Fonagy and Bateman (2006), people with BPD may lack insight into their deficiencies in impulse control and empathic capacity which can lead to distortions in perceptions relating to self and others. The theory led to an interesting study my Morey (2014) who gave course instruction to 104 psychology students and then asked them to estimate their trait levels on the Five Factor Model of Personality. They then completed the Personality Assessment Inventory-Borderline Features Scale (PAI-BOR). High BOR individuals dramatically overestimated their levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. Morey concluded that a key feature of BPD involves marked perceptual distortions of various aspects of self in relationship to others. Morey purposed that such individuals may have distorted insight into their capacity for cooperative relationships. There are three factors suggested here – empathic capacity, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Let’s begin with deficiency in empathic capacity.

Empathy is the capacity to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. We may actually sense and feel someone else’s emotions as if they are part of our own. In other words, someone else’s pain or happiness can become our pain or happiness. If we lack the ability to sense another’s feelings, it is defined as an empathy deficit disorder (EDD). A person with EDD may believe that only their needs are important, and may lack the ability to sense and appreciate the needs of others. This can result in difficulty forming and maintaining relationships and living in harmony with friends and loved ones. I believe that this is probably at the root of narcissism and anti-social personality disorders, but not BPD.

But does empathic capacity have to be a deficiency? Those of us with BPD tend to be oversensitive and not under sensitive. Fertuck (2012) found that individuals with BPD showed a heightened sensitivity to non-verbal cues when compared with people without BPD. The BPD group was more able to correctly guess what emotions were being expressed in pictures of eyes. They concluded that this showed an enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others. In other words those of us with BPD may be super-skilled in sensing non-verbal cues such as eye expression, body language, and verbal tones.

            It appears that our high empathy skills may be an outcome of growing up in a traumatic and unpredictable childhood environment. Indeed, many of us have a history of abuse and neglect. As a response to confusing or neglectful parenting, we may have had to rely on our empathic functioning in order to protect themselves. We may have been self-trained by our environment to become highly attuned to the subconscious cues given out by parents and caregivers so that we could prepare ourselves for their unconscious behaviours. If our primary caretakers did not have the capacity to attune to our heightened perceptions, or even resented or were threatened by them, we may have consciously or subconsciously sabotaged our own emotional development. If our parents either explicitly or implicitly rejected us, we may have internalised the shame of being rejected, and experienced ourselves as being profoundly unloved and unworthy of love; however, we did what we could to preserve a good image of our parents even though they were incompetent, abusive, or neglectful. We naturally blamed ourselves because we still depended on them for our physical and emotional survival. We may have even forced ourselves to grow up prematurely so we could take care of our fragile parents.  We may have become emotionally unstable and have struggled all our lives feeling lonely, misunderstood, with the belief that there was something deeply wrong with us, and with the belief that our only function was to please and serve others. All of these factors can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness often resulting in indulging in high-risk behaviors.

            So how does this affect us bisexuals with BPD? I believe that one of the reasons we are so sexually active, even to the point of sexual addiction, is because we are looking for love, or at least, if not love, some sign that we are indeed desirable. Many of us are also bound by trying to use our sexuality to please others. In many cases our opposite sex relationships may have reached a point where we can sense that their non-verbal communication indicates that sex no-longer seems to thrill them (rejection), so we look for same sex experiences, usually with new partners, so we can experience their extreme forbidden  pleasure as well as our own. We often dabble in kinky stuff such as humiliation and degradation and perhaps forms of role-play involving punishment in order to exercise the demon that keeps telling us that all our abuse and neglect and our inability to please others, including our partners, is really our own fault. We often engage in unsafe sex or combine sex with dangerous drugs to heighten our sexual experience believing that if we die or get some fatal disease it is what we deserve anyway.

            While our heightened empathic capacity may be extremely painful, we should not immediately assume that it is a defect. It may be a gift. Psychologists recognize that empathy is one of the factors in personal intelligence (Gardner, 1985) which makes it a gift or talent rather than a deficit. Not all children who are neglected or abused end up with bisexual BPD; therefore, there may also be a genetic trait that is common to many of us that results in this disorder. Under favourable, circumstances, we could have grown up to have amazing abilities. If we had had an environment where we could have learned to set healthy boundaries and experience secure attachment without exploitation, we could have had an extraordinary ability to self-soothe and regulate our own emotions, have a sense of emotional stability under all circumstances, and a deep sense of internal wholeness. While the history cannot be changed, we can re-write the story that we keep telling ourselves. We are indeed worthy; in fact, we are gifted. We have a high level of awareness and acuity to verbal and nonverbal cues that is extremely precious. We are sensitive, intuitive, individuals who have the ability and potential wisdom to apply the right kind of nourishment to ourselves as well as to others. We have an ability to perceive our partner’s sexual experience and keep adjusting our love making to please them so we can heighten our own sexual pleasure. Because of our innate perceptivity, we can heal ourselves and help others heal themselves.  

            Perhaps there is a little voice within us that has always been there telling us we are special. If we can begin to listen to that voice, we can heal ourselves. Our amazing body wants us to heal so we can feel the full pleasure of our sexuality without feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection. Our mind wants to heal so we can enjoy the attributes or our empathic gifts. Our heart wants us to heal so we can love ourselves and find true intimacy with others. Our soul wants us to heal so we can share our amazing gifts to help please, heal, and nurture others. Once we can begin to recognise and trust our own fundamental goodness, our so-called pathological traits can become powerful tools to create the kind of life we will truly love to live. 

My five suggestions for bisexual Borderliners:

1. We rewrite our story. We recognize that we are gifted. We do not have EDD or even BPD. We are not dysfunctional. We simply function on a different plain.

2. We begin to practice self-love. Every time we feel that old impulse to hate ourselves we stop the noise, soothe our precious mind that is trying to protect us from further abuse, thank our mind for its due diligence, and let our heart express that we do indeed  love our SELF and have this amazing capacity to love and please others.

3. We let that voice from deep inside speak the truth that we are indeed worthy. In fact, we deserve to be treated as special because we are indeed special.

4. We take that painful trip back into our childhood and face the demons of the past. We acknowledge that our caregivers were weak and perhaps even abusive. We forgive and let go and then we pat ourselves on the back for surviving such a caustic situation.  

5. We begin to enjoy our sexuality without the negative feelings of being unloved and used and we stop trying to punish ourselves. We allow our empathic capacity to soothe our fragile self, grow, and enjoy our heightened sexual arousal and intimate pleasure for ourselves and our partner.

1. Fonagy P, Bateman AW: Mechanisms of change in mentalization‒based treatment of BPD. J Clin Psychol 2006,62(4):411–430. 10.1002/jclp.20241
2. Morey, Leslie C.. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation. Volume 1, Article number: 4. (2014)
3. Fertuck, Eric a.; Grinband, Jack; and Stanley, Barbara. Facial Trust Appraisal Negatively Biased in Borderline Personality Disorder. HHS Public Access. Published online 2013.