While this post is popular and many people read it, it is old. If you’d like to get a newer/different perspective go to the UPDATE: see this link.
Today’s subject is the Myth of the High-Functioning Borderline. I have been scouring the research on BPD to find out if anyone in the research or therapeutic community uses this term or concept high-functioning versus low-functioning Borderline. I have yet to find any author in either the research community or therapeutic community reference this concept. It crops up in the support community (in “Stop Walking on Eggshells” and on both bpd411.org and bpdcentral.com). It also crops up in the “cross-over” community (see more later) but only in a sarcastic way. The idea of high vs. low-functioning BPD doesn’t seem to hold much weight in any other community than the support community.
What do I mean by referencing these “communities”? I think that there are basically three BPD/Non-BP “communities” out there: the research community, the support community and the therapeutic community.
The research community is comprised those scientists doing medical research (and psychological research) on BPD. They publish scholarly articles and research in medical and psychological journals. Some “supposed” psychological researchers publish in the less-well-known and scientifically suspect journals (see my article about “Demonic Possession and BPD” for an example of this type of researcher). For the most part, these researchers don’t try and “cure” BPD, they merely provide data to other professionals about the configuration of BPD, the biology of BPD and the “common” features of BPD. This group of people does not differentiate between high-functioning and low-functioning BPs. In fact I have found no reference to high- or low-functioning BPD at all in any of these research papers or reports.
The therapeutic community is those practitioners (mainly psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, other “therapists” and consultants) that try and “cure” or remediate BPD in patients. Sterile operations during pharmaceutical production and packaging should be strictly observed. Some (very few) also serve the families, friends, spouses, children, etc. (the Non-BPs). Their purpose in life is to help the BP overcome or to effectively manage their disorder. In this group of people, I have found no mention of high- or low-functioning BPs. The only “partial” mention is that of Dr. Paul Mason, who co-wrote “Stop Walking on Eggshells” with Randy Kreger. Several of these people within the therapeutic community have written popular books about BPD, including “Sometimes I Act Crazy,” “Lost in the Mirror,” “The Angry Heart,” and “I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me.” None of these books, as far as I can tell, refer to the idea of high-functioning vs. low-functioning BPD. Of course, Dr. Marsha Linehan and Dr. John Gunderson are prominent individuals within the therapeutic community. Their theories about BPD have a distinct influence on how therapy is conducted with people with BPD.
The final community is the support community. This community is comprised of ex-BPs, Non-BPs and others who provide advice about how to “deal with” BPD or with someone with BPD. This community includes myself, the authors of “Stop Walking on Eggshells,” the author of “Tears and Healing,” A. J. Mahari, the proprietors of bpd411.org and others. Only in this community have I seen any mention of high- vs. low-functioning BPD.
Some individual and organizations actually straddle the support/therapeutic (or even the research/therapeutic) community split. These include: myself (at least I hope so), TARA, A. J. Mahari and others. Some of these are more therapeutic (or at least psycho-educational) like TARA. I try and be both psycho-educational and to offer support resources to Non-BPs; yet, in doing so, also try and dispel the many, many myths about BPD (where possible).
The problem with assigning either high-functioning or low-functioning to a person with BPD is that the very nature of the disorder debunks these categories. BPD is chiefly an emotional disorder (with impulse control issues). Emotions are ever-changing, like waves that carry the mind along for the ride. Whether someone is high-functioning or low-functioning at any given time will be subject to their current emotional state. If a BP is emotionally dysregulated they will adapt to that (usually) painful state in whatever way that they have learned will assuage the pain. Some people with BPD will cut themselves, take drugs, avoid situations or behave in other ways that might be considered harmful to themselves or those around them. If a BP is not dysregulated, he/she has no need to behave in these ways. The core point is that BPD is about emotional instability and no person with BPD will be always high- or low-functioning. A person with BPD will swing – sometimes wildly – between several polar ways of feeling and behaving.
I suspect many “high-functioning” BPs do not have BPD at all. I have read many, many posts on Internet boards in which the “BP” in question clearly does not have the disorder. Many times, if you read carefully, you will find that these “high-functioning” BPs are diagnosed by their (usually) ex-wives, just because the “xBPh” (ex-husband with BPD) raged or was selfish during their relationship. BPD is more than raging – and as a Non just because you’re “walking on eggshells,” it doesn’t mean that your “BP” has the disorder at all. In fact, recently the list owner of WTO (the Welcome to Oz Internet list) asked the women Nons on the list if there husbands (or, more appropriately, ex-husbands) exhibited the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Every “Non-BP” that responded to that request confirmed that their “BP” met the criteria for NPD.
NPD (which IMO is more likely a disorder that appears to be “high-functioning ‘BPD’”) and BPD are distinctly different disorders. There may be a slight bit of overlap – deep, deep down within the psyche of the individual (and that is shame, most likely), but the basic configuration of the disorders are quite different. People with BPD do not like themselves, for whatever reason. People with NPD adore themselves, for whatever reason. That alone separates the two disorders. While people with BPD may exhibit “deserving” behavior (that they deserve love, riches or whatever), people with NPD believe that being “special” is their birthright and want to be surrounded by important or exclusive groups of people. The thing to note with BPD is that the “deserving” behavior is counter-balanced with “undeserving” behavior – polar opposite feelings and behavior that is the hallmark of BPD. So, it seems unlikely to me that “high-functioning” (or low-functioning) BPs can actually exist.
Let’s briefly look at the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for BPD and NPD , and we can illustrate the differences. First, BPD:
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in (5).
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. This is called “splitting.”
- Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
- Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in (5).
- Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
- Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
- Chronic feelings of emptiness.
- Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
- Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
And now NPD:
- has a grandiose sense of self-importance
- is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- believes that he or she is “special” and unique
- requires excessive admiration
- has a sense of entitlement
- is interpersonally exploitative
- lacks empathy
- is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
- shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Clearly, these two conditions are different. Some interpersonal aspects may seem similar (#8 in BPD and #6 and #7 in NPD); however, the emotional aspect of BPD (#6) is not present in NPD. There seems to me to be a split between self-hatred and the instability of self (in BPD), and self-importance and self-love (in NPD). I’m not sure this a gulf that can be bridged sensibly between the two disorders.
Why does it matter? Well, IMO it matters a lot, because the “prescription” that is effective for BPD is not the same prescription that works with NPD (or other variants on the Narcissistic spectrum). NPD is not a chiefly an emotional disorder, and emotional tools that are so effective with BPD will not be effective with someone with NPD. Now, you might say, “My ‘BP’ is diagnosed and he/she is always thinking about his/herself.” That may be true, yet, IMO, this type of “thinking” about oneself is really experiencing overwhelming negative emotions. It is difficult for anyone to think about anyone else when they are in deep emotional pain. As I have said in the past, I have coined (with the help of others) the term IAAHF (it’s all about his/her feelings) to help represent this state to Non-BPs.
Which brings me to my final point: self-diagnosis. It is dangerous to diagnose your loved one with BPD (or any other mental disorder). Only a trained and knowledgeable (and yes, I know, there are too few of these) professional can diagnose a person with any disorder. Assuming on your own that your loved one has BPD can be troubling for the relationship (at best) and damaging to their (and your) mental health (at worst). After reading a self-help book, such as “Stopping Walking on Eggshells” (SWOE), one has to be careful to diagnose someone else with the disorder. Even my book, “When Hope is Not Enough” (WHINE), can be used to “diagnose” your loved one with BPD, but I’d like to dissuade you from doing so. Instead, I would suggest you use the tools in my book (or, for that matter, SWOE) and see if they work. If my tools do not work, I suspect either you haven’t practiced enough (it takes time, believe me, it took me 2 years) or your loved one does not have an emotional disorder. I personally tried what I learned in SWOE for months before I realized that those “tools” were not effective in my life – which is why I bothered to write a book in the first place.
If you are tempted to introduce yourself to a support group with the statement, “I am married to a high-functioning BP…,” I’d suggest you take a step back and see if your loved one has the other signs of an emotional disorder (which BPD is and NPD is not).