Borderline Personality Disorder,  Other Disorders

Why Borderlines are NOT Psychopaths

I have often heard Non-BPDs (or family and friends of those with borderline personality disorder – BPD) refer to their borderlines as “psychopaths”. There was the semi-famous story of the divorced husband who was running a blog called “the psycho ex-wife” (read more about that saga here) which had an “arm chair” diagnosis of this man’s ex-wife as having BPD. While she may or may not have BPD, the reference to the word “psycho” is a misnomer.

There are several BIG differences between borderline personality disorder and psychopathy. One of the most important is the function of the amygdala – an almond shaped structure in the mid-brain that activates when emotions are felt. Borderlines have an over-active amygdala while psychopaths have an under-active amygdala in certain circumstances.

Additionally, the aggression profile is completely different. Borderlines (and essentially all other mental disorders, including Antisocial Personality Disorder – ASPD) exhibit reactive aggression, while psychopaths exhibit instrumental aggression (more here).

Although my blog is mostly about BPD, in the past week months, I have become more interested in psychopathy. The reasons are two-fold: 1) the tragedies of mass killings, about which I am perversely interested – particularly the video posted by Elliot Rodger which to me reeks psychopath (although I’m no doctor) and 2) I have a close friend whose son behaves much like a budding psychopath. While I can go into why this boy seems psychopathic (and, believe me, I have never thought this about any other child I’ve ever met), I’ll reserve that for another time.

What I did want to post here is links to some information about psychopathy. If you spend a little time with the subject, you’ll find that psychopathy is NOT related to BPD (or is it the same as sociopathy or ASPD). Psychopaths are distinct from sociopaths as well as from borderlines. To refer to people with BPD as psychopaths is just plain inaccurate and incorrect.

Here are videos that can help in an understanding of psychopathy:


  • Jeanne

    Thanks for this article, it was very informative. There is indeed a huge difference between borderline personality disorder and psychopathology. I have not been diagnosed with borderline but I see a psychologist and he says I am on the spectrum. Borderlines feel emotions so intensely and from my own experience mostly implode. For example, I am an alcoholic. My rage was directed inward like most border lines. Thanks again and let’s hope that more articles like yours keep the word psycho out of discussions on borderline personality disorder.

  • Will

    I doubt anyone who actually was in a relationship with a BPD can be reduced to an armchair diagnosis, in fact, most of them have no concept of this disorder and wind up questioning their own sanity for years on end before they cross paths with the right person/book/article to clue them in before they start spouting off psychiatric labels. This is a very specific and unique blend of traits that require some extreme out of the box thinking to even come to terms with assessing, observing, and definitely reporting. They never saw anything like this before, lived this way before, but do this just for a couple years (let alone 5-10+) and you know it like the back of your hand.

    The use of “psycho” in this term was probably ingrained in the non bpd long before they knew what the hell they were dealing with. In that context, anyone with a mental disorder has been dealt that label whether it’s appropriate or not. It doesn’t typically come AFTER the enlightenment period.

    That said, I don’t think he should’ve kept the title of his blog or continued using that label once he became aware.

    I’d save the reverse armchair label applications for those who haven’t dealt with either side of this particular disorder hands on 24/7 for years/decades.

  • Tazx

    Since psychology an neurology are still mared with fundamental questions, I’d advise a behavioural approach. If they hurt you, make you fell constantly unease, keep distance, whatever it is called.

  • LW69

    In common usage ‘psycho’ has 2 meanings, the first one is short for psychopath and a layman shorthand for anyone who lacks empathy, does strange things, and is generally scary. Real psychopaths have a subset like this, but many pass in society as charming while stuffing the bodies under the porch (or wanting to.)

    The second, more common usage, is short for psychotic; which is aberrant behavior that suggests the person doesn’t live in the same reality as the norm. Schizophrenics, manic depressives, borderlines have psychotic breaks with reality. When someone without a diagnosis acts in a way that resembles a break from reality, we also call them psycho.

    Borderlines resemble the psychotic form of “psycho”, not psychopathic form. Hence the term “psychobitch”. However, I could easily see my ex Borderline husband psychopathically stacking dead bodies under the porch.

    He’d blame the victims for making him do it.

  • Bon Dobbs

    I agree that “psycho” has two meanings – psychopath (as in psychopathology, which is a defined condition) and psychotic, which is a more general term that is used in a Freudian sense to mean something more general. And I also agree with the idea that people with BPD can have periods or episodes of disassociation (usually brought on by stress – or in my wife’s case, stress and mood-altering substances).Yet, for the most part, people with BPD are neither. They have irrational episodes brought on by emotional dysregulation, yes, often in fact. Still, this doesn’t categorize them as psychotic. And as far as psychopathic, their issue is for the most part the exact opposite. They feel too MUCH, rather than too little. The “lack of empathy” tends to come with an entanglement of their personal feelings and not having enough room for other’s feelings.

    Your experience with your BPD ex husband is hard and painful. I don’t know if it’s typical of a BPD male. In my life, I have 2 BPD females and they are much more likely to turn that animus on themselves than on others – although I’ve seen and been subject to irrational rage, which is difficult but not psychotic.

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