The Borderline Empathy Paradox

This week I’ve been reading about the Borderline Empathy Paradox.

It’s the first I’ve heard of it and I must say I’ve been finding it very interesting reading.

So, today I thought I would share a little bit about what I have read so far. Bear in mind this is a novel subject to me so we are learning together!

What is the Borderline Empathy Paradox?

I think it’s best to kick things off with – what exactly is it?

In a nutshell – on one hand those with BPD can have altered interpretations of emotions and can label emotions/intentions of others as negative based on very little information. On the flip-side, sometimes people with BPD have been able to pick up emotions of others so accurately, even if that person wasn’t fully aware of it themselves.

This knack for being able to pick up on someone else’s emotion so accurately has been labelled ‘borderline empathy’.

These two sides of the emotion detector coin (for want of a much better phrase) are the Borderline Empathy Paradox.

What do the professionals say?

One theory is that increased empathy is a result of a traumatic or unpredictable childhood environment. As this can’t be said for all children from this type of background, there have been a fair few studies.

The first study was actually way back in 1986, which found people with BPD responded faster to non-verbal cues.

Another study suggests those with BPD may be better at a type of emotion recognition called “mental state discrimination” when focusing on the eyes. They carried out a study based on this called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. (I have included a link to this at the end).

The results – those with BPD were more accurate at recognising mental states than healthy participants.

They concluded that when not under increased emotional stress (that part is important to remember) people with diagnoses of BPD were better able to tell a person’s mental state. Based only on their eyes. However, they also found those with BPD were likely to attribute those mental states to them. i.e. ‘you must be upset with me’.

A review in 2013 of 28 studies carried out relating to this paradox found a mixed bag of results. Essentially, it agreed there was an increased ability for empathy but it was mostly where there was more social interaction.

The most recent study in 2019 was pretty fascinating actually. It showed differences in brain activity in BPD. Basically, there was higher activity in mirror neurons in participants with BPD than those without when they were shown certain pictures (e.g. neutral or mourning). Little bit of context – mirror neurons are the reason you yawn when you see someone else yawn. (Lovely example of that on Luther – if you haven’t watched it, get on Netflix.)

I’ve also really enjoyed reading some case studies. For example, a lady with a diagnosis of BPD was in hospital. While there she kept saying she felt ‘vibrations’ from the staff members. One in particular she said ‘looked like he was watching someone be killed’. It turned out he was troubled by flashbacks of war. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

How does this apply to real life?

I can recall probably one time where I have accurately known when a friend just absolutely was not right before she did. To be entirely honest that was probably what started me down this Google rabbit hole.

However, I am also under investigation for ASD and I have been working with my therapist on recognising my own emotions.

But does struggling with my own emotions mean I can’t recognise someone else’s? Maybe that’s a question for another day. Or another researcher!

Image showing two minds connecting
  • Try out the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test here