It is increasingly being recognized that many individuals who receive the diagnosis of BPD are naturally highly intuitive and perceptive. What was previously thought of as a genetic vulnerability may reflect an innate talent.

People who were born emotionally intense, sensitive and are gifted with heightened perceptivity are like powerful sports cars. It is as if they have a potent engine that requires a special fuel and a specific kind of care.

In the right condition and with the right keeping, they can be one of the most high-performing machines in the world and win many races. The problem is, however, that they may not have been taught how to run this powerful machine.

Many emotionally intense people are diagnosed or misdiagnosed with various mental disorders throughout their lives, some of the most common ones are mood disorders, including bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders and personality disorders. While these conditions are real and extremely painful, we should not immediately assume that they are signs of a defect.

A ‘diagnosis’ in psychiatry simply represents a cluster of symptoms, which are manifestations of internal conflicts and disease. In reality, the distinction from one disorder to another is unclear. The purpose of having these arbitrary categories is so that clinicians can fall back on a standardized framework to do research and to prescribe medication. Plus, they serve a purpose for the insurance industry. With the dominance of the medical model, we tend to pathologize and overlook the possibility that the distress may be a result of us not honoring our utterly unique make-up as individuals.  

In this article, we consider how this might be the case with Borderline Personality, or ‘Emotionally Unstable’ Personality Disorder.

BPD is also known as emotional dysregulation disorder or emotionally unstable personality disorder (World Health Organization, 1992). Despite being referred to as a ‘personality disorder,’ it is not a character flaw but is best understood as a limitation in a person’s capacity to regulate emotions. This means that the person with BPD often experiences feelings as rapidly changing, or spiraling out of control. These symptoms go alongside impulsive self-soothing behaviors and a chronic sense of internal hollowness.

The 'borderline empathy paradox'

Although the link between BPD and empathy remains controversial, many people with BPD identify with the traits of being an “empath”- someone who is extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of other people, animals and places (Orloff, 2011).

Indeed, it has long been recognized that individuals with BPD seem to possess an uncanny sensitivity to other people’s subconscious mental content - thoughts, feelings and even physical sensations. They also seem to have a talent in involving and influencing others (Park, Imboden, Park, Hulse, and Unger, 1992, p. 227).

In the first study that explicitly investigates this observation, Frank and Hoffman (1986) found that individuals with BPD showed a heightened sensitivity to non-verbal cues when compared with people without BPD. This finding has been validated through other follow-up research (Domes, Schulze, and Herpertz, 2009). A well-known study, for instance, compared the way people with BPD react to photographs of people’s eyes to those without BPD. The researchers found that the BPD group was more able to correctly guess what emotions these eyes expressed, which showed their enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others (Fertuck et al., 2012). 

At their best, we may say that these highly intuitive individuals’ ability would constitute what giftedness psychologists call 'personal intelligence' (Gardner,1985). This kind of giftedness consists of two components: ‘interpersonal intelligence’ - the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people, and ‘intra-personal intelligence’ - the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations.  

Despite their enhanced empathic ability, many people with BPD have difficulties navigating social and interpersonal situations. Without the ability to regulate their emotions and manage attachment relationships, their hypersensitivity may end up showing up as emotional storms and mood swings (Fonagy, Luyten, & Strathearn, 2011), being easily triggered by stressful situations, and a constant fear abandonment and rejection (Fertuck et al., 2009). This phenomenon is known as the ‘borderline empathy paradox’ (Franzen et al., 2011; Krohn, 1974). 

It is important that naturally empathic people learn to hone their empathic skills, such as emotional regulation, perspective taking, empathic accuracy (the ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others) (McLaren, 2013). Without these skills, many empaths ended up ‘absorbing’ the emotions of others to the point of being burned out. 

Why do I feel and see so much?

It is true that high empathy may be an outcome of growing up in a traumatic and unpredictable childhood environment. Indeed, many people with BPD have a history of abuse, neglect or prolonged separation as children.

As a response to confusing or neglectful parenting, these children had to ‘amp up’ their empathic functioning to protect themselves. They were trained by their environment to become highly attuned to the subconscious cues given out by their parents so that they can be prepared for their unpredictable behaviors.

Environmental factors alone, however, do not explain why many siblings who grow up in the same household are not affected in the same way. Thus, we must also consider the biological and innate temperament-based factors that affect people’s distinctive reactions to traumatic events. As psychologist Bockian (2002) suggested: “It is extremely unlikely that someone with a placid, passive, unengaged, aloof temperament would ever develop borderline personality disorder.”

Child psychologists have found that there is a subset of children who have ‘heightened sensitivity to the social world’, whose developmental and emotional outcomes are critically dependent upon their early childhood conditions. (Boyce, Chesney, Kaiser, Alkon-Leonard and Tschann, 1991)

In most cases, serious difficulties in emotional regulation, or BPD, is a result of two combing factors:

A) Being born with heightened sensitivity and a gift in perceptivity, and
B) a deficient or vicarious childhood environment that fails to meet these children’s emotions needs.

If it is a gift, why do I suffer so much?

Under favorable, 'good enough' circumstances, a child who is born with a gift in perceptivity would not grow up to have serious emotional regulation issues or BPD. However, if the primary caretakers could not attune to their child, or even resented or were threatened by their unusually perceptive child, they may consciously or subconsciously sabotage the child’s healthy development. The nature of the psychological abuse may differ, but it always includes an assault on the child’s perceptions and the development of their autonomy.

For gifted children, ongoing negative feedback towards their intuitive perception is ‘particularly damaging’ (Park et al., 1992, p.228).

If the parents either explicitly or implicitly reject the child - he or she will internalize the shame of being rejected, and experience him/herself as being profoundly bad (toxic shame). As a result of their negative experience of themselves and those around them, these children’s natural gifts in perceptivity become ‘hijacked’ by negative bias and negative projections.  Without an environment where they can learn to set healthy boundaries and experience secure attachment without exploitation, these children develop ’symptoms’ such as an inability to self-soothe and regulate emotions, a fear of rejection, and a sense of internal hollowness. 

Many emotionally intense adults have struggled all their lives feeling lonely, misunderstood, with the belief that there is something profoundly wrong with them. If you are one of them, I hope that you can reconsider the potential gifts that are within you. 

While the history cannot be changed, you can re-write the story that you have been telling yourself. You are in no way ‘bad.’ You are not ‘too much.’ What you are, is a sensitive, intuitive, gifted individual, who were deprived of the right kind of nourishment as you were growing up. Your high level of awareness and acuity to subtleties is not only unusual but also extremely precious.

Because of your innate perceptivity, you cannot ‘un-see’ or ‘un-feel’ things. Perhaps like a poppy that has outgrown his peers, you were being shamed and ‘chopped down’. Your struggles are not your fault, and the shame that you carry is a natural reaction to a childhood environment that has failed to support you. 

Perhaps there is a little voice within you that have always known you were not fundamentally wrong. If you can begin to listen to that voice, you can liberate yourself to retrieve the long-forgotten gifts inside you.

Your psyche wants to heal. Once you can begin to recognize and trust your fundamental goodness, restoration and integration would naturally happen.

Author's Bio: 

Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, a Specialist Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Coach, and author of the book Emotional Intensity and Sensitivity (Amazon No.1 bestseller, Hodder & Stoughton, 2018).

She sits at where art, culture, psychology, and spirituality meet, and her mission is to inspire and empower emotionally intense, sensitive and gifted individuals to rise from being the 'misfits' to being the leaders of the world. 

Imi was granted the Endeavour Award by the Australian Government, for her clinical and academic excellence; and later the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) for her commitment and contributions to social change. She has been featured as a specialist in the field in publications including The Psychologies Magazine, The Telegraph, Marie Claire and The Daily Mail. Her work also appears on online platforms including Psychology Today, Psych Central, Counselling Directory, The Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society, The Tattooed Buddha, and more.

Imi has lived and worked in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, the USA and the UK. After gaining the Master of Mental Health, she further qualified as a Clinical Psychotherapist (UKCP), Art Psychotherapist (AThR, HCPC), Schema Therapist, EMDR Practitioner, Mentalisation- based Treatment Therapist, and Mindfulness Teacher (MBSR, MBCT). Combing East and Western philosophies with psychology, her approach is holistic and unique. She has worked in various settings from inpatient units to the community, served as a director for a personality disorder charity, and founded a personality disorder support group in Central London.

Combining her life-long passion and clinical expertise, she founded the psychotherapy practice Eggshell Therapy and Coaching, where she works with intense people across the world.