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All about Borderline Personality Disorder

People who experience Borderline Personality Disorder can find their self-image and relationships with others challenging, which can impact on their mental health. But there are things that can help!

Content Warning: this article contains information about mental health which may be distressing or triggering.

Young person screaming at their reflection in a mirror

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) have an unstable ‘sense of self’. This means that they often feel extreme emotions about themselves.

For example, sometimes they might like themselves and sometimes they may even hate themselves. They might be unsure about who they are, and often make regular life changes trying to ‘find themselves’ or figure out who they are.

BPD can only be diagnosed by a professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist. 

Diagnosis is based on patterns in thoughts, emotions and behaviours around self-image (how you see yourself) and relationships with others.

“Having a personality disorder doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with who you are as a person. The word ‘personality’ isn’t about your identity, but about how you relate to the world through your emotions, thoughts and behaviours. When you relate differently to most people, in a way that affects your wellbeing or causes you distress, it might be classified as a ‘disorder’. Disorders are treatable.”

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor


People with BPD can experience intense emotional outbursts. They might feel elated or ecstatic one minute and completely defeated the next. Normally, these mood swings and outbursts are very changeable and short-lived.

  • Intense anger outbursts. People with BPD might get very angry over small things – things that most people would easily brush off. They can struggle to control their temper and might yell, break things or start fights when angry. Their anger often feels out of control, and outburst might happen at inappropriate times or places, e.g. in public.
  • Feelings of paranoia or dissociation. When people with BPD feel stressed, they might feel suspicious of other people, or feel disconnected with themselves or their environment (dissociation).
  • Feeling empty. People with BPD might feel really empty, like something is missing. Sometimes, they try to fill the hole inside them with people or things, which can lead to impulsive or self-destructive behaviours, e.g. substance misuse.

Relationships with others

People with BPD find relationships and connections with family, friends, partners and other people challenging and distressing. They often have a pattern of unstable relationships and an intense fear of being abandoned. Here’s what that means:

Unstable relationships.
People with BPD experience ‘all or nothing’ thoughts and feelings when in relationships. For instance, they might think a family member, friend or partner is ‘special’ and even ‘perfect’. Then something might happen and they feel betrayed or disappointed and devalue that same person (view them as being worthless). They may alternate between these opposing views regularly. Their relationships are usually very intense, but may not last long.

Fear of abandonment.
People with BPD often feel terrified of being alone or being abandoned. They might feel triggered by minor things, such as a friend not texting back. This can lead to panicked behaviours to prevent or avoid people leaving/abandoning them, e.g. begging, accusing, tracking movements, etc. Unfortunately, these behaviours can have the opposite effect and are more likely to lead to breakups and rejections, which can feed into the fear of abandonment.

“In the past, there has been some stigma around BPD. Experiencing BPD is often very distressing. If you or someone you know has BPD you have a right to be treated with care, compassion and respect.”

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor


Behaviours are another form of communication and can be a physical manifestation of someone’s thoughts or feelings. People with BPD might also have behavioural symptoms, such as:

  • Impulsive behaviours. Impulsive behaviours are when you act before fully thinking something through. This might be a way to express inner turmoil, e.g. punching a wall to express anger. Or, it can be an attempt to take back control or cope (in a maladaptive way), e.g. reading a partner’s messages to see if they are cheating on you. These behaviours are often self-destructive, such as reckless driving, spending money, binge eating, etc.
  • Suicidal behaviours and self-harm. People with BPD often experience other mental health symptoms, such as extreme anxiety or depression. They might have thoughts of suicide, threaten suicide or attempt suicide, or deliberately harm themselves in other ways. Sometimes, this is a way to try and cope with intense emotions or distress. People often regret these behaviours later when they are feeling better.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are unsafe, it’s important to get help. Call 000 in an emergency or get in touch with supports, like a trusted adult or Kids Helpline Counsellor.

What causes BPD?

BPD is very complex and there’s no single cause. Lots of factors might be involved, like genetics, environment, etc. Here are some key things that might play a role:

Attachment and trauma. In early childhood we form bonds with important people in our life. Those bonds help us figure out our sense of self and how to connect and relate to other people. If those bonds are interrupted or harmful, for instance through neglect, abuse or trauma, it can impact on your future relationships with others and how you see yourself as a teenager or adult.

Your stress response. People with BPD often experience high levels of anxiety. They might feel like they are constantly ‘on edge’, which is why they may feel very distressed or triggered by things that seem small to other people. 

Coping with BPD

BPD is very treatable. With time and practice, you can change your emotions, thoughts and behaviours and even change your brain (this is known as neuroplasticity)!

Here are some things that can help:

  • Professional support. For those who might have unstable relationships with other people in their life, having a reliable professional support can be an important healthy relationship, as it often has clear boundaries and expectations. Professional supports (such as psychologists and psychiatrists) can help create a specialised treatment plan that might include things like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).
  • Create a sense of safe and calm. Because people with BPD often have high levels of anxiety, finding coping strategies to reduce anxiety and distress is an important first step to improving their mental health.
  • Learn to ‘sit with’ uncomfortable emotions. Emotions drive our behaviour and when we experience emotional distress, we generally want to find a way to ‘solve’ it. But, when you are emotional, you may not think clearly or make good decisions. Learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, and knowing that they will pass, can be very empowering.
  • Control impulsivity. Impulsive behaviours are often used as a coping strategy because they have a sense of instant gratification, but these behaviours are often self-destructive. Finding other coping strategies, that allow you to ‘pause’ before doing something impulsive can be really helpful. You might find distractions helpful, e.g. playing with a pet, or might try ‘delaying’, e.g. deciding to watch an episode of your favourite TV show before engaging in a behaviour.
  • Be aware of assumptions and projections. We often make up ‘stories’ (assumptions) about what others are thinking, based on incomplete info on their behaviour. We might project our own thoughts or feelings on to them. Finding ways to slow down and de-stress, so you don’t react in an emotional way, can give you the time and space to respond from a place of calm. This can really help improve your relationships with others.

You don’t have to cope with Borderline Personality Disorder on your own.

Telling someone and getting support can make a real difference, even if you don’t know how to explain what’s going on.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

This content was last reviewed 10/07/2020

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