Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Regulation

Bearded man with pained face grabbing his head with his hands

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Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) experience intense emotions. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition (DSM-5), the reference manual healthcare providers use to make a diagnosis, many of the symptoms of BPD relate to emotion regulation issues. 

What Is Emotion Regulation?

Emotion regulation is a fairly complex combination of ways in which a person relates to and acts on emotional experiences. This includes the ability to:

  • Behave appropriately when distressed
  • Understand and accept emotional experiences
  • Use healthy strategies to manage uncomfortable emotions

People with good emotion regulation skills are able to control the urges to engage in impulsive behaviors, such as self-harm, reckless behavior, or physical aggression during times of emotional stress.

Emotion Regulation vs. Dysregulation

For example, if someone who does not have BPD goes through a breakup, they likely feel sad and maybe a bit depressed but are still able to control their emotions and carry on with their routine. They'll still attend class or go to work.

However, someone with BPD lacks the ability to regulate emotions appropriately. If they go through the same situation, they may become depressed to the point of not functioning, engaging in destructive or violent behaviors, or impulsive activities like promiscuity.

BPD and Emotional Issues

In the criteria for diagnosing BPD, the majority include issues with emotions. Some of these include the following.

Rapid Mood Swings and Irritability

People with borderline personality disorder have issues managing moods and expressing emotions, leading to intense anxiety and irritability. Mood swings can be intense as well as rapid.

The anxiety and irritability may interfere with normal activities such as working on a job or even caring for yourself. Others may have trouble being around you during these episodes for a number of reasons, thus harming your relationships.

Feelings of Emptiness

Those with BPD often experience chronic feelings of emptiness. They will engage in all sorts of activities to try and fill the void, without any effect. Regardless of how many friends and loved ones they have, they often feel alone and sad. BPD can, in essence, begin a vicious cycle.

Problems regulating emotions can lead to loss of friends. Loneliness, in turn, can worsen the ability to regulate emotions, and the feeling of isolation can interfere with your motivation to learn to regulate your emotions.

Difficulty Controlling Anger

Along with intense mood swings comes intense anger, seemingly out of nowhere. Slight inconveniences or slights can trigger rages in those with BPD, potentially leading to destructive or violent behaviors.

Paranoia and Fear of Abandonment

Individuals with BPD often are afraid of being alone or rejected, causing intense paranoia. That can cause them to act obsessively and constantly seek reassurance. Unfortunately, many of the behaviors which result from a need for reassurance can lead people to push someone with BPD further away.

With difficulty regulating emotions, if you have BPD, you may experience difficulty coming down from anger or relaxing feelings of rejection. You may lack the ability to regulate your emotions appropriately, causing disruptive behaviors. This can have a negative impact on your relationships, including with your significant other, friends, and family.

Managing Emotions Despite BPD

While BPD can make emotion regulation difficult, it is not impossible to learn this skill and recover from BPD.

If you struggle with BPD and emotions, you may want to consider seeing a therapist specializing in borderline personality disorder who will have a better understanding of the origins that lead to your emotional struggles. Together, you can work on strategies to help regulate your emotions.

Types of psychotherapy found to be particularly helpful for people with BPD include cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy.

There is a lot to be gained from therapy. You will learn appropriate reactions and skills to manage your mood swings. Over time, your emotion regulation will improve, helping you in your interpersonal relationships and daily life.

In addition to therapy, there are several self-help strategies for BPD which can further improve your ability to manage your emotions.

A Word From Verywell

As noted above, emotion regulation plays a large role in many of the symptoms of BPD, but this does not mean that you will need to live with these symptoms forever.

Newer studies are finding that, for those who are motivated, therapy can make a large difference which can, in turn, affect nearly every area of your life in a positive way. With continued therapy with a medical professional, recovery from BPD is possible.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Borderline Personality Disorder. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.