Coping With Borderline Personality Disorder in College

male college student with hands on his head, sitting at desk in classroom

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Living with borderline personality disorder (BPD) affects nearly every area of your life, especially where there are people involved. We also know that having BPD can affect college success. Let's take a look at an example of a person attending college with BPD, and the specific issues that can arise.

An Example of How BPD Can Affect College Success

A story can be worth thousands of words when it comes to describing how having borderline personality disorder (BPD) can affect the college or university experience. In order to better describe both the experience and issues a person with BPD may face, we will use a case report of a woman whose name has been changed to Martha to protect her privacy.

As you read through this example, think about your own life. Have you faced circumstances similar to those faced by Martha? Did you have any of the same reactions? Then read on to learn about how some of the common issues faced by people with BPD may play a role.

Background on Borderline Personality Disorder

Let's start at the beginning. Having taken the last year off, Martha is planning on returning to college in the fall. Her break came as a result of not participating in classes the previous term. Martha just seemed to quit in the middle of her last semester; she stopped going to class, only turned in some of her assignments and started partying. Threatened with academic probation, she decided to sit out for a year and regroup.

This was not the first time that Martha had problems in college. In high school, she was always a capable and focused student. When she started college, her future seemed planned and clear. Always one for a cause, Martha initially planned to start and run a non-profit foundation for teenage girls. Once she started school, however, her plans began to get a bit hazy.

Borderline Personality Is Marked by Change

When Martha took her break from college, she had already changed her major three times in two years and was thinking of changing again. She had started going out to bars until the early hours of the morning, often drinking in her dorm room before she went out (possibly self-medicating behavior). It was not uncommon for her to wake up not knowing where she was or who she was with.

Through all of this, she still managed to participate in classes just enough to keep her head above water. But in her last semester, she just stopped going or doing much of anything.

The Consequences of BPD Symptoms

Martha’s last semester had started with a level of enthusiasm that rivaled her first semester in college. She was finally able to register for a class taught by a noted professor at the university. She would pour all of her efforts into assignments for the class and even stopped going out as much. She felt that she was really connecting with her classmates as well.

Martha was devastated when her papers were not singled out as being exceptional. The professor did not seem to see her as a superior student. To Martha, it seemed like the professor did not like her at all.

(Think about what Martha did here. Have you ever done something similar in some setting in your life?)

When Martha mentioned this to her fellow students, they would assure her that the professor was treating all of the students the same. Their lack of validation was intensely frustrating and felt like an additional rejection. Martha felt alone and angry when she thought of class.

(Lack of validation in childhood is considered to be one of the risk factors for borderline personality disorder, and even thoughts that a comment or grade, in this case, is invalidating, can bring to mind too many hurtful thoughts to imagine.)

Martha stopped going to this class. Perhaps she thought the lack of her valuable contributions would be missed. Or, maybe she was angry and did not want to be where so was not wanted, or she wanted everyone to know how hurt she was. Soon she stopped going to her other classes as well.

(To an outsider, this behavior may appear obviously self- sabotaging, but for someone living with borderline personality disorder, the insult is deep.)

Common BPD Symptoms

In this example, Martha demonstrates the following borderline personality disorder symptoms:

  • Intense/Unstable Interpersonal Relationships: Martha’s initial feelings toward her professor and classmates are intense and idealized. She feels that she is really connecting with her classmates and clearly idolized her professor. These feelings quickly and suddenly change, permanently altering Martha’s perception of her experience. She begins to see her classmates as invalidating and her professor as picking on her because he's not recognizing her.
  • Splitting: When Martha’s perception changes to one of devaluation, it is a total shift from good to bad. She is unable to recognize that she ever felt differently.
  • Sensitivity to Rejection: Martha's heightened sensitivity to rejection triggered thoughts that her professor and classmates did not like her. The reality of their feelings is truly unknown and may not have that much bearing on Martha’s experience of them.
  • Impulsive, Self-Damaging Behavior: Martha consumed alcohol excessively and was promiscuous. She would wake up with strangers and in unfamiliar surroundings. Her alcohol use resulted in her being unable to make safe decisions about those she spent her time with.
  • Identity Disturbance: Martha's sense of who she was and what she wanted to do was fluid. Once she entered college, she lost her sense of self and found focusing on a clear self-directed goal impossible.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping With Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Many people with BPD will see themselves, at least to some degree, in the example described above. The process of reading through this example may even make you feel like you want to go to bat for Martha, as you understand the hurt in her heart that has led to her choices.

What's important to understand is that the way this interaction unfolds can be changed. And the change doesn't have to originate from the culprit changing their ways, but rather in you changing how you interpret the events, and in doing so, change the way you respond to what transpired.

Looking at examples in your own life can be helpful when they are broken down as Martha's story is here. If you're living with BPD, find a good therapist who can help you work through the issues posed by BPD.

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