How Self-Conscious Emotions Affect BPD

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If you have borderline personality disorder (BPD), self-conscious emotions can play a major role. Due to the disorder, feelings are intensified and can cause harmful reactions. Find out more about self-conscious emotions and how they impact your mental health. 

What Are Self-Conscious Emotions?

While some emotions are considered "basic emotions," meaning that they require little or no sense of self to experience or recognize, self-conscious emotions are related to our self-concept and an understanding of our relationship to other people and the larger community. 

For example, to experience the basic emotion "fear," you only need to perceive something as threatening. But to experience a self-conscious emotion, such as guilt, you must have both a sense of self and an understanding of your behavior, such as recognizing when you did something wrong. 

The self-conscious emotions include both positive emotions like pride or confidence as well as negative emotions like shame or jealousy. 


Scientists believe that self-conscious emotions have an evolutionary basis. They help you survive by promoting social inclusion, such as helping you stay in the good graces of others. For example, when you express embarrassment after violating some social norm, the expression of that emotion helps you to repair relationships. For instance, if you have hurt a friend and apologize to her, your face may turn red and you may not be able to meet her eyes. Your friend will know how badly you feel and may be less angry with you. 

These feelings also probably help prevent you from violating social norms in the future. If you know you will feel guilty if you steal from someone, you are more likely to avoid that behavior altogether. 

Borderline Personality Disorder and Self-Conscious Emotions

Research has shown that people with BPD are more likely to have unpleasant or negative self-conscious emotions. The cause of this is two-fold. Because BPD can cause you to experience more intense emotions and feelings of shame or guilt, this can cause inappropriate or destructive behaviors, such as sexual interactions or violence. These experiences also shape how people with BPD interpret behaviors. For instance, someone who has had an inappropriate sexual relationship will feel shame or guilt and may perceive a person's actions as predatory. This can cause them to react to that person aggressively, even if the other person is innocent. The link between BPD and self-conscious emotions can start a cycle of destruction, leading a person to self-harm or suicidal thoughts. 

If you feel you struggle with self-conscious emotions and you have borderline personality disorder, it's important to talk about this with your therapist or health care provider. They can help you handle self-conscious emotions in a healthy way that doesn't harm yourself or others. By learning coping strategies, such as taking a break from the situation, you can process the emotions fully and establish whether or not your reaction is equal to what has actually happened. Your therapist will help you improve these skills so you can manage your illness and better maintain your relationships. 

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  • Schoenleber, M., Gratz, KL, Messman, T. "Borderline Personality Disorder and Self-Conscious Emotions in Response to Adult Unwanted Sexual Experiences." Journal of Personality Disorders, 2014, 810-823. 

By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
 Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.