Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a personality disorder characterized by emotional dysregulation, patterns of unstable interpersonal relationships and high impulsivity/recklessness. Patients can oscillate quickly between devaluing and idealizing relationships (commonly known as “splitting”). Other features include difficulty controlling anger, recurrent suicidal or self-harm behaviours, identity disturbance, and chronic feelings of emptiness.


The term “borderline” originated with the concept that this disorder was on the border between neurosis and psychosis, essentially “bordering” on schizophrenia. The name continues as a historical term, but it is most certainly not a psychotic disorder. BPD is a diagnostic label that is used to group common features seen in this clinical population. There is ongoing debate about changing the name itself to something more accurate and less stigmatizing, such as emotion regulation disorder. There are also proposals to change the future diagnostic criteria beyond the DSM-5.

The population prevalence is estimated to be 1.6% but may be as high as 6%. The prevalence in primary care settings is about 6%, and 10% in outpatient mental health clinics, and about 20% among psychiatric inpatients. The prevalence of borderline personality disorder decreases in older age groups. Women present 3 times more commonly than men in treatment settings, but large studies show no significant differences in the prevalence between men and women. One possibility for the difference in presentation is that men end up in forensic settings and into substance abuse.[1]

Clinicians can be reluctant to make a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. One reason is that borderline personality is a complex syndrome with symptoms that overlap many primary psychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and psychosis. However, making a borderline diagnosis does more justice to patients than avoiding it, because it guides clinicians towards the most effective treatments.[2]

BPD is associated with significant morbidity, mortality and healthcare costs (due to repetitive self harm and admissions to hospital). There is a significant suicide rate of about 10%. This is a source of significant distress for the patient, clinicians, and their community. Patients often have a chronic suicide risk that does not benefit from hospitalization. As a result, treating chronically suicidal patients may require taking calculated risks and require careful clinical judgment.[3]

While hospital admissions may provide temporary relief, most patients continue to have suicidal ideas after discharge. There is no research evidence that shows hospitalizations actually increase safety or even reduce mortality in BPD. In fact, hospitalization can even be counterproductive or harmful. When there is chronic, unmodifiable suicidality, hospitalization can become recurrent and disruptive to the patient's life.[4]


A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least 5 of the following:

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. (Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.)
  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). (Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.)
  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
  7. Chronic feelings of emptiness.
  8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
  9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.


The mnemonic IMPULSIVE can be used to remember the criteria for borderline personality disorder.[5]

  • I - Impulsive: “Are you by nature an impulsive person? (e.g. - shop lifting, binging, gaming)”
  • M - Moodiness: “Do you find it difficult to control your emotions?”
  • P - Paranoia or dissociation under stress: “Do you ever feel you dissociate or feel things aren't real during stress (e.g. - zoning out, feeling like in a dream, or feeling the world around you isn't real)?”
  • U - Unstable self-image: “Do you feel that you have a poor sense of who you are and your identity?” “How would you describe yourself as a person?” “What are you interests?” “Ever have uncertainty about sexual orientation?” “What are your values as a person?”
  • L - Labile intense relationships: “Are your romantic relationships intense, where people can be amazing one moment but awful the next?”
  • S - Suicidal gestures: “Do you self-harm?”
  • I - Inappropriate anger: “Are you quick to anger?”
  • V - Vulnerability to abandonment: “Is it hard for you when people in your life leave you? Do you have a constant fear of being abandoned by others?”
  • E - Emptiness: “Do you frequently feel empty inside?” (Emptiness is a unique feeling in BPD - either you have it or you don't)

The term micropsychotic episodes is a historical term originating from the 1970s, when borderline personality was still being defined and thought of as being on the schizophrenia spectrum – the “borderline” between psychosis and neurosis.[6] Borderline patients were felt to have brief “psychotic” episodes that includes paranoia, dissociation, and auditory hallucinations. Nowadays, this term continues to be used in a clinical context to describe these symptoms in a non-psychotic individual. Micropsychotic episodes may occur during periods of high stress for individuals with BPD. It is important to note that the term micropsychosis is not a formal terminology in the DSM, nor in the diagnostic criteria.[7]

Affective instability (i.e. - difficulty with emotional regulation) is most frequently occurring criterion. A single screening question, “Are you quick to react with anxiety/anger?” has a sensitivity of 94% and negative predictive value > 95%.[8]

For a review of the neurobiology of BPD

See The Neurobiology of Borderline Personality Disorder for an excellent review.

The exact etiology of borderline personality disorder is currently unknown. The development of borderline personality is thought to be due an underlying sensitive temperament in the individual, plus an invalidating environment. Abuse and neglect ubiquitous in the borderline population (> 90%). However, traumatic (physical/sexual/emotional) abuse alone does not cause BPD; there can be other factors that lead to the development of BPD. A tripartite model of the development of borderline personality has been suggested by Zanarini (1997), which involves: (1) a traumatic childhood, (2) a vulnerable (hyperbolic/sensitive) temperament, and (3) a triggering event(s).[9] This model suggests that borderline patients have a unique pathway to the development is a result of these three core elements.

Borderline personality disorder can run in families, and there are certain genes that also predispose individuals to BPD.[10] In neuroimaging findings, individuals with BPD have higher neural activity in the insular cortex (which correlates with individuals who experience who experience emotions more intensely) and the cingulate gyrus.[11] Individuals with BPD also show less activation in prefrontal brain areas involved in cognitive control, which is impacted under conditions of negative emotions.[12]

  • Depressive and bipolar disorders. Borderline personality disorder often co-occurs with depressive or bipolar disorders, and when criteria for both are met, both may be diagnosed. Because the cross-sectional presentation of borderline personality disorder can be mimicked by an episode of depressive or bipolar disorder, the clinician should avoid giving an additional diagnosis of borderline personality disorder based only on cross-sectional presentation without having documented that the pattern of behaviour had an early onset and a long standing course.
  • Other personality disorders
  • Personality change due to another medical condition. Borderline personality disorder must be distinguished from personality change due to another medical condition, in which the traits that emerge are attributable to the effects of another medical condition on the central nervous system.
  • Substance use disorders. Borderline personality disorder must also be distinguished from symptoms that may develop in association with persistent substance use.
  • Identity problems. Borderline personality disorder should be distinguished from an identity problem, which is reserved for identity concerns related to a developmental phase (e.g., adolescence) and does not qualify as a mental disorder.

Naturalistic studies have shown that patients with BPD can have progressive improvement and remission.[13] In naturalistic study follow up after 10 years, 25% had full time employment and 40% were on disability benefits.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has the most robust evidence for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. DBT skills groups have good evidence, but there is actually no data on one-on-one DBT interventions and techniques. DBT is not a panacea, and needs to be used appropriately. Remember, DBT is not the gold standard. There is no evidence that DBT is superior to other active, BPD-specific treatments (especially with long-term therapy that has some structure). It is also important to recognize that patients with BPD can also improve without treatment.

  • Transference Focused Therapy (TFP)
  • Mentalization Based Therapy (MBT)
  • Schema Focused Therapy (SFT)
  • Good Psychiatric Management[14]

Pharmacotherapy should never be (and is not) the first-line treatment for borderline personality disorder. Clinicians should always use medications for BPD with caution, and remind themselves it should be for short-term symptom relief. Current literature suggest that mood stabilizers and second-generation antipsychotics may be effective for treating a number of core symptoms.[15] Pharmacotherapy should therefore be targeted at specific symptoms. There continues to be an worldwide overuse of prescription medications for BPD.[16] Medications must be prescribed thoughtfully!

Expert recommendations for specific symptom treatment (Cochrane Review 2010)

Symptom Cluster Effective Treatment
Interpersonal Pathology Aripiprazole, valproate, topiramate
Affective Dysregulation Topiramate, lamotrigine*, valproate, haloperidol, aripiprazole, olanzapine
Impulsive-behavioural dyscontrol Topiramate, lamotrigine*, flupentixol, aripiprazole, omega-3 fatty acid
Cognitive-perceptual Aripiprazole, olanzapine

*Newest evidence is suggesting limited efficacy[17]