Discovering that I’m on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum has brought me through an unexpected scenic journey into the field of “abnormal” psychology and all of its fascinating nooks and crannies, which has been a captivating expedition.
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, because I’ve heard time and again about people who’ve been (mis-)diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (or BPD) when the truth is, they’re actually on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.
First, let’s explore exactly what BPD is…
According to Psych Central (a decent psychology-based website not to be confused with the trade magazine “Psychology Today”), Borderline Personality Disorder is a personality disorder characterized by a foundational triad:
- Extreme or inappropriate emotional responses
- Unstable relationships
- Impulsive behavior
One of the main themes of the Borderline Personality is to zigzag back and forth between various areas of life; often, this involves relationships (romantic, platonic, familial, and other), career/work life, residence/living arrangements, and others.
It seems to me that the specific characteristics or manifestations sprout from that basic triad. Although the stage for its development might be set in childhood and/or adolescence, it typically doesn’t manifest fully until later adolescence or adulthood.
I’d like to take a fleshed-out list of characteristics of BPD and compare it side-by-side with the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, because so many of us get labeled with BPD, when for most of us, that couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s not to say that some on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum don’t also experience BPD, but the characteristics, while similar in surface appearance, are actually quite different.
My strategy from here will be to discuss several principal Borderline Personality characteristics and compare/contrast them with the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. I’ll link to several information sources at the bottom of this post.
(I’m issuing a content warning, as the rest of this post makes brief mentions of suicide, addictive substances, self-harm, etc. No details or imagery are given, although one example of self-harm is mentioned without description.)
Fear of Abandonment – People experiencing BPD are often afraid of being left alone. They may be terrified that they’ll be abandoned. For example, even something as “simple” as a partner returning home late from work or going away for a weekend conference trigger intense fear. This can result in the person experiencing BPD resorting to frantic efforts to keep the other person close. They may cling, plead, start fights, or even set up a tracking device on the other person’s vehicle or mobile. Unfortunately, this strategy tends to have the opposite effect: it can push other people away.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – This contrasts with the majority of personal accounts of autistic people, in that although we can certainly be prone to loneliness ourselves, most of us report feeling OK with being alone. Some of us are content, others are relieved, some feel liberated or depressurized, and others feel simply at peace, or at the very least, neutral. I have yet to hear any of us reporting feeling afraid, although I’m not discounting the idea that there may be some out there.
I’ll take the next two BPD characteristics together, because they’re so closely related.
Unstable Relationships – Relationships, for people experiencing BPD, tend to be more intense and short-lived. They become infatuated prematurely, believing each new person is the one who will make them whole. There’s one problem with this: the person experiencing BPD ends up feeling very disappointed, sooner or later (and probably sooner). There’s often a very black-and-white view of relationships: they’re either perfect or horrible, with very little room in between. People around them may feel like they have “emotional whiplash” (not my term) from the rapidly-alternating idealization and devaluation/anger/hatred. They’ll put someone up on a pedestal one day, and then demonize them the next.
Unclear/Unstable Self-Image – It’s been said that people of the BPD type typically have an unstable or unclear sense of self. This means that sometimes they may feel good about themselves, while other times they despise themselves. They may or may not have a clear idea of who they are or what you want out life. As a result, they may frequently change various major facets of their lives: partners, friends, jobs, religious or spiritual paths, values, goals, or even life purpose.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – Based on what I’ve gleaned from the majority of people on the spectrum and the official writings about autism, this could be similar in many cases to what we experience. Many of us have talked about “bridge-burning”, where we decide we’ve had enough of the current state of our lives and we uproot ourselves, transplanting ourselves somewhere else and starting fresh, having severed ties in ways that surprise others. However, most of the time, we would much rather maintain our status quo, even sometimes to the point where it may not be healthy or productive for us. This might be derived from our related desires for routine and stability. Most of us tend to be pretty rock solid.
I’ll also take these next two BPD characteristics together, because they’re also closely related.
Impulsive Behavior, Self-Destructive Tendencies – People experiencing BPD may seek sensory stimulation especially when you’re upset. They may make impulsive purchases, even those they can’t afford; they may binge (on any type of bingeing, such as eating, alcohol, sex, drugs, etc). They may engage in risk-taking behavior such as driving recklessly, shoplifting, sexual intimacy without proper “vetting” or using protection.
Self-Harm – Suicidal behavior and deliberate self-harm are common in people experiencing BPD. It’s important to note that suicidal behavior also includes contemplation/ideation, and/or making gestures, threats, or attempts. Self-harm also includes all other attempts to otherwise hurt oneself, including cutting, etc.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – I’ve observed very few of these behaviors, but rarely. There are those of us who engage in self-medication through substance use/abuse, but that’s not pervasive across the community. Each of us takes a different approach to being intimate with someone, and the vast majority of us “vet” people in our lives “properly” (according to our standards). Some of us also engage in self-harm, and although that could be considered a “repetitive movement” (aka a “stim” or self-soothing activity), I haven’t found it to be a common one. Typically our self-soothing activities are not intentionally harmful to ourselves.
Extreme Emotional Mood Swings – Another common hallmark of BPD is the phenomenon of unstable emotions and moods. They may alternate between contentment, hostility, excitement, despair, euphoria, and anger. They can be triggered by “little things” that others usually “brush off”, and they can be incredibly intense, but they’re relatively short-lived; they usually last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – This is one area in which Asperger’s/autism may look identical to BPD, but it’s likely completely different. We, too, may experience intense emotions that we may not realize or be able to identify, express, or even sometimes control. However, ours seem to stem more from a potential (varying) combination of sensory overload, faulty executive function (which might be temporary), depleted energy (often through stress, masking/acting, etc), and alexithymia.
Long-Term Feeling of Emptiness – People experiencing BPD often mention feeling empty, maybe feeling a hole or a void inside them. In the worst case scenario, they may feel as if they’re “nothing” or “nobody.” Since this feeling is uncomfortable, they may attempt to fill the hole with activities like drugs, food, shopping, or sex. But in the end, none of those options feel truly satisfying. And so the emptiness continues.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – Although many of us report feeling empty at different times, and the natural tendency is, thus, to fill the emptiness, I’ve rarely witnessed many of us talk about the situation in this way. As mentioned above, most of us tend to feel alone less often, and when we do, I hear more of us attempting to ride out the feeling in healthy, constructive ways, such as pursuing a subject/topic of primary focus/specialty, creating art, writing (journaling, blogging, or writing), listening to music, petting the cat or dog, or maybe coloring in coloring books.
Explosive Anger – People experiencing BPD may struggle with a short temper and intense anger. Once triggered, they may also have trouble controlling themselves, often becoming completely consumed by rage. It’s important to note that this anger isn’t always directed at other people. They may actually spend a lot of time being angry at themselves.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – This may sound familiar to those of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, particularly when considering our meltdowns and shutdowns. However, it’s important to know that the engines driving these are completely different: for people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, it tends to be another possible profile of sensory overload, stress, depleted energy, and so on, while for those experiencing BPD, their anger is one side of the personality disorder coin, in which emotions are not well-regulated, likely due to fear and insecurity.
I’ll also consider these next two BPD characteristics together, because they’re also closely related.
Suspicions/Loss of Touch with Reality – People experiencing BPD may struggle with suspicious thoughts about others’ motives, or even paranoia. During stressful times, they may even experience dissociation, which is a loss of touch with reality.
Lack of Trust – This piggybacks on the preceding “Suspicions” phenomenon listed above. Typically individuals with BPD have difficulty trusting others. They may not be able to accept that someone is telling them the truth or being genuine.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – People on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum tend to act in a way that is either identical (but for different reasons) or the exact opposite. We have described ourselves (or various leaders in the field have described us) as either “too trusting”, tending to “overshare” or get “too personal too fast”, or conversely, as having “trust issues”. On the one hand, we want to believe the best about people; I suspect that this largely comes from a situation where we’re genuine people and we might believe that everyone else is, too, and/or a position of anxiety, in which to ease that anxiety, we may want to believe that everyone has good intentions so that we can feel less threatened and socially awkward. But those are just the theories I could think of at the moment; I may have others, and there may be still others that I haven’t thought of.
Manipulation – It’s been said that people experiencing BPD can be extremely manipulative. For example, because they fear being abandoned, they might use manipulation tactics to coerce their partner into staying. The irony is that despite this behavior, most BPD people actually feel powerless beneath the surface. They may feel a sense of entitlement, juxtaposed with low self-esteem.
How Asperger’s/Autism Compares – I have not seen the characteristic of manipulation mentioned anywhere in respectable sources, nor have I seen it in people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum who have no other co-occurring conditions. In fact, the vast majority of us tend toward the opposite: a desire to be straightforward and genuine, generally without hurting people. In fact, BPD and Antisocial Personality Disorder are said to share several common themes, one of which is manipulative behaviors (and I’ve written before about how Asperger’s/autism and Antisocial Personality Disorder are completely different).
Given these differences, the alarming rate at which I hear about Asperger’s/autistic people getting diagnosed with BPD is beyond me. Some of the behavioral manifestations may appear similar on the surface, but the overlap is relatively small, and the underlying drivers behind them are completely different. This is yet another case of “please talk to us instead of just observing!”, and it’s yet another reason that it’s so incredibly necessary for the gatekeepers in the field to start doing this en masse.
With any luck, someday soon, we won’t have to worry about getting mixed up in the wrong diagnoses (I like the term “classifications”, personally). 🙂
References / Further Reading:
- “Borderline Personality Disorder” – from PsyCom
- “Borderline Personality Disorder” – from PsychCentral
- “What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?” – from HelpGuide
- “Relationships and Borderline Personality Disorder” – from Borderline-Personality-Disorder
- “Are People With BPD Manipulative?” – from AAPEL