Borderline Personality Disorder and Shame
Understanding pain and volatility.
Individuals with borderline personality disorder are particularly sensitive to feeling shamed.
Feelings of shame make people with BPD feel flawed and undesirable, raising fears of abandonment.
Individuals with symptoms of BPD often respond to feeling shamed by lashing out at others.
Most individuals with symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle with an underlying sense of self-loathing that makes them particularly vulnerable feeling flawed. The fear of being seen by others as flawed drives a strong fear of abandonment. Their propensity to be easily shamed makes it very difficult for them to take responsibility for undesirable outcomes. Efforts to resolve conflicts with individuals suffering from symptoms of BPD can be facilitated by approaches that minimize their experience of shame.
For many with BPD, the sensitivity to being shamed is so high that they routinely hear others as slighting, defaming, humiliating, and exploiting them. This can take the form of paranoid thinking, where they feel targeted by others or groups. This may be associated with lashing out at others or shunning others, which are efforts to protect themselves from people they think are likely to expose their flaws. These reactions inhibit intimacy and cooperation. Following are some examples* of how individuals suffering from symptoms of BPD react to their sense of being shamed.
Lila met her friend Sue, who has symptoms of BPD, for lunch. When they arrived at the restaurant, they were told that there would be a 45-minute wait for a table. They got onto the waiting list and had this conversation.
Lila: Sue, did you make a reservation?
Sue: How was I supposed to know this place would be mobbed?
Lila: I never heard of this place. You picked the restaurant.
Sue: So, I should have known a reservation was needed, and I am stupid for not making one.
Lila: I didn’t say that.
Sue: Next time you make the reservation. Or better yet, next time, go eat by yourself.
Lila thought she was innocently asking Sue about the reservation. If Sue had said yes, she would have pointed this out to the maître d' in the hope of being seated sooner. Sue heard this as blame and criticism and immediately reacted defensively. Lila attempted to respond to Sue’s remark, but Sue then lashed out and threatened abandonment.
Had Lila understood her friend’s sensitivity to shame, she could have started the conversation by suggesting a cooperative approach. It might have sounded like this:
Lila: Sue, do you want to wait to be seated, or should we look for a less crowded place?
If Sue had made a reservation, she would say so. For some individuals, any questions about performance, in this case, making a reservation, are seen as threatening with regard to shame. The sensitivity to being shamed can even be activated without direct contact. This is illustrated in the following*:
Eric and Ken just returned from a cocktail party and had the following conversation. Ken suffers from symptoms of BPD.
Eric: Wasn’t that a great party?
Ken: Not for me.
Eric: What do you mean?
Ken: I can’t believe you talked about sports with our friends.
Eric: What’s wrong with that?
Ken: You know I don’t know anything about sports. I felt like an idiot.
Eric: Nobody thought that.
Ken: How do you know? I just stood there saying nothing. Maybe they think I am mute.
Eric: You should have brought up something you were interested i
Ken: Now you are blame-shifting. Forget it.
Understanding that Eric is sensitive to feeling shamed in social situations, he might respond to Ken as follows:
Eric: I am sorry you felt embarrassed. Next time we go to a party together, I will make sure to bring up some topics that I know you are interested in.
The suggestions made in this post are meant to help people who have loved ones with symptoms of BPD minimize their experience of shame and, as a result, reduce conflict. It is a transactional solution.
More permanent healing and growth require individuals with BPD to recognize their sensitivity to shame and their associated tendency to project shame into situations where it may not exist. Accepting this, individuals sensitive to change can ask others to clarify what they are saying before assuming they are being shamed. For example, Sue might have responded to Lila’s question about the reservation by saying:
Sue: No, did you expect me to?
If Ken accepts that he is sensitive to shame in social situations, he can prepare to bring up topics other than sports that will be of mutual interest to his friends rather than relying on others to ensure he does not feel shame.
Daniel S. Lobel, Ph.D.