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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Bad Personality? Poor Character?

Coming to terms with borderline personality disorder

Marja Bergen

From "The Language We Use" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (1), p. 23

When I received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), I did an Internet search to find out exactly what I was dealing with. What did BPD mean for my life?

What I found alarmed me. Symptoms of borderline personality disorder include periods of intense anger, impulsive behaviour and difficulty with relationships. Needless to say, I was horrified. Is this how people see me now? I wondered. Am I now considered to have a bad personality? I had always thought of myself as “good” person—a kind person with a desire to help others!

My findings were very hard to cope with. Shame filled me like never before. Distraught, I asked myself, Am I really such a bad person? What’s happening to me?

I picked up the phone and called the crisis line. I started to tell the person on the other end of the line what I was feeling. But before long, I became so nauseous I had to interrupt the conversation in order to throw up. I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t even have a chance to properly end the call.

I hate the label “borderline personality disorder.” Those words are, I’m sure, a big part of why the illness is so stigmatized. Some misunderstand personality “disorder” to mean personality “flaw” and fail to see BPD as an illness. The word “borderline” also distresses me, suggesting that the person with the disorder does not have a “valid” or complete personality. “Emotional dysfunction” would be a far better description. I could live with a label like that because the focus is in the right place—on emotions, the most dominant facet of the illness.

The current label also places emphasis on personality. I think that when people understand that BPD is a disorder involving the personality, many mistakenly conclude that someone with BPD is “bad,” that we have poor character. That’s one of the worst things I would ever want people to think about me. It’s terribly stigmatizing—not to mention just plain wrong.

Too often, people seem to think of personality and character as the same thing. But there is a difference. Put simply, personality is what we are on the outside—the qualities and traits we reveal to others; character is what we are on the inside—the beliefs or values that constitute our core being. Personality is easy to read. We judge people to be funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident, overly serious, lazy, negative, or shy. Character, on the other hand, reveals itself only in specific—and often uncommon—circumstances, and may include traits like honesty, virtue and kindliness.1

In other words, I might have the most beautiful character and be the most loving person around and still develop BPD. Borderline personality disorder has absolutely nothing to do with my inner character. Yet no matter how much goodness there is within, the focus is on our emotional reactions and behaviours, and this is often how we are judged. Even well-educated individuals make the mistake of judging us solely on our reactions and behaviours rather than taking the time to see our inner character. How tragic that such a misunderstanding should harm people who are already suffering!

When I was diagnosed, I received minimal direction from my psychiatrist and ended up doing most of my own research about BPD online. I shared my diagnosis with a few friends, thinking they would be understanding. I had lived with mental illness all my life (I also have bipolar disorder), and I am a leader who has done much good work advocating on mental health issues. I had the respect of my community... or so I thought.

The change in attitude came from mainly one person, a friend who meant a lot to me, and I’m not exactly sure when it started. But the shift was profound. This individual started treating me differently. Kindness stopped. Smiles disappeared. I was hurt repeatedly through the person’s words and actions and there was no apparent concern for my feelings. The pain dug as deep as a knife, yet the person never expressed remorse. At times I felt as if the person had forgotten I was a human being. But ultimately, I wanted healing and peace, so I offered forgiveness. My forgiveness was refused.

At the end of a year, I walked away from this abusive friendship, something I should have done much sooner. In the years that followed, I continued to suffer, plagued by traumatic memories of the psychological abuse. I spent thousands of dollars on therapy—therapy that is still ongoing. My mental health will probably always be affected.

There is more stigma associated with BPD than with any other mental illness.2 Personally, I find this fact one of the most painful things about living with the disorder. I am an emotionally sensitive person, like most people with BPD, and I have strong reactions to emotionally charged situations and I sometimes have difficulty controlling the intensity of my responses. Being stigmatized, or dealing with stigma, is no small thing. At its most extreme, stigma can cause irrevocable damage. It can erode a person’s self-esteem and ruin a person’s opportunity to experience a fulfilling life.

Individuals living with BPD must continually face the stigma and shame of having this illness, and this takes a further toll on their mental health. Some studies suggest that suicide rates in people with BPD are 4-9% and that as many as 80% of people with BPD display suicidal behaviours.3 As someone with an insider’s perspective, I can confirm that the shame and the stigma are due in large part to a few badly chosen words: borderline personality disorder.

Convincing people to change the words they use can be a slow process. In the meantime, those of us who live with the ugly label of “borderline personality disorder” must also make a change: We need to forget what people think and remember what we know about ourselves.

I’m glad that I believe in a God who pays no attention to man-made labels. The God I know sees those of us with BPD as people who might have had rough lives, making us overly sensitive. He sees the hurt child that is deep within so many of us. In other words, he sees our true character. He is less concerned about our personality, because he knows that personality is not always a good reflection of character. He will always see us the way we truly are.

 
About the author

Marja has lived with bipolar disorder for 50 years and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) three years ago. She founded Living Room, a peer support group, now part of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministry (www.sanctuary-ministries.com). Author of six books, Marja writes weekly reflections to encourage those living with mental health challenges.

See www.marjabergen.com  

Footnotes:
  1. Lickerman, A. (2011). Personality vs. character: The key to determining personality from character is time. Psychology Today, April 3. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201104/personality-vs-character.

  2. Gunderson, J.G. & Hoffman, P.D. (2016). Beyond borderline: True stories of recovery from borderline personality disorder. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1.

  3. Insel, T. (2010). What’s in a name? The outlook for borderline personality disorder. National Institute of Mental Health: Blog posts by Thomas Insel. www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2010/whats-in-a-name-the-outlook-for-borderline-personality-disorder.shtml.

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