By Shahida Arabi
As a writer who speaks about narcissistic abuse (emotional abuse and manipulation perpetrated by malignant narcissists), I am often asked what the differences are between having an abusive relationship with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or those who display borderline traits vs. narcissistic ones.
While these are both Cluster B disorders that have some overlap, there are similarities as well as differences that set these disorders apart. The ways they behave in relationships may be similar on the surface, but they differ in the degree of empathy they’re capable of, the motivation behind their behavior, their emotional range as well as their responsiveness to treatment.
This list may not apply to borderlines with co-morbid NPD or vice versa. Those with co-morbid personality disorders tend to display traits from both and will often share more similarities than differences. It is also important to note that women are more likely than men to be diagnosed as borderline, while men are more likely to be diagnosed as narcissists, which may be due to a bias driven by cultural stereotypes. Thus, neither disorder should be presumed as something that is gender-specific: there can be female narcissists as well as male borderlines.
Additionally, while this article focuses on abusive behavior, not all borderlines or narcissists may be abusive. Depending on where they fall on the spectrum of their respective disorders as well as their responsiveness to treatment, individual cases may vary from the listed traits and behaviors.
- While both borderlines and narcissists can pose harm to their loved ones through potential emotional and verbal abuse, individuals with BPD are more likely to self-harm as a cry for help. On the other hand, those with NPD or narcissistic traits often harm others through methods such as gaslighting, triangulation, and sabotage as a way to bolster their grandiose image and false sense of superiority.
- While borderlines have an intense fear of abandonment, a hallmark of their disorder, narcissists are often the ones doing the abandoning. Borderlines may engage in chronic manipulation of their loved ones using jealousy, control or threats to avoid abandonment only to heighten the risk of being abandoned due to clingy, needy or controlling behaviors. Narcissists manipulate by devaluing and discarding their victims to humiliate and control them. This includes covertly and overtly putting their victims down, subjecting them to stonewalling, emotionally withdrawing from them and invalidating them, as well as abandoning their loved ones without giving them any sense of closure or explanation.
- Borderlines and narcissists share the intense experience of feeling and demonstrating an immense amount of rage. However, a borderline’s rage tends to be more dissociative, stemming from what Linehan calls emotional “third degree burns” that bring them into a whirlwind of emotions. Their focus gets tied to their own reactions and they are unlikely to see another person’s perspective when in this state of rage or sadness. A narcissist’s rage stems primarily from his or her sense of entitlement or grandiosity being challenged; any perceived slight to the narcissist’s intelligence, character, status or anything else they value will be met with aggressive and contemptuous attempts to regain a sense of superiority (Goulston, 2012).
- Borderlines have a wider emotional range than narcissists do, though they experience a similar sense of chronic emptiness and void as narcissists. Borderlines can in fact feel intense, loving feelings for their friends, family and relationship partners; the problem is, they tend to also devalue and manipulate those loved ones due to their rapidly shifting emotions and distorted sense of identity.When they are not being their usual charming selves, narcissists tend to display flat affect, feel a sense of emotional numbness and experience perpetual boredom, which causes them to be on the lookout for new supply (people that can provide them with validation, praise and admiration). Narcissists tend to feel a watered down, emotionally shallow version of emotions, although they can “perform” emotions to gain attention or present an image of normalcy by imitating or mimicking the emotions of others. Their most intense emotions tend to be envy and rage.
- Borderlines can feel love for others but quickly revert back into hatred, fear or disgust for them — a behavior known as “splitting.” This can be incredibly traumatic for their loved ones, who may not understand why they are suddenly being seen in black and white (all good vs. all bad). Narcissists also engage in something similar to splitting known as idealization and devaluation, where they are prone to putting their loved ones on a pedestal, only to swiftly knock them off.While “splitting” can be addressed through therapy and inner work, many narcissists feel rewarded from idealizing and devaluing their victims because it feeds their need for power and control. The idealization-devaluation-discard cycle with a narcissist is often not an emotionally charged or emotionally motivated cycle as it is in splitting, but rather a more manufactured pattern that enables narcissistic abusers to move forward to other sources of narcissistic supply.
- It is commonly assumed that both disorders stem from trauma. However, this conclusion may be less certain for NPD as it is for BPD. Borderlines often come from traumatic childhood experiences such as neglect, sexual abuse or physical abuse; many who grow up in these invalidating family environments are diagnosed with BPD (Crowell, Beauchaine, & Linehan, 2009). There is still no clinical verdict on what causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though there are certainly some narcissists who can come from backgrounds of trauma.Pete Walker notes that sometimes Complex PTSD can be misdiagnosed as either NPD or BPD. There may also be another theory of origin for narcissism; a recent study confirmed that overvaluing (spoiling) children and teaching them a sense of entitlement early on can lead to the birth of narcissistic traits (Brumelman et. al, 2015). The origin of personality disorders is a complex topic and it usually involves the interaction between biological predisposition and environmental influences.
- Borderlines may have more of a capacity for empathy than narcissists do. A recent study confirmed that, when not under mental duress, borderlines could recognize mental states in the facial expressions of others more accurately than even non-borderlines, possibly due to their own intense experiences of emotions (Fertuck, et. al 2009). However, both borderlines and narcissists have been shown by brain scans to have deficiencies in areas of the brain related to empathy.There is also research that suggests that prompting those lower on the narcissistic spectrum to take another’s perspective can help in the process of empathizing with another. These studies suggest that regardless of what disorder one has, those lower on the spectrum for both disorders may have a capacity for empathy if, and only if, they are willing to and guided to take on the perspective of another.
- Borderlines and narcissists can also differ in their ability to change and prognosis. In terms of treatment, individuals with BPD may be able to benefit from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) if they are willing to work on their behavior. In contrast to the myth that BPD is a hopeless disorder or too difficult to treat, DBT has shown promising results (Stepp et. al, 2008). This therapy merges interpersonal effectiveness skills with mindful coping methods to help those with borderline traits in emotion regulation, the reduction of self-harming behaviors and in healthier social interactions.
The developer of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Marsha Linehan, was herself diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and is part of the group of borderlines who no longer show traits after undergoing treatment. Though there are certainly borderlines who may not be as high-functioning, there are also borderlines who manage their symptoms successfully, even to the extent of remission and no longer meeting the criteria for their disorder. This is probably because of early intervention: those with BPD often end up in inpatient treatment due to hospitalization caused by suicide attempts, increasing the possibility of accessing effective treatment.
While DBT is helpful to borderlines, narcissists often feel rewarded by their behavior and are less likely to attend or benefit from therapy. For those that do end up attending therapy, there is some research that suggests that group therapy, CBT (especially schema-based therapy) and individual psychoanalytic therapy may help in reforming certain narcissistic mindsets and behaviors.
The question remains one of motivation: borderlines may be motivated to change from within due to the loss of relationships, but the narcissist’s motivation is driven by the need for validation, praise and admiration from others. As such, the narcissist’s capacity to change is limited by extrinsic motivation (such as the desire to be seen in a certain way, to uphold a false mask in front of the therapist or society) rather than an internal desire that would most likely result in longer-term change.
- Borderlines are more impulsive and emotionally explosive even outside of their intimate relationships. Their rapidly shifting moods support the suggestion that this disorder might be more appropriately named as “emotional dysregulation disorder” instead (Houben, 2016). While narcissists can also be emotionally explosive in their rage, due to their need to have a “false mask“ or public persona, they have more impulse control, can fly under the radar, control their behavior more easily if there is a witness present or if they need to engage in impression management. As a result, they are less likely to be held accountable for their actions unless their false mask slips in public.
While it is helpful to learn the differences between these two disorders, at the end of the day, the way a specific person treats you and its impact upon you is usually a better indication of the toxicity present in the relationship than any diagnostic label. If a person is chronically abusive and unwilling to get help to change their abusive behavior, it is important to engage in self-care, seek professional support and consider detaching from the relationship if it is severely affecting your ability to lead a healthy, happy life.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there is no excuse or justification for abuse of any kind, even if your loved one has a personality disorder. The symptoms of a personality disorder may exacerbate the risk for abusive behavior, but ultimately, it is up to the person in question to address their behavior and take steps to seek the treatment that will alleviate those symptoms and manage their behavior. While we can certainly be compassionate towards anyone struggling with their mental health, we must also learn to be compassionate to ourselves, set healthy boundaries with others and recognize when we are being mistreated.
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