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Simone Hoermann, Ph.D.Simone Hoermann, Ph.D.
A blog about the personality disorders (borderline, narcissistic, etc.) with a focus on research and therapy

People with Borderline Personality Disorder: Good at Reading Others’ Emotions?

Simone Hoermann, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 23rd 2009

illustration of different emoticons

In recent years, several researchers have hypothesized that persons with Borderline Personality Disorder may have deficits in reading emotional facial expressions in other people.  The ability to accurately read other people’s emotions enable us to respond appropriately to others and to feel empathy.  When this ability to accurately perceive and interpret other people’s facial expressions is compromised, our interpretations of other people’s internal states is inaccurate, which may lead to emotional distress and dysregulation, to inappropriate responses, and to potentially inappropriate social behaviors.  In turn, emotion dysregulation can affect interpersonal relationships – just think of someone lashing out in anger at another person.

Many experts have noted that people with Borderline Personality Disorders struggle with difficulties in regulating their emotions, and also with establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. In fact, the two difficulties likely interrelated, in that people with Borderline Personality Disorders are extremely sensitive to interpersonal situations – for instance, one of the criteria for Borderline Personality disorder are frantic efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment.  On the other hand, the intense emotional reactions to interpersonal difficulties, such as anger outbursts, can in turn affect interpersonal relationships.

The results of several studies that have looked into this question are summarized in a review by Gregor Domes and his colleagues, which was recently published in the Journal of Personality Disorders.  The authors summarize findings from different studies that looked at how people with BPD interpreted emotional facial expressions, as compared to people who did not have BPD.  What they found was that, across different studies, people with BPD tended to have some subtle deficits in interpreting facial expressions, in that they generally had a tendency interpret neutral or ambiguous faces as expressing negative emotions, particularly anger or fear.  One possible conclusion the authors draw from this is that people with BPD may have a tendency to expect a threat and interpersonal difficulties from other people and that they see the world as dangerous.

In their review, Domes and his co-authors also look at another line of research, which looks at processes in the brain that have to do with the regulation of emotions and the processing of information.  Not surprisingly, there are some findings that demonstrate that intense emotional arousal can interfere with the processing of information.  Moreover, there were a number of studies that showed that people with BPD had some abnormalities in brain areas that regulate and modulate emotional arousal, and that their brain responded differently to negative scenes and facial expressions.  What Domes and his colleagues concluded was that, in people with BPD, the emotional arousal interferes with the ability to accurately read facial expressions.

My colleague Eric Fertuck and his team in fact just published a paper in the journal Psychological Medicine about this topic. What is striking about their study is that that persons with Borderline Personality Disorder, when not under emotional distress, were particularly good at accurately reading facial expressions, in that they were on average better at it than volunteers who did not have a personality disorder.  What the authors pointed out, though, was that people with BPD might well be hyper-attuned to other people’s facial expressions and then tend to personalize the emotional state of the other person. For instance, they might believe that a person is enraged at them when in fact the person might just a little annoyed about something else. Clearly, more research is needed on this fascinating topic. In the meantime, please let us know your own thoughts and experiences with this!

Simone Hoermann, Ph.D.Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., is a Psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in providing psychotherapy for Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and Depression. She is a faculty member of Columbia University, and facilitates psychotherapy and skills training groups at the Columbia East 60th Street Day Treatment Program.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

this is not true at all - - Mar 21st 2014

I have this problem and I'm only in tune with facial expression what?

huh? - hana - Oct 9th 2013

I was told I may have this disorder, but do not think so.  I have a temper, but have learned to control it, and many people do have \\

I'm Pretty Good at Reading Others - Elizabeth - Dec 5th 2012

My personal experience (at least with superficial interactions) seems to negate this finding. I have BPD and am actually very good with people. All of my jobs and hobbies have required intense superficial interaction with others (teaching, speech and debate, theater, etc), and I'm good at perceiving the emotions of others and responding effectively. Most of the times, I can walk into a room and instantly guage how another is feeling based on their body language, expressions, tone, etc. often before non-BPs do. This probably comes from my need for control, my need to be able to predict what will be going on, and the fact that I'm basically an emotional barometer in all social situations.
However, I am only good at this in superficial relationships. As soon as I try to develop a close or intimate relationship with anybody, the fears of abandonment and all the other emotional crap come into play, and I'm at a loss. I make a lot of cognitive distortions and perceive things in ways that simply are not true.

confude in me but can see distress i ithers clear as dy - - Aug 13th 2012

i have been diagnosed with bdp and am midway through MBt in the uk have left my nursing cares in childrens intensive  cr something i amstill struggling with my main prolem is I can see things in others and it has freeked thm out as they feel they are very true but they have not seen them i gat lost on my own issues them unfortunately I can spot a therapist having a down day and want to make them ok too unfortunately while this is easy I am then in a sea of danger zone especially if they are unaware and get lost in their stuff un able to find me and it beomes bits of others which aren't me so thuck but I feel almost out in open now but i hope `i don't lose insight in to others  as this is is a worry i have of being selfish?/

BPD and Aspergers correlation? - Paisley Prentiss - Mar 2nd 2011

In reading the other responses to the article, I also wonder if there is some link between BPD and Aspergers.  I am currently being treated as ADHD - diagnosed as an adult, because of my poor impulse control....but we all know poor impulse control is a result of BPD as well.  :)  And that ADHD exists on the Autism spectrum (Aspergers) as well.  So I am sitting here, 1 year into intense psychoanalytic therapy, wondering which is it?  Or all 3?  I am VERY sensitive to sound and touch, or even people getting too near to me (before they even bump into me) ... and it gets worse when I am in a period of being "under attack" (under stress).  I cannot look people in the eye when talking to them, but when they're talking, I look them in the eye almost too much, and they've said numerous times how it's just almost eery how much I "get them" or "predict" what they are feeling.  I asked my therapist - she said my social skills were too advanced to be an aspie, but I'm still not convinced...I think I have just learned enough how to overcome situations intellectually, not emotionally.  And as far as the distorted thoughts of BPD?  Oh my goodness, I see annihilation and abandonment where absolutely none of that exists.  It's ridiculous.  At least I'm able to sit back and realize now (after a year of therapy and reading websites like these) how ridiculous and pervasive these patterns of thoughts are.

vica versa - - Oct 18th 2010

Interesting to consider that the BPD person, in not being able to properly read facial expressions or other forms of body language, may also not be able to "express" proper facial expressions or body language. Thus, the BPD person feels isolated and frustrated due to a lack of communication--given that over ninety percent of communication is non-verbal. Perhaps this is the cause of "outbursts"--pure examples of frustration at not being "heard"? Also, the fear of abandoment makes more sense too-- it's like being blind and deaf. It seems like a person will say one thing but their body language says another--I have to go with what they say because I can't "see/hear" the difference. This causes much chaos in life, people do not consistantly do what they say causing mistrust. Yet, all I have to go on is someone's words. I try very hard to "see" the body's message; but, like it's been noted, in times of stress--I see danger when perhaps there is none. I've had to learn to go against my first instinct when communicating with others and fearing someone's angry wrath. In my mind, it's like fearing the stove is hot but touching it anyway just to be sure-- more than not, the stove isn't hot. Still, it's scary every time. So, in regard to the research, I'd have to agree with it. I don't read faces/body language well. It would be interesting for a researcher to study the facial expressions/body language of BPD persons and then ask them what the BPD person was trying to convey--especially in times of stress. I do not think I am as "angry" as you think I am. I think that I must just not understand physical body language like "normal" people do. Maybe part of future BPD therapy will be to "teach" non-verbal body language so that it can be read and expressed.

interesting - phan - Sep 1st 2010

yes i was the same as a child from what they tell me, I do remember psychologists as a teenager before they gave up, they told my parents it was a form of 'overexaggerated sibling rivalary'.

Although now you have me curious, was my mothers lack of ability to 'love me' due to her own issues and create my situation, or did I actually drive her to hold me at arm's length?

Interesting, and terrifying all at once.

latent abilities to accurately read others - vicki - Mar 13th 2010


I am BPD, with did tendancies, professionally diagnosised.

I married a high functioning asperger syndrome suffer.

Yes given my research into parnarnormal scienctific and through know many members of the practising psychic community, we both appear to show those latent abilities to accurately read others, although as the orginial post suggests, only when there is a 'stability' in our environments for us both.

I'd be more interested in more research in the rlationship between asperger's and BPD, because strangely enough on the surface of it, it should not work at all, but it appears to be a very strong bond ... at times i've had to question whether it's co-dependant.

There would be signs of that when he is overwhelmed by stimuli, refusing to leave my side etc, and when i've reacting to those persausive thoughts of mine. But on deeper inspect it just appears as if we balance each other.

BPD Empathic Imbalance? - Brian - Jan 5th 2010

I noticed a lot of similarities between BPD and my research into aspergers. Both seem to me a very complicated defense mechanism very similar to what I went through as an Empath. For instance not being able to read facial expressions or make eye contact. As an Empath I use to be so sensitive to other peoples emotions I could feel what other people felt as my own feelings.

Many times when reading someone I would make temporary eye contact to get a "read". This allowed me to set up a feedback loop so the other person found it very hard to lie to me or if they did I would pick it up easily. On the other hand sustained eye contact was painful because feedback would become to loud/ intense like a mic placed to close to an amp.

As  for facial expressions I did not rely on such as external clues like most people do. In fact most people a lot of the time are very manipulative ven when not out right lying so the facial expressions would rarely match their real emotions. So I learned to tune out facial expressions body language etc. As  a result I failed to monitor or inhibit my own facial expressions and often would hurt people with obvious disgust or anger or other negative expressions on my face that were not toned down.

When I read about aspergers or BPD I wonder if maybe these people are empaths that simply are over loaded and have no idea what is going on with thier abilities. My main question of course is do you know of any research between psychic empathic ability and disorders relating to emotionally relating such as aspergers and BPD for instance?

BPD- in child. - Dee - Dec 8th 2009

I have a 9yr.female child with BPD, we have taken her to two clinics both say the same thing. Anti-Social and possible BPD. She is exhausting all her father and caregivers efforts. She is extremely intelligent but, will switch in a minute, to do harm to siblings, two sisters. She is not intimidated by anyone, continues to do anti-soical things when adults are not looking. When being interviewed by adults will say exactly what you want to here. When she leaves she will laugh about how she fooled them.  She is extremely good at Reading Other's Emotions. Principal could not believe it until she witnessed it for herself, after calling her down on an accusation she was making about boys. Asked why she does it she said,, because I can.

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