Where Borderlines Excel

If you’ve worked with clients who have borderline personality disorder (BPD), you’ve probably had a conversation like this:

Therapist: How did that make you feel?

Client: I dunno.

Therapist: How do you think that might have made someone else feel?

Client: I dunno.

Therapist: Take a look at that list of feeling words and see if there’s anything that fits.

Client: Oh God. I can’t face that list today.

Therapist: Well… hm.

Client: You’re getting worried. You’re thinking about referring me, aren’t you?

Can people really be so oblivious to their emotions when they’re so well-attuned to yours?

Carina Frick, Simone Lang, et al answer at least half of that question in their  new study. They asked clients with BPD to receive an MRI while guessing the emotions others displayed in photographs.  The BPD clients out-guessed the control group of healthy subjects. The fMRIs showed they actually used different parts of the brain.  They were so skilled at identifying what others feel that the mentalization term ‘mind-reading’ seems eerily appropriate.

The researchers suggest this serves as empirical evidence for Alan Krohn’s 1974 paradoxical theory. Krohn noted people with these issues usually grew up with unpredictable parents and inconsistent rules; what Marsha Linehan would later dub the invalidating environment.  The clients he studied had to hide their feelings and read their guardian’s mood quickly to avoid punishment. Clients with BPD are often alert to your emotions and blind to their own, because that kept them safe through childhood.

Neurologists will be titillated by the differences in the brain activity. The fMRIs showed BPD clients’ amygdala, medial frontal gyrus, left temporal pole and the middle temporal gyrus were more active when guessing others’ emotions. The members of the control group lit up in the insula and the superior temporal gyri.  Therapists will be excited that even very low-functioning clients with these issues have a common strength to build on. Two possibilities:

  1. Clients with BPD often feel hopeless about their abilities. We can validate and encourage them by reminding them of this skill, and how useful it is in the work world.
  2. When clients talk about times where it was obvious what someone else felt, I’m going to ask just what they saw. What posture did that person take? How did their face look? What tone was in their voice? What happens in the client’s throat and mouth when they reproduce that tone?

Here’s to the hope these ‘mind-reading’ abilities can be reverse-engineered towards greater self-awareness.

n.b.: If you’d like to test yourself on ‘mind-reading’,  Simon Baron-Cohen‘s “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test is available here.


Frick C, Lang S, Kotchoubey B, Sieswerda S, Dinu-Biringer R, et al. (2012) Hypersensitivity in Borderline Personality Disorder during Mindreading. PLoS ONE 7(8) e41650. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041650

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


Filed under Borderline Personality Disorder

26 responses to “Where Borderlines Excel

  1. Dear Dr. Miller,

    Thank you for this fascinating post. I have written a number of blog posts on the topic of “reading” others, including one called “The Psychic Borderline.” It’s been a personal experience of mine, as a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, and that of many of my BPD diagnosed readers and friends.

    Thank you for this information. It’s very helpful and validating!

    Kind regards,
    Debbie Corso
    Healing From BPD

  2. Yes a skill well honed for self perservation in our dysfunctional families

  3. Lori J. Watkiins

    Hi there! I knew this in my core but, when you tell someone that you know how they feel and try to help them, etc. They look at you like your crazy. Or better yet, say “you ARE crazy!” I generally can actually “feel” another persons emotions, unless they are heavily drugged or drunk. And sometimes even then! It sucks, really. But, you learn to tune it out-you have to. Someone else’s emotions/feelings are NOT mine. I’ve realized I cannot help everyone or hold their hand through life. I really wish I could, but I can’t and still be myself. I have described myself as a “sponge” before, it’s like I walk into a room and everyone’s feelings immediately come at me like electricity to a lightning rod. When all of those emotions are racing at you like that, how in the world are you supposed to “concentrate on yourself”-hell, half the time growing up, and actually until, as of late, I didn’t really know who I was/I was confused because, I was carrying around everyone else’s emotions. It’s called “Imprinting” of your personal aura or something like that-in Metaphysics. I believe. Don’t quote me on that. This is fascinating stuff to me. Thank you so very much for this article. It helps to validate MY emotions, which happen to NOT be my emotions!!!

  4. Reblogged this on Returning Home To Myself and commented:
    Interesting 🙂

  5. This is an awsome resource for those of us with BPD!!!!!

  6. Wow a great post! As someone who often works with clients who have BPD I know how frustrating it can be, but this helps to understand them a little better. Thanks.

  7. Reblogged this on Struggling with BPD and commented:
    This post was very informative! Everyone should take the test. I really thought that I didn’t know how to read people, but was surprised at how high I scored. Well above avereage! I guess I can read people better than I thought.

  8. Cardamom_Sweet

    Interesting. Mind reading. My family life was dominated by this. I’m a scientist and quite analytical as a result of it, I think. My dad could just listen and watch and figure stuff out without asking a question. Eery really. My sister, brother and I are like this to some degree as well.

    My home life was quite invalidating. I’m working on dealing with it. So that’s a good thing.

    Perhaps so-called psychics really are BPD or have tendencies towards BPD-like emotion dysregulation and are just uncanny at reading people. Thanks for sharing.

    The test was quite interesting. I got 32 out of 36. Don’t know really what that means as the test was clearly devised for those with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism. All it had was an average of 26.2 as the average score. It was surprising to see how clear it was what the emotional state of the person was without seeing anything but the eyes.


  9. Jaen Wirefly

    This is fantastic! This is why borderlines tend to make great therapists when they aren’t in crisis.

  10. Jaen Wirefly

    Reblogged this on "You Know You're Borderline When…" and commented:
    Why do Borderlines make great therapists? Read this post.

  11. Thank you for the informative and educational post…enjoy it!

  12. I enjoyed reading this post and taking the test. I was surprised that I scored a bit lower than average (25) instead of above average, like I would expect given prior diagnosis of BPD. Could this mean that I have made progress in healing so that I have “lost” some of my skill at mind-reading? On the other hand, could it be Asperger’s?

  13. Brilliant post and like a lot of the others I’m so glad it’s not all in my head. I tend to call myself an empath because of being able to read others emotions…it has however caused problems in relationships as the men I have dated did not like me knowing they were upset especially when I tried to get them to talk about it. Not a phenomenal score at 28 but there a few that I didn’t trust myself on and should have gone with my gut. I hope you won’t mind if I repost this?

  14. Reblogged this on scienerf and commented:
    A very interesting post, validated some of the things I have felt over the years and the test did confirm it too!

  15. PAZ

    Reblogged this on Melancholically Manic Mouse and commented:
    I don’t normally reblog, unless it’s from MFFs or Canvas or something like that. But I really love this one. “Krohn noted people with these issues usually grew up with unpredictable parents and inconsistent rules; what Marsha Linehan would later dub the invalidating environment.” That one is especially true for me.

  16. Pingback: Where Borderlines Excel | MAKE BPD STIGMA-FREE!

  17. Reblogged this on farewell to daylight and commented:
    Take the “Reading the Mind’s Eye Test” at the end of this article and see how you score! Borderlines tend to do better than average at correctly identifying facial expressions on these types of tests.

  18. How funny I just referenced this in my latest post – about how it never makes sense to me why I can so easily understand others needs/desires/feelings and how their inability to recognize mine is hurtful. I never knew that it was a studied phenomenon —

  19. Clare

    Interesting I have this ability and it absolutely terrifies people. I know how they truly feel especially those that are close, and because I am type two I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut!. I can also spot lies a thousand miles away. As mentioned in the comments I can also ‘feel’ emotions and its awful, especially if the other person is angry or has problems you can relate to, it digs up past and end up taking on the emotions as your own, its very hard to separate them. Eventually you avoid people all together. I have a lot of empathy and I often have people come to me for advice and everyone seems to open up. Its incredibly draining. Its bizarre really given the state of me hah.
    I don’t buy that BPD sufferers don’t understand their own emotions, we do, but explaining the rollercoaster that can change at any minute is another thing entirely. Telling people (especially an ‘authority’ figure) what you feel exactly leaves you vulnerable to all sorts. As for feeling hopeless I don’t believe that either, we are incredibly resiliant but would prefer someone to do everything for us and take away that stress.
    Can you please make the test compatible for android tablet devices? I would like to take this test, although how we read people is probably a little more complex than looking at a picture…

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