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A while ago I tuned into an NPR program about BPD. The tagline was,
“A recent study confirmed that people with BPD have less empathy.”
I heard what I expected to hear, older psychiatrists talking about “avoiding borderlines” and “dealing with borderlines.”
What I didn’t expect was a young psychologist who defended us. She said that the study didn’t show that people with BPD have less emotional empathy. She said, “It’s quite the opposite, my patients are so in tune with my emotions sometimes they know what I’m feeling before I do. They can be deeply compassionate.”
She continued, saying that the type of empathy the study was referring to was not emotional empathy but cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is thinking. This is entirely different from emotional empathy, which is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling.
She used an example from her work.
One day, she came into the office feeling angry after having a minor argument at home. Her patients with BPD immediately knew that something was wrong and showed concern. They were exhibiting emotional empathy.
However, rather than thinking she was upset because of issues at home, they panicked, immediately assuming that she was angry with them. This is common among those with BPD. While we are extremely good – too good – at picking up on the fact that someone is upset, we cannot correctly intuit what they are thinking. When we try to understand why someone else is unhappy, we often go horribly wrong, jumping to the conclusion that we are the ones that have done something we shouldn’t.
Most people aren’t aware of (or wish to acknowledge) our high capacity for emotional empathy, and without even knowing it, we are learning in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and mentalization-based treatment (MBT) to improve our cognitive empathy as well.
Tequila Mockingbird writes about borderline personality disorder issues for Painted Brain News