Do people with personality disorders have 'zero empathy'?
Posted Monday 11 April 2011
Does a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder mean someone has ‘zero empathy’? Are they naturally ‘capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm on others and are unmoved by the plight of those they hurt’? According to Simon Baron-Cohen it does, as outlined in this article in The Independent published last week. Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge who makes these claims in his book Zero Degrees of Empathy.
Looking at borderline personality disorder (BPD) as an example, it’s a controversial psychiatric diagnosis. Mind’s guide to BPD explains that some people find the suggestion that their personality is disordered, or ‘wrong’ distressing. Equally, having a diagnosis can help people find ways to manage their condition.
People with BPD can have symptoms that make life very difficult – poor self image, difficulty in building or maintaining relationships, feeling despair one day and confident another – which often has a significant impact on their day-to-day life. As a result, people with BPD are more likely than those with most other psychiatric diagnoses to have suicidal thoughts or make suicide attempts. They are far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else.
However, borderline personality disorder is manageable and there are many things people with the diagnosis can do to help themselves cope better and manage their condition. The majority of people with BPD feel better in the long term. Being stigmatised as pathological and people with zero empathy, as Baron-Cohen suggests, is not helpful for people with BPD or their friends and family.
BPD can be distressing for the people around those who are diagnosed with it. Someone with BPD is likely to often feel very low about themselves, and may not know how to ask for help. People who experience BPD still want to be loved and cared for but may feel that they do not deserve this. Reminding them of good things about them can help. They have to find their own way to get a sense of self-worth, but support from friends and family does help.
People with BPD have a strong need to feel accepted – they are not unmoved by others but find it difficult to feel that others value them. The portrayal in the Independent is unlikely to help this. Mind’s information gives a more realistic explanation of the disorder and how people with it can find help.
Calling people with diagnoses of borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder ‘pathological’ is inaccurate and reinforces inappropriate generalisations that should be challenged. In particular, the implication that people with these diagnoses are often criminals is entirely inaccurate.
Mind’s report, Another Assault, demonstrated that people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of crime than to commit them. 71 per cent of survey respondents with mental health problems had been a victim of crime in the last two years. They are 11 times more likely to be victimised than society as a whole.
BPD, ASPD and NPD are serious psychiatric conditions. Generalising that they mean people diagnosed with them have ‘zero empathy’ and are a danger to others is incorrect and could cause harm.
What do you think? Have you been diagnosed with a personality disorder? Have you experienced stigma and/or discrimination?
Sam Challis, Mind Information Officer
If you are interested in finding out more about personality disorder read Mind’s information: Understanding personality disorders, Understanding Borderline personality disorder or Understanding dissociative disorder.
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