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Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Explains borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

This page is also available in Welsh.

What causes BPD?

There's no clear reason why some people experience difficulties associated with BPD. More women are given this diagnosis than men, but it can affect people of all genders and backgrounds.

Researchers think that BPD is caused by a combination of factors, including:

"One of the things I struggled with was a feeling of 'why me', in the sense of 'others have experienced far worse than me and can deal with it – why can't I?'. Over time I've come to realise that lots of low level issues in my life are as valid a reason for struggling as a few bigger traumas."

Stressful or traumatic life events

If you get this diagnosis you're more likely than most people to have had difficult or traumatic experiences growing up, such as:

  • often feeling afraid, upset, unsupported or invalidated
  • family difficulties or instability, such as living with a parent who has an addiction
  • sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect
  • losing a parent.

If you had difficult childhood experiences like these they may have caused you to develop particular coping strategies, or beliefs about yourself and other people, which might become less helpful in time and cause you distress. You might also be struggling with feelings of anger, fear or sadness.

You might also experience BPD without having any history of traumatic or stressful life events, or you might have had other types of difficult experiences.

"Because I don't have so many memories or examples of healthy emotional behaviour or relationships I feel totally at sea dealing with these things myself. So when I get let down, it just reinforces my belief that the world is full of bad people who won't be kind to you – like my parents weren't kind to me."

If you already experience some of these difficulties, then experiencing stress or trauma as an adult could make things worse. (Our pages on how to manage stress and post-traumatic stress disorder have some tips on how to cope.)

"Nobody taught me to regulate my emotions. I saw my parents and family members regularly behave in out of control ways and I thought that was normal."

Genetic factors

Some evidence suggests that BPD could have a genetic cause, because you're more likely to be given this diagnosis if someone in your close family has also received it. But it's very hard to know if difficulties associated with BPD are inherited from your parents or caused by other factors, such as the environment you grow up in or the ways of thinking, coping and behaving that you learn from the people around you.

It's possible that a combination of factors could be involved. Genetics might make you more vulnerable to developing BPD, but often it's due to stressful or traumatic life experiences that these vulnerabilities are triggered and become a problem.

"Being a man with BPD feels like a lonely place – it is often thought of as a female condition, but affects men too. For me, what helps when I'm having a bad time is more 'practical' than emotional – immersing myself in a book, throwing myself into something practical – not avoiding my emotions but delaying them for a little until I feel more able to cope with them."

Can children and young people be diagnosed with BPD?

It's very hard to diagnose BPD in children and young people because you go through so many changes as you grow up. However, you might be given the diagnosis as a teenager if your difficulties have lasted for long enough and BPD is the diagnosis that best matches what you are experiencing.

This information was published in January 2018. 

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References and bibliography available on request.

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