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People who suffer borderline personality disorder are constantly putting people and things on pedestals of admiration and then knocking them off. Treating this disorder is difficult, but dialectical behavior therapy may help.

Fifty-five year-old Lisa (not her real name, and details of this story have been changed to protect her identity) was more than a slight challenge for her neighbors. She had a peculiar, and disturbing, habit of adopting their cats. When a neighbor's cat would go outside at night, Lisa, lurking behind a tree or a large vehicle in the parking lot, would trap it and take it to her apartment. There she would feed the hapless cat fresh sashimi-grade tuna and tie satin ribbons around its neck. She would invite it to play in her cat gymnasium, and feed it the finest of cat food day and night.

A few days later, Lisa would lose interest in the cat, take the animal in the middle of the night to the neighbor's door, and leave an angry note that she should charge them for taking care of their “worthless” animal. Fortunately for the cats, she did not, apparently, harm any of her feline guests.

Lisa also made a habit of introducing herself to new people in the building, telling them they were wonderful supporters of her ideas (whether or not they had discussed her ideas), inviting them to a coffee shop, and then, more often than not, slapping the cup of coffee out of their hands when they said something she did not like. Long retired on disability for post-traumatic stress, Lisa mostly slept in every day, but sometimes she would find the energy to spend long hours demanding to speak at city council meetings and political conventions, probably convincing far more people to vote against her proposals and her party than for them. At one city council meeting, Lisa excoriated elected officials for not making traffic lights "gay friendly". At another, she claimed that the city's failure to ban aspartame and require agave sweeteners in all coffee shops was evidence of residual racism from its history with the Confederacy.

Eventually, enough people complained to mental health authorities that Lisa would committed to a treatment center. When she was released two months later, she had been evicted from her apartment, but she still sneaks on to the property at night to leave gourmet fish meals in places where the current residents often step on them.

Lisa refused to believe that she suffers a psychiatric condition, so she asked her priest for help. “You are so kind to cats,” the priest told her, “that the problem couldn't be sin.” When the apartment complex sent her a bill for removing 500 pounds (over 200 kilos) of used kitty litter a month after her eviction, Lisa became so angry she called them over 250 times threatening to kill them.

However, Lisa was not incarcerated until she eventually ran over the foot of her "best friend" after he lent her $500 to get her car repaired. Lisa now lives in jail.

Lisa, it appears, suffers a condition called borderline personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder is notoriously difficult to treat, and extremely difficult for family members, neighbors, and the people willing to call someone who has a borderline personality disorder a friend.

What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Fortunately, most people who have borderline personality disorders do not suffer symptoms as severe as Lisa's. Borderline personality disorder is a condition of pervasive instability in interpersonal relationships. People who have this psychiatric condition have to deal with real or imagined fears of abandonment. They may, for instance, wonder if a friend who is five minutes late for a lunch appointment has decided to end the relationship. They may have lost their temper on the job so many times they are in real danger of becoming unemployed.

People who have borderline personality disorder also tend to act on impulse. They may buy items on impulse, steal, gamble, make inappropriate sexual advances, and drive dangerously. They have a fragile sense of self, and may invent life stories that help them feel better, at least temporarily, about personal setbacks, or increase their attractiveness to others.

Borderline personality disorders, however, are not “all or nothing.” People may have more severe or less severe symptoms, and the cumulative consequences of acting on impulse may be more or less severe for different individuals.

What Causes Borderline Personality Disorder?

Many people who develop borderline personality disorder were abandoned as infants or children. They may have suffered sexual or physical abuse. However, some people who have borderline personality disorder invent stories of abuse to justify their choices later in life. There seem to be some genes that increase the risk of developing the condition, but life experiences have to activate their expression.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Gratz KL, Roemer L. Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale. J Psychopathol Behav Assess. 2004.26:41–54. doi: 10.1023/B:JOBA.0000007455.08539.94.
  • Wallace LM, Masson PC, Safer DL, von Ranson KM. Change in emotion regulation during the course of treatment predicts binge abstinence in guided self-help dialectical behavior therapy for binge eating disorder. J Eat Disord. 2014 Dec 11. 2(1):35. doi: 10.1186/s40337-014-0035-x. eCollection 2014. PMID: 25516798.
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