In both males and females, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has the following symptoms:
- Chronic feelings of emptiness
- High rejection sensitivity
- Unstable self-image
- Fear of abandonment
- Emotional instability
- Bursts of rage
- Separation anxiety
- Paranoid thoughts
Men and women with BPD symptoms show more similarities than differences. But some important differences do exist. They mostly have to do with the degree to which some of the above symptoms are present in men and women.
Most of those differences stem from the differences in the natures of men and women. Because men and women are different in some ways, those differences get reflected in the symptoms of BPD.
Symptoms of BPD in women
1. Intense emotions
Highly sensitive people are more likely to display intense emotions in BPD. They feel emotions more deeply and intensely. Emotions tend to have a stickier, more lasting impact on them.
Since females tend to be more sensitive than men in general, they tend to experience more intense emotions in BPD.
Actual or perceived threats of abandonment trigger separation anxiety in people with BPD. BPD people are hypervigilant to cues of abandonment. They’re likely to misinterpret neutral events (X and Y) as:
“X means they’ll abandon me.”
“They abandoned me by doing Y.”
Since women tend to have a stronger need to connect with others, anxiety from real or perceived abandonment can be particularly damaging for women.
Women with BPD are more likely to report past physical or sexual abuse than men.1 So, they’re more likely to display typical symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as:
- Flashbacks and nightmares about the traumatic event
- Negativity and hopelessness
- Self-destructive behavior
4. Eating disorders
Women with BPD are more likely than men to have eating disorders like:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
Men and women with BPD tend to have this internalized sense of shame- a negative self-view. So, they’re likely to sabotage themselves and indulge in behaviors that destroy their image and self-esteem.
Women’s physical appearance tends to be a great source of self-esteem. So, they overeat or don’t eat at all to destroy their self-image.
For men, their resourcefulness (career) tends to be a great source of self-esteem. So, to sabotage themselves, they might purposefully lose their jobs.2
5. Recognizing facial expressions
While past trauma can turn both men and women into good readers of non-verbal communication, BPD women, in particular, are good at recognizing facial expressions.3
6. Identity disturbance
Research has shown that women with BPD are likelier than men to have an unstable sense of self.1
This may be because physical and sexual abuse creates this strong internalized sense of shame that can be hard to overcome. It creates significant resistance to building a positive self-image versus when internalized shame is weaker or non-existent.
Women with BPD tend to score higher on Neuroticism than men.4 This is also true for women in general and boils down to gender differences between men and women.
8. Relationship disruption
Females with BPD experience greater hostility and relationship disruption than men.4
They’re likely to cut off people from their lives.
Again, this likely stems from the greater need for women to be prosocial and have a rich social life. The richer your social life, the more disruptions you’ll likely experience if you have BPD.
9. Frightened/disoriented behavior
Studies have shown that mothers with BPD show frightened or disoriented behavior toward their infants.
What does that mean?
Frightened behaviors include ‘asking the infant for permission’ or ‘hesitating to hold the infant’.
Disoriented or disorganized behaviors include ‘frenetic movements toward the infant’, ‘sudden and unusual shifts in voice tone’, or ‘failing to comfort the infant’.
These behaviors may reduce responsiveness on the mother’s part and lead to attachment trauma in the child.
- Johnson, D. M., Shea, M. T., Yen, S., Battle, C. L., Zlotnick, C., Sanislow, C. A., … & Zanarini, M. C. (2003). Gender differences in borderline personality disorder: Findings from the Collaborative Longitudinal Personality Disorders Study. Comprehensive psychiatry, 44(4), 284-292.
- Sansone, R. A., Lam, C., & Wiederman, M. W. (2010). Self-harm behaviors in borderline personality: An analysis by gender. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 198(12), 914-915.
- Wagner, A. W., & Linehan, M. M. (1999). Facial expression recognition ability among women with borderline personality disorder: implications for emotion regulation?. Journal of personality disorders, 13(4), 329-344.
- Banzhaf, A., Ritter, K., Merkl, A., Schulte-Herbrüggen, O., Lammers, C. H., & Roepke, S. (2012). Gender differences in a clinical sample of patients with borderline personality disorder. Journal of personality disorders, 26(3), 368-380.