Borderline Personality Disorder:  The Disparagement of Women through Diagnosis

Dana Becker, Ph.D.  Professor, Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research



Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is currently defined in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a persistent pattern of instability (both personal and interpersonal) and impulsivity. Its symptoms range from self-damaging and suicidal behavior to intense mood reactivity, feelings of emptiness, and problems controlling anger.  It entered the DSM in the 1980 edition and is currently the most frequently diagnosed personality disorder.

The primary characteristic of any personality disorder is said to be its stability over time, but as described in the current DSM-IV-TR, BPD is characterized by instability—of identity, of mood, of behavior — and there are well over 100 ways to combine its symptoms that qualify a person for the BPD diagnosis. Given the diversity of its symptomatic picture, many, even in the psychiatric profession, have had difficulty conceiving of BPD as a single disorder. According to the DSM-IV-TR, about 75% of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder are women.  This was not always the case.  BPD criteria have been altered appreciably over the past fifty years to include more and more symptoms related to emotion, accounting at least in part for the sex bias inherent in the diagnosis.  Many researchers have challenged the validity of BPD, some concluding that BPD has become a catch-all label given to people, especially women, who experience acute sadness, emptiness, and emotional reactivity (particularly in the form of rage). The BPD diagnosis overlaps with other diagnoses such as Histrionic and Dependent Personality Disorders, which have been assailed for pathologizing behavior (e.g., dependency, seductiveness) that many women have been socialized to exhibit. 

Some women who have been diagnosed with BPD have histories of psychological maltreatment, neglect, and/or childhood sexual or physical abuse, and they may have difficulty expressing anger “appropriately.”  The ways in which “borderline” women express their pain has occasioned a vast clinical literature on how to treat “borderlines” and how to manage the strong emotions they may arouse in their therapists.  So-called borderline women are often described as angry and manipulative, when in fact they often act out because they do not trust that others will meet their needs if they express them straightforwardly.

The BPD diagnosis has been used in court to institutionalize and/or medicate women involuntarily, deny them custody of their children, and have their parental rights terminated.  Women diagnosed as having BPD have also frequently been discredited as witnesses in court cases involving rape or sexual abuse. 

Categorizing a particular set of disparate symptoms we now call “borderline” as a personality disorder encourages clinicians to focus on a particular style of coping learned under adverse circumstances rather than on the forms of abuse and emotional invalidation that originally made that style of coping necessary.  The association between women and what is arguably the most pejorative diagnosis of our time can create fear and avoidance, if not frank hostility, on the part of students of psychotherapy and practicing professionals toward a population of extremely vulnerable women.


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