Borderline vs Narcissism


It’s Narcissist Friday!     


I have been reading a book that ties borderline and narcissistic personality disorders together as though they are the same. The author often uses a short-hand indication—BP/NP—to refer to both disorders together. In fact, the author considers both of them to be “mental illnesses.”

There are a limited number of personality and relationship disorder symptoms. It is easy to view a set of symptoms and come to an inaccurate conclusion. Non-professionals often jump to a diagnosis based on just a few observations. Professionals, however, are not supposed to do that. This author, a psychological professional, should either have a very good reason for making a connection like this, or should stop doing it. The two disorders are quite different.

To be fair, this author acknowledges the differences. The purpose of the book is to help those who have to care for people with these disorders. The “acting out” of these problems does often look the same.  Both project, manipulate, lie, and use others.  The caregivers may experience very similar stresses.  Yet, linking two different disorders together minimizes the peculiarities of each.

Now, I have to say at this point that I do not consider myself to be a psychological professional. I am a theologian and a counselor with many years of experience, but I do not hold advanced degrees in psychology. For me to suggest that a card-carrying professional is being irresponsible may be for me to step outside my jurisdiction. So you take my thoughts for what they are worth.

Borderline personality disorder is a recognized set of symptoms and is considered to be a mental disorder. It is characterized by emotional instability and self-damaging behavior and thinking. BPs are often considered hyper-reactive, anxious, and unpredictable by those who live with and work with them. They consider themselves to be empty and broken. They have difficulty maintaining relationships, and the relationships that continue in their lives are stressed and disturbed. BPs lean toward being self-abusive and even suicidal, with a higher degree of Munchhausen’s than the general population. They can be paranoid and impulsive. To put it in more general terms, BPs depersonalize and damage themselves. In doing so, they hurt the people around them.

Now, by all means, don’t just take my word for this. If this interests you, check it out. Just google “borderline personality disorder” and read the descriptions in Wikipedia or some of the mental health sites. Those who suffer from this disorder, along with their caregivers, suffer truly.

The jury is still out as to whether BP is a mental illness, and medications may be used to soften symptoms that would cause the person to harm themselves, but there is no treatment other than counseling and therapy. Some of the types of therapy used with BP are also used with narcissism. That appears to be the primary link between the two disorders.

Narcissism, on the other hand, is rarely considered a mental illness by professionals. In fact, some seem to doubt that it is even a disorder in the same way BP and others are. Some professionals consider narcissism to be more of a choice or a style, a personality type. The reason for this is that narcissists don’t appear to be in any danger of hurting themselves and can live healthy, even productive, lives as narcissists. The fact that others are hurt along the way is an “unfortunate consequence” of narcissistic choices.

Yes, there are similarities. Both narcissists and borderlines seem impulsive, emotionally unstable, and self-focused. But the differences are significant. Narcissists hurt others with intent to protect themselves. BPs hurt others as they hurt themselves. Narcissists will not admit to their brokenness. BPs see themselves as broken and act on that belief. While I suspect that many narcissists view life and relationships as empty, I doubt they view themselves in that light. BPs will often refer to being and feeling empty. Both dabble in magical thinking, fantasies of how life ought to be. In the narcissist’s dreams, however, we are all servants making his/her world great. BPs just long for a world that feels good.

If I had to pick one difference to underscore as definitive, I would say this: Borderlines depersonalize themselves. Narcissists depersonalize others. Perhaps an argument could be made that these are just two different ways of handling the same inner fears, but the people who deal with these disorders in relationships will see them as quite distinct.

Here’s another way of saying it: Narcissists have victims, while borderlines are victims. We don’t say that the narcissist is a victim of his disorder. His victims are the people he uses. But borderlines use and abuse others only because they are so victimized themselves.

This is simplistic and professionals would probably not like my assessments. My point here is that it helps no one to combine two obviously distinct disorders as though they were the same. It would be easy for me to believe that BP is a mental illness. The self-destructive behaviors alone indicate illness, rather than choice. Narcissism, on the other hand, seems so much more like a self-protective choice, a life where others are used and abused without regret in search of some personal goal.

Perhaps someday I will be proved wrong, but I still believe narcissism is a choice. Yes, it was made in response to early challenges. Yet it has been maintained by choice. Abusive and self-serving thinking seems right to the narcissist. The pain of others means nothing, because others mean nothing.

And every narcissist act is a choice.


Filed under Narcissism

15 responses to “Borderline vs Narcissism

  1. I was married to a clinically diagnoised borderline for 6 yrs before that married to an alcoholic for 10 yrs and am now married to a narcissist for 10 yrs There are quite a few similarities yet a lot of differences .Something I have been working on is why the heck haven’t I learned my lesson? What messages did I learn in childhood that have caused me to repeatedly pick men who are emotionally unavailable for me.? My narc husband and I have recently started a 29 week couples group thru a christian radio station called Healing Journey. Not sure if it will truly help him as each is responsible for their own healing and as you know narcissism is a lot about blaming others. But I sure intend to do the hard work of healing myself . I am grateful for this blog to shed light in a dark confusing world. By the way I have stopped reacting and defending myself to his junk and its way better now. God bless us all

    • hazelnut

      Yes Mary, the work of healing is hard, getting through the pain and making sense of why the emotional pain. ..want to encourage you, and send you strength and wisdom on your healing journey.

  2. Anne

    So much of this rings true for me. My younger daughter was diagnosed with BPD in her teens and, although I didn’t understand it then, I see how well this fits her behavior now that she’s in her late 30s. She’s never been married and has left many broken hearts in her wake. Now she’s a single mother of a two-year-old boy and seems happy but I know it will be only a matter of time before another crisis.

    My ex, I believe, has covert NPD. Of course he was never diagnosed since he doesn’t think he needs help, but he fits the clinical definition to me. Now that we’ve been divorced for a year I realize how much of the pain and drama in my life was directly related to his verbal and emotional abuse.

    Next year he plans to retire and move back east to help our younger daughter take care of her son. I can’t help thinking this is a disaster in the making as he verbally abused her when she was a teenager and called her terrible things to me when she tried to kill herself a few times. She was the scapegoat of the family for a long time, with me as secondary. And all along he was the puppet master. I am afraid for her.

  3. Janina Schmidt

    I think this is very interesting. Would love your thots when you have time! I couldn’t help make the comparisons of mama and Tim in the driscriptions he’s making. They are the ones in my life who represent the 2 disorders…

  4. Gratefully Yours

    Dear Dave,

    You wrote how to narcissists “others mean nothing”. Ironically, their behavior results in our learning to feel nothing for the narcissist, though I’m sure our version is different from that of the narcissist. Being treated as nothing, love on our part truly becomes an action alone, not a feeling toward the narcissist. They’ve stripped us of that emotion. If the narcissist improved I’m sure our heart could be restored to feeling love for them, but it’s sad that as victims, in order to survive them, we enter their world where our own feelings have to be limited. For so long I fought it, not wanting to be guilty of an aspect of the same disorder, but I’ve accepted it as the only way to survive narcissism. My love is based on action alone.

    This aspect was most noted when my NP Dad died recently. I spent many peaceful weeks by his bedside as he lay in a coma while I shared loving one-sided thoughts and prayers. It was good. But after he died there were few tears. I felt no sadness, no experience of missing him as nothing had changed really since he was still “absent” like he always was, being all about him and his accomplishments. There was nothing to miss. This bothered me till I recalled growing up that when I’d cry, instead of comfort he’d say, “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?” There lay the key to my heart, he gave me nothing to cry about and I’ve not cried since.

    This week, on October 6, I’m going to join thousands of others around our country as we watch the love story movie of an extremely healthy marriage; where Christian Country singer/songwriter Rory Feek recorded the journey and loss of his beloved wife to cancer in March of this year. And when I go with friends to see “To Joey With Love”, I’m going to cry, for the joy, the loss, the beauty they created when all is well in a relationship. I thank God we have this model to see what real love is like in the lives of two mature, healthy, loving people. It will be a sight to behold.

    Thank you, Dave, for sharing our journey with us. For always bringing us new encouragement and insight as we travel this road together.

  5. Maya

    Yes absolutely! Excellent post, Pastor Dave; I agree with everything you wrote. Narcissism is indeed a choice. A choice made in response to early dysfunction and maintained because it works. Others serve the narcissist. who skates by without any bad feelings. I witnessed my ex humble himself in the presence of his father. and those he wanted impress. I KNOW it can be turned down when doing so is beneficial.

  6. The above post is so true-when their actions and words REPEATEDLY destroy your love all that’s left is a feeling of numbness, much like their feelings. I recently read that the flower daffodil is taken from the a word similar to narcissism which means deep sleep or numbness. This is exactly how my narc husband describes his feelings. Very sad and destructive.

  7. toni

    Brilliant, Pastor Dave! Thank You.
    God bless.

  8. MLS

    This was just so excellently presented. Thank you for sharing the depth of insight God has given you. I am very curious about what it could look like for a BP to be in a relationship with an NP. It would seem at first a symbootic attraction. Then of course, chaos and destruction. I cant say enough about how good DBT Therapy has helped so many people with BP. I believe it can help NP and most anyone, really, when diligently learned and applied.

  9. me

    It’s just hit me how true it is about narcissists having a choice. I’ve seen my ex-husband, who I believe has severe NPD (again, like someone above said, undiagnosed, or if it’s been diagnosed, I don’t know about it), act really nice and lovingly when he felt that I was leaving him (the good old hoovering technique). If they can choose to be nice when they’re hoovering, they can choose to be nice when it’s not necessary to manipulate people and suck them back in.

  10. Margie

    Very interesting and I must say thats the best description that differentiates the two from all I have read. It sits well, great clarification. Thank you!

  11. Excellent post ❤


  12. contendingearnestly

    I have read the book you are referring to. It was recommended to me by a doctor. I am in the throes of divorcing an extreme N after 41 years of marriage. When I began reading that book I remember thinking someone must have been following us around taking notes!

    I know what you mean when you talk about the fact that this book lumps BPD and NPD together. I do realize there are differences, though my husband seems to have some overlap of symptoms. The reason this book was especially helpful to me is because I recognized my sister as BPD, I had always known there were problems with her to the degree that even her 3 children will have nothing to do with her and she is allowed no contact with her grandchildren.

    The reason this is significant is because the reason I finally filed for divorced is because my husband and sister began having an “inappropriate” relationship (that’s what my N husband likes to call his many infidelities). Their relationship went on for 3 years before I filed. I have asked myself time and time again what in the world is wrong with me that I was willing to live this way for so long.

    I am beginning to heal mentally, emotionally, and physically. My faith has been invaluable in my healing process, but, gaining an understanding of BPD/NPD has also been instrumental. Dave, your blog is the best I have found in helping me gain the understanding I need to free myself from this and stay free.

    Thank you!

  13. I have at least one not so distant relative who fits the Narcissist profile,as so many politicians in our country seem to . Or am I being facetious? I also have lived with a hystrionic person for a long time and often wonder if I myself have strong Borderline tendencies? These are all just suspicions I have been harbouring over the years and have very little weight up against any definitive proof to confirm or disprove my hunches. However most professionals in the mental health profession admit there is no cut and dry method to diagnose patients with ANY of the major Personality Disorders.
    Just thought I would chime in . Now I’m done. Call it food for thought. 🦉

    • mls

      I look back and beginning in my teen years I definitely see BPD tendencies in myself. I ended up in a 28 year marriage to a covert narcissist. I kniw for a fact by experience that these two disorders are NOT the same. Narcissisys don’t wonder if they are disordered. BPD’s know they are. After the divorce I was fortunate enough to go through a wel run Dialectical Behavior Therapy program. It was absolutely life changing.

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