Being an HSP Is Not the Same as Having Borderline Personality Disorder. Here’s Why.

A depressed woman looks down

For years, I was misdiagnosed as having borderline personality disorder. But then I discovered the truth: I’m just a highly sensitive person.

Trigger warnings: Trauma definitions, medical abuse, self-harm

There’s a predominating stereotype of highly sensitive people (HSPs) as being overly emotional and indulgent. After all, we tear up more easily than most, absorb others’ emotions (whether we want to or not), and are extremely empathic. 

There’s also still a surprising amount of ignorance about mental illnesses, like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), despite all the information out there. This makes a dubious combination when it comes to seeking help and prognosis. 

For roughly two decades, I was told I had BPD by various mental health services. Until I researched it. Slowly unraveling the ordered chaos around me, I suddenly realized that, all this time, I was actually an undiscovered HSP. But first, let’s talk about what it means to have BPD.

What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), BPD is a mental illness that is characterized by someone not being able to regulate their emotions well. When someone has it, they may have a loss of emotional control and do impulsive things more so than someone without it. Not only can it affect how the person feels about themselves, but it can also affect their relationships with others.

Some signs include extreme mood swings — they can be having fun with someone one moment, and despise them the next. They have a history of unstable relationships and often get into them quickly, and end them quickly. Their thinking tends to be black-or-white, too — things are all good or all bad — and they have feelings of dissociation or of unreality. They may feel empty and self-soothe in dangerous ways, including substance abuse, spending sprees, or self-harm or suicidal thoughts. 

Now, let’s look at what it means to be highly sensitive…

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What Does It Mean to Be ‘Sensitive’?

Being highly sensitive is a personality trait. As such, scientists define it as taking in more information from your environment and processing it more deeply, according to Andre Sólo, coauthor of Sensitive and one of the founders of Sensitive Refuge. Sólo notes that the sensitive brain is wired to process all information more deeply, which means it spends more time and mental resources on doing so. This explains why sensitive people tend to pick up on details others miss.

Also because of this deep processing, sensitive people tend to have certain characteristics. Most have high levels of empathy, are naturally creative, and very in tune with their physical environment. These are all pluses of being sensitive, yet the sensitive brain can easily get overstimulated, too. Sensitive souls do best in calm, quiet settings.

While everyone is sensitive to some extent, Sólo says that researchers now see sensitivity as a continuum. Most people fall in the middle, while a few are at the low end, and about 30 percent score high for sensitivity. These highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are what we mean by “sensitive people.”

The Prevalence of Misdiagnosing Mental Health Disorders

While being a highly sensitive person is not a disorder, many actual mental health disorders are misdiagnosed. The trouble is, there’s an incredible amount of overlap between different diagnoses. Many cognitive processes, mental illnesses, and neurodiversity and personality types have similar symptoms and characteristics. 

The focus is often on myriad ailments to be “rid of” and “cured,” rather than embraced and enhanced. You end up sidetracked into how to manage an alleged pathology rather than explore other diagnostic options. Just to illustrate the gravity of diagnostics, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), there are more than 300 different diagnoses.

Without making sure your mental health professional explores more than just one diagnosis, you could be diagnosed with just about anything. So let’s look at the primary differences between being a highly sensitive person and having borderline personality disorder.

4 Differences Between Being an HSP and Having Borderline Personality Disorder

1. Being “emotional” isn’t necessarily “borderline.”

Many years ago, amidst a climate of ignorance — when I didn’t know what an HSP — I readily accepted a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This is largely because, like borderline sufferers, I possess high sensitivity and emotions, where I often internalize and become overwhelmed by the dynamics of my surroundings. Sensitivity, though, is a very crude interpretation of an alleged neurosis. 

Little did I know, HSPs are also very attuned to environmental stressors and triggers, often feeling the need to remove themselves from excessive stimuli. On my journey of self-discovery, I began to notice that an overlay of smells, sounds, visuals, and other external phenomena overwhelmed me. That’s an HSP all over. 

By acknowledging my emotional triggers, it was seen as self-admission of BPD. It’s incredibly healthy to know what your limits are. Taking a step back, and being aware of triggers (rather than unwittingly being stuck in chaos) is positive. It’s high emotional intelligence mistaken for neuroses. If triggers aren’t related to trauma, but more about immediate stimuli, then you have to question a BPD diagnosis. That’s just one source of confusion.

2. Auditory and visual processing is not the same for HSPs vs. those with BPD.

The term BPD refers to psychology which is on the “borderline” between neuroses and psychoses caused by emotional, sexual, or physical trauma. Here’s where it gets quite complicated. Research has found that hallucinations and a sense of unreality are natural extensions of high stress in ordinary populations, too.

HSPs can become stressed due to overwhelm, too. It’s quite possible being an HSP — without knowing it — causes this as much as anything else. 

I’m going to go a step further and mention my own rather esoteric and unusual way of cognitive processing that is often labeled as pathology. I didn’t realize this until much later in life, but I virtually process everything in visuals and sounds, so much so that I do it subconsciously.

It hit me one day. I even count in visuals. One to 10 is on a black-and-white color scale, with one being the lightest, and 10 being the darkest. Weird, I know, but it just happens. Even my inner voices are personified. This is my way, as an HSP, of coping with stress or unpleasantness. 

I also have the gift of mimicry. I often hear distinct voices and phonetics, which could be seen as auditory hallucinations. It is my way of exactly characterizing sounds, people, and things. This does not mean I have BPD.

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

3. Creativity definitions, and spectrums, differ.

Research shows that BPD is said to be characterized by a fluctuating identity. That was another reason I was incorrectly diagnosed. For those with BPD, their identity diffusion is holistic and relates to various parts of their lives, including sexuality, gender, career, and self-awareness. 

To a borderline sufferer, everything is completely bewildering and confusing. They feel a lack of self-definition and emptiness, not just being composed of many selves or layers. A sense of capriciousness dominates — switching identities on a whim — not just the ability to “go through a portal.”

My creativity was considered some kind of buffer for my neuroses or an adjunct, like some amateur creative in their room staving off nihilism and emptiness. Well, that’s healthy anyway, no matter the skewed way of viewing it. My creativity was, and is, far more than that. Creativity is embedded in me. It’s what I do for a living. And HSPs are often creative.

4. Relationships may be intense for those who are HSPs and who have BPD — but for different reasons.

Other particular definitions of BPD are highly subjective. Borderlines are known to engage in “ephemeral” and “markedly intense” relationships, oscillating between hate and idealization, making interpersonal transactions difficult and strained. Researchers have found that this is often due to fear of abandonment. 

In other words, this means they tend to have unrealistic notions about relationships — marriage and babies after a short time; “falling in love” in very swiftly moving, non-reciprocal contexts; claiming possession for someone out of fear of change or rejection (and responding poorly if it occurs). 

Just because one’s romantic relationships are casual, short, or intense does not mean they have BPD. To sum up, any one of the characteristics above could be an HSP acting out from being so emotionally “flooded” and overwhelmed. It sounds dangerously close to rationalization, but that’s why a mental health specialist’s insight is required.

Making Sure You Are Diagnosed Correctly

Of course, you can be a highly sensitive person who is diagnosed with BPD, but both separate personality types need authoritative confirmation. This is a very complicated situation, and those in the mental health sphere need to understand the difference — it’ll be a mental health game-changer for you once you are properly assessed.

Unfortunately, some of the non-specialized, more generalized mental health professionals and doctors give psychiatry a bad name, leading to a dubious culture of self-diagnosis. (Plus, this is due to the overabundance of information online these days, too.)

Often diagnosed at a cursory glance with such a crude interpretation of BPD, many believe they have it when they might actually just have the sensitivity trait and be an HSP. To save all the confusion, distinct diagnostic criteria, as I learned from an expert psychologist, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, is what helped me understand I was not borderline. According to Durvasula, “BPD sufferers must exhibit five concurrent symptoms out of nine possible characteristics of BPD.”

Because misdiagnosis has serious implications, please speak to a mental health professional of your own to get properly assessed. Before I’d been, I was continually traumatized by being judged for allegedly being BPD and by being given a very poor prognosis. 

In light of these things, I was unable to become a journalist and comedian. It’s only now that I have resumed these things —- after coming to terms with rejection and other vagaries I’ve faced in these industries — without being too scared off. Misdiagnosis has lasting emotional legacies that transpire into negative emotions society doesn’t want. Embracing HSP personality types is a sure way to combat that. 

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