Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is one of the more commonly known personality disorders, and is characterized by “difficulties regulating emotion,” meaning that those with BPD “feel emotions intensely and for extended periods of time” (National Alliance on Mental Illness). This makes it more difficult for them to properly navigate relationships and social interactions.
BPD is overwhelmingly more common in women than in men. According to the DSM, “there is a 3:1 female to male gender ratio” (Sansone, 2011). Why is this the case? And what does this mean for our general perceptions of BPD? Firstly, doctors are more likely to diagnose women with BPD, possibly because the symptoms of BPD align more closely with a stereotypical perception of women, especially women with mental illness. We can see this concept even in the media we consume. There’s a whole genre of movies depicting the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” an emotionally unstable young woman whose flighty and immature characteristics are idealized by a man who perceives himself to be average and boring in comparison. This results in mental illness in women not being taken seriously.
If we glorify these damaging traits and behaviors, women who suffer from BPD are less likely to see their symptoms as damaging and harmful, and will therefore not seek help. But even women who know of their mental illness and are seeking help can run the risk of entering into a relationship with someone who enables these symptoms that are glorified and simultaneously shames them for the symptoms that are perceived in a negative light. How are women supposed to juggle this, especially in their most intimate relationships? For centuries, there has been a fascination with women who are mentally ill. In the 19th century, women who were diagnosed with “hysteria” were turned into a spectacle, with male doctors performing public experiments on them; even today, around 69 percent of mentally ill women have experienced some form of domestic violence (Rodriguez-Cayro, 2018).
Additionally, BPD has been seen to develop as a result of abuse in childhood, as around 40 to 70 percent of those with BPD experienced childhood sexual trauma (Rodriguez-Cayro, 2018). Unfortunately, women who are mentally ill are more likely to exist within cycles of abuse and trauma throughout their lives. And not only do they suffer from the stigma that comes with being mentally ill, they suffer from the sexism that has resulted in the negative perception of women’s intelligence and emotional stability for centuries.
So, how do we combat this? If we can more properly educate people about BPD and mental illness in women, we can limit the preoccupation with mentally ill women in popular culture, and perhaps movies will more accurately showcase what it’s like as a woman to struggle with mental illness. It should be clear that mentally ill women are not just interesting love interests that compound the emotional suffering of the male main character. They have their own stories and struggles and complex inner lives. If we aim to help women who have suffered from abuse and developed mental illness instead of demonizing or idealizing them, we can help these women develop healthy relationships with others and live happy, fulfilling lives.
Borderline Personality Disorder. (n.d.). https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Borderline-Personality-Disorder
Littman, E., Littman, E., & Panel, A. (2020, June 25). When Women Battle ADHD and Borderline Personality Disorder. https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-and-bpd-women-borderline-personality-disorder/
Rodriguez-Cayro, K. (2018). Please Stop Using My Mental Illness to Fulfill Your Fantasy. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/sexist-crazy-woman-fantasies-hurt-borderline-women
Sansone, R., & Sansone, L. (2011, May). Gender Patterns in Borderline Personality Disorder. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115767/