Psychopaths and borderline personalities are two toxic personality types you will often hear mentioned in the recovery space, but just how do we define and differentiate each of these disorders? Are there also any crossovers and differences between a psychopath and a borderline?
Psychopaths and borderlines are both severely disordered personality types which can cause similar chaos and emotional damage to others in relationships. However, the disorders are distinguished primarily on the basis of origin and also the issue of intent or motive – psychopaths behave toxically on purpose, whilst borderlines behave toxically out of intense, unresolved, psychological fears of abandonment.
Listening to several accounts of relationships with borderlines and with psychopaths, I noticed some of the symptoms victims themselves felt during and after these relationships were very similar, almost interchangeable in fact.
Victims of both personality types are often left with severe emotional issues, such as anxiety, trauma, depression, addictions, lack of ability to trust others, as well as many other after effects, simply by being caught up with the disordered person’s drama and manipulation.
In this sense, it almost doesn’t matter to many people the differences between these disorders, since they are both personality types to be spotted, avoided and escaped for any sane person wanting to avoid being seriously psychologically damaged by relationships.
However, it can be interesting to pick apart the subtle differences in each disorder, in terms of where they are believed to originate from, and what drives the toxic and destructive behavior in each case. Let’s compare in more detail the psychopathic and borderline personalities.
The Traits of the Psychopath & The Borderline Personality
To be clear on terminology and diagnosis, psychopathy and borderline personality disorder are sometimes lumped together in lay terms as being part of the Cluster B spectrum of disorders – the so called dramatic personality disorders.
This includes the disorders of Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Technically, psychopathy is not officially included in the definitions of these classes, and is more of a loose term that define a particular set of manipulative personality traits. The closely related definition of sociopathy is included within the Antisocial personality disorder diagnosis, and so does come under the Cluster B spectrum.
However, regardless of technical diagnostic terms used, both the psychopathic and borderline personality have by now been broken down into a well defined and consistently observed set of behavior patterns and traits. Let’s look at each disorder in turn.
Summary of Psychopathy:
- Psychopath and sociopaths combined estimated to consist around 4% of the population.
- Diagnosed more to men
- Glib, superficial charm and charisma
- Manipulativeness and deceptiveness – people seen as objects to be used
- Lack of guilt, remorse or empathy
- Are sometimes physically abusive, but often more covert and psychologically abusive.
- Emotional abuse patterns include denial, projection, blame shifting, invalidation (gas-lighting), invasiveness and erosion of boundaries.
- Origins of psychopathy are debated, with genetic and environmental factors argued to both contribute.
- However, psychopaths operate in full, conscious, deliberate awareness of what they are doing to others. Actively seek to cause harm to others.
- No known treatment or cure for psychopathy.
Summary of Borderline Personality Disorder:
- Covers roughly 6-7% of the population – see here
- Diagnosed more to women
- Borderline personality driven by intense fear of abandonment from parenting deficits in the early years, especially from the opposite sex parent. See the work of borderline expert James F Masterson in our Books section.
- Can produce the same glib charm and charisma as the psychopath
- Often gives their partner a phenomenal sex life in the early stages to get them hooked and distract from their personality issues (“amazing in the bedroom” is a common way borderlines are described by people who get tied up with them).
- Later stages of the relationship are characterized by excessive possessiveness, jealousy, clinginess and general emotional volatility.
- Regular threats of suicide are not uncommon, especially if the other person threatens to leave.
- “In their desperation to avoid the other person leaving them, they behave in a way which makes the other person want to leave them” Jackson Mackenzie – see here
- Condition can be so unpleasant to deal with that some therapists refuse to treat it. Can also leave long lasting symptoms in people who get into relationships with them.
- BPD driven largely by factors which the person themself is unaware of – intense, unconscious, unresolved fears of abandonment. Behavior is not deliberate and intentional as with the psychopath, but simply a result of severe psychological issues.
- When treatment is administered – Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) is considered the best option. See here for a useful resources on DBT sent in by a reader.
- See here (45 min mark) and here for two accounts of males who got into relationships with borderline personality females (some strong language).
The Motives Differ Between Psychopaths & Borderlines
In both the descriptions above of the psychopathic and borderline personalities, we teased out a crucial difference between the two in terms of where the disorder comes from, as well as the motive and intent of the person’s behavior.
Thus, while the damage the two personality types cause in relationships can be largely similar, the reason and motivation for the toxic behavior patterns they engage in does differ. Let’s look at each one in turn.
Psychopath – The psychopath is acting out of deliberate, willful, conscious intent to cause harm to others. They are known for having no ability to empathize and so cannot comprehend on an emotional level the impact of their actions on others. They merely realize that their behaviour is causing harm and suffering to others, but continue to do so anyway.
This behavior will seem bizarre to most normal people, and the suggested reasons for it differ. Some experts argue a genetic aspect to psychopathy; others argue a harsh, punitive, invalidating environment in early life leads the psychopath to want to project all their internal hatred and anger onto the world in the form of hurting others. See our article on what makes a psychopath.
Either way, the deliberate, intentional nature of their behavior towards others adds an aspect of malevolence and moral deviancy to the equation, since when done repeatedly, the psychopath is choosing to continue acting in a way that they know is harming others. There is free will and choice involved, which opens up bigger picture questions on the nature of evil and choice. See M Scott Peck’s People of the Lie in our Books section
Borderline – With the borderline, they can often act outwardly in ways which may seem at times similar to the psychopath, with relentless manipulation, invalidation, lying, projection of blame, infidelity and so on.
However, with the borderline personality, the behaviour is not so much driven by wilfull, conscious, malevolent intent, but by deep seated, unresolved fears of abandonment. They will do anything to avoid feeling these feelings again, which leads them to act with the very desperation and clinginess that pushes people away and confirms the pattern.
These fears usually stem from abandonment issues stemming back to childhood, especially with disruptions for females in the relationship with their father, who may have left them, been absent all along, or been emotionally abusive or unavailable during their childhood.
When particularly severe, this leaves borderlines with a set of symptoms and behavior patterns now defined in the disorder, which creates intense, chaotic and ultimately traumatic relationships with whoever they come into contact with.
So we can see that the main differentiating factor between the psychopath and borderline is the issue of intent and awareness. The psychopath wilfully commits destructive acts towards others; the borderline feels driven to do so by unconscious fears of abandonment that have not been resolved.
Psychopaths & Borderlines Cause Similar Damage in Relationships
However, regardless of this subtle difference between psychopaths and borderlines, they both cause the same kind of damage to the people who get caught up with them in relationships. They both leave a trail of destruction that can take victims months or years to fully get over.
Here are some of the crossover symptoms and after-effects of relationships with both psychopaths and borderline that you will commonly hear reported – see the accounts linked above plus other case studies and accounts. These are what the unfortunate people caught up with the psychopath or borderline often suffer from:
- Extreme erosion of identity, boundaries and self esteem through the constant manipulation and emotional abuse.
- Constant drama, chaos and volatility in the relationship once the initial honeymoon period is over.
- Extreme self doubt, constant double checking, OCD habits may form in victims.
- Anxiety issues, a constant “on edgeness” because of the constant drama the psychopath or borderline created in the relationship.
- Substance abuse and other addictions
- Loss of hobbies and interests
- Lack of ability to focus
- Psychological “numbness” as the body and mind begin to block out the constant irritation and anxiety the relationship causes.
- Trust issues from rampant infidelity and cheating. Can also be problems with STDs on this front.
- Symptoms of PTSD and in more extreme cases, complex PTSD, where the person struggles to function properly in the world and form relationships with others.
- See Jackson Mackenzie’s two books Psychopath Free and Whole Again in our books section for definitive resources on identifying these toxic personality types and recovering from relationships
- See also our article on recovery, plus our definitive resource guide for links to books and videos.