DSM-5: BPD Signs And Symptoms

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated September 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to the American Psychiatric Association, borderline personality disorder (BPD) is typically characterized by an unstable or poorly developed self-image, rapidly changing personal goals, intense but unstable relationships characterized by neediness due to fear of abandonment, and an impaired ability to recognize the needs and feeling of others. However, individuals living with BPD can experience a range of symptoms that can vary in their intensity. While this disorder is common, it’s also treatable. 

Understanding how mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to assess the signs of BPD may help you determine whether you could benefit from a medical assessment for BPD or other types of mental health conditions. Below, we’ll look at the diagnostic criteria for BPD and ways to get support for your symptoms.

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Struggling With Symptoms Of Borderline Personality Disorder?

BPD: Prevalence And Diagnosis

Borderline personality disorder is sometimes associated with an increased likelihood of feeling slighted or insulted, impulsive behavior, increased risk-taking, and hostility. The  in the population is estimated to be 1.6%, but the lifetime prevalence is estimated to be 5.9%. The DSM-5 has two sets of diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder: the main diagnostic criteria and the alternative diagnostic criteria.

Main Diagnostic Criteria

The following criteria are used to make a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. A diagnosis can be made when there are five or more of the following symptoms present in different environments or contexts:

  • Efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  • Unstable and extreme interpersonal relations, alternating between extremes of devaluation and idealization
  • Identity disturbance, as evidenced by a significantly and relentlessly unstable self-image
  • Impulsive behavioral patterns in at least two areas that are possibly self-damaging (e.g., substance abuse, sex, spending, binge eating, or reckless driving)
  • Recurring suicidal patterns, threats, gestures, or self-harming behavior
  • Affective instability because of a significant reactivity of mood (e.g., irritability, anxiety, or intense episodic dysphoria that typically lasts a few hours, rarely more than days)
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • Misplaced and intense anger or trouble controlling anger (e.g., always angry or often temperamental)
  • Short-lived stress-related paranoid thoughts or extreme dissociative symptoms
  • *If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.

Alternative Diagnostic Criteria

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that the traditional set of diagnostic criteria for personality disorders had some shortcomings. For example, several people were diagnosed with more than one personality disorder, and some people even met the criteria for four personality disorders. To address the shortcomings in the traditional approach to diagnosing personality disorders, the APA put forward an alternative method for the diagnosis of personality disorders.

Elements Of Personality Functioning

According to the alternative criteria, for borderline personality disorder to be diagnosed, there should be moderate or great impairment in personality functioning, as evidenced by difficulties in two or more of the following elements of personality traits.

  1. Identity: Individuals living with BPD may have a poorly developed and unstable self-image. This is often evidenced by symptoms such as persistent feelings of emptiness and brief episodes of delusions, especially under stress (e.g., a sensation that a person has left their body). Such feelings could be disturbing and distressing to the individual.
  2. Self-direction: People with BPD may demonstrate instability when it comes to their plans. They may change goals and aspirations often. Sometimes, changing their plans may result in switching careers, course of study, or area of specialization.
  3. Empathy: People living with BPD may find it challenging to recognize the feelings and needs of others. They may believe that other people will act negatively toward them, which can lead them to feel insulted or hurt easily.
  4. Intimacy: People with BPD often have intense and unstable relationships. They may go from periods of extreme idealization of their partner to periods of extreme devaluation of the same partner, depending on their perception of their partner leaving them.

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Pathological Personality Traits

In addition to impairments in two of the elements of personality functioning, a person must have at least four of the following personality traits, and at least one of the four must be impulsivity, risk-taking, or hostility, for them to be diagnosed with bipolar personality disorder:

  1. Emotional lability: People with BPD may have emotional responses that are intense and out of proportion to the events to which they are reacting. 
  2. Anxiousness: People with BPD may experience intense feelings of nervousness, tenseness, and panic. They may experience this in response to stressful situations between them and those they are close to. 
  3. Separation insecurity: People with BPD are often scared of being abandoned by those close to them. This fear of rejection is often out of proportion. 
  4. Depression: People with BPD sometimes feel down and like nothing is right with the world. When they feel like this, they may also become pessimistic about the future.
  5. Impulsivity: People with BPD may act without much planning or thought. They tend to act in response to whatever happens around them. When they are exposed to high levels of stress, they may resort to self-harm.
  6. Risk-taking: People with BPD may sometimes engage in potentially dangerous and risky activities without thought of the consequences for themselves. This can happen in different areas of life and in various environments. 
  7. Hostility: People with BPD may get inappropriately or excessively angry in response to perceived insults. This is often seen in several social contexts. 
Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Struggling With Symptoms Of Borderline Personality Disorder?

Features Associated With BPD

The following features tend to be associated with borderline personality disorder but not necessarily diagnostic of it:

  • Patterns of undermining oneself when a goal is about to be accomplished, such as leaving therapy just when therapy is working
  • Psychotic-like symptoms, such as hallucinations
  • Suicidal ideation

Borderline personality disorder can also be associated with other mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, substance use disorder, eating disorders (especially bulimia nervosa), post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other personality disorders.

Development And Course Of BPD

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) tends to be more common among first-degree relatives of those with the disorder and often begins in early adulthood . Its symptoms are typically greatest in the young adult years and tend to decrease with age. Symptoms like self-harm and suicidal behavior also tend to decrease with age, while other symptoms like intense emotions, impulsiveness, and intense relationships may continue for the long term.

People with BPD who receive treatment often show significant improvement within the first year. Studies suggest that after about 10 years of treatment, about half of individuals diagnosed with BPD may no longer meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder.

Differentials Of BPD

Borderline personality disorder sometimes co-occurs with depressive or bipolar disorder. In situations like this, an individual must show clear symptoms of borderline personality disorder outside of episodes of depressive or bipolar disorder. BPD often has similar symptoms to those of some other personality disorders, but it’s usually differentiated in the following ways:

  • Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) and borderline personality disorder tend to both be characterized by attention-seeking behavior. However, people with BPD may harm themselves and have intense emotional outbursts when they feel abandoned, while people with HPD may act dramatically to get attention.
  • People with BPD and schizotypal disorder may have paranoid ideas. These ideas tend to occur transiently in people with BPD and are often in response to stress, while these ideas tend to be more constant in people with schizotypal personality disorder.
  • BPD, paranoid personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder all tend to be characterized by disproportionate anger. However, both paranoid personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder tend to lack the self-harm that can be common in those with BPD.
  • Both people with BPD and people with antisocial personality disorder may demonstrate manipulative behavior. People with antisocial personality disorder may be manipulative to gain power, profit, or pleasure. In contrast, people with BPD may manipulate to gain more concern from their loved ones and caregivers.
  • People with dependent personality disorder and people with BPD may be excessively afraid of abandonment. People with BPD often respond to this fear with outbursts of anger, while people with dependent personality disorder may respond with more submissiveness or the immediate seeking of replacement relationships.

Counseling For BPD

If you think you may have symptoms of borderline personality disorder, know that you are not alone. It may help to speak with a licensed therapist about what you’re experiencing. If you feel hesitant about traditional in-office therapy, you might consider online therapy. 

With online counseling, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing. You can also contact your therapist at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may prove to be useful if you experience emotional challenges in between sessions.

The Efficacy Of Online Counseling

Numerous studies have demonstrated online therapy to be just as effective as in-office therapy. One study published in the journal Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation found that participants in an online peer-led art therapy program experienced increased well-being. Participants had an “improved capacity to control emotions and tolerate distress, improved connection with others, enhanced understanding of the self, and higher hope for living well.”


Borderline personality disorder can manifest with a variety of symptoms that may make it difficult to function as usual. If you think you may be showing signs of BPD, it may help to speak with a licensed therapist, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience helping people with borderline personality disorder. Take the first step toward getting support with BPD and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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