Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a psychiatric condition marked by persistent patterns of intense emotions and severe mood swings often resulting in impulsive behaviors and difficulty with interpersonal relationships. Precise causes for BPD are unclear; however, many experts agree that BPD emerges from a combination of genetics, biological factors, and early life adverse environmental influences.
What Is BPD?
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a pervasive condition involving unhealthy thinking and behavioral patterns. BPD is primarily characterized by emotional instability, impulsivity, identity confusion, and unstable relationships. People living with BPD can struggle greatly with these signs and symptoms and experience significant distress affecting their quality of life and overall functioning.1
Other signs and symptoms of BPD include:1
- Desperate attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
- A pattern of chaotic interactions in relationships that alternate between extremes of idealization and devaluation
- Persistent feelings of emptiness
- Unclear and inconsistent self-image or sense of identity
- Impulsivity in potentially self-
destructive behaviors like drug abuse, binge eating, spending, reckless sex, dangerous driving, etc.
- Severe mood swings and extreme reactions to situational stress
- Recurrent self-harming behaviors and suicidal ideation, threats, or attempts
- Frequent inappropriate and unpredictable anger outbursts
- Transient, stress-related feelings of unreality, paranoia, or disconnection from the self
Is Borderline Personality Disorder Caused by Genetics?
As with most mental health conditions, there isn’t one specific reason to account for the emergence of borderline personality disorder. While existing research suggests that genetics are a strong precursor for the development of BPD, there is a scientific consensus that BPD is likely a byproduct of an interaction of underlying vulnerabilities that include genetics, brain anomalies, and environmental triggers.1, 2, 3
What Does it Mean For Something to Be Genetic or Hereditary?
Hereditary refers to the transmission of certain qualities from one generation to the next. Birth parents pass on a combination of genes that influence how children look, behave, or whether they develop a type of illness. The closer you are in the family tree to the person with the condition, the more likely you are to get it.6
3 Components In the Development of BPD
Note that while having one contributing element or a mixture of risk factors (genetics, environmental triggers, and brain anomalies) can increase the chances of developing BPD, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have it. Similarly, there are incidences where individuals who lack these predispositions still develop BPD in their lifespan.
Here are three key components that factor into the development of BPD:
Family history is a compelling predictor for BPD. This personality disorder is about five times more common among first-generation biological relatives with BPD as compared to the general population. That means that individuals with a close family member like a sibling or parent with BPD have a higher probability of developing this mental illness. Additionally, BPD is generally more often diagnosed in females than males.
2. Environmental Factors
Certain types of toxic, stressful environments are linked to BPD. In fact, most BPD cases are connected to childhood trauma with individuals reporting a history of sexual, emotional, and/or physical abuse, neglect, and/or separation from an important adult or parent. Other conditions associated with BPD include growing up in a hostile and invalidating family environment or with a relative with mental illness or substance use issues.
3. Brain Anomalies
Clinical brain examinations of individuals with BPD reveal structural and functional variations thought to be potential contributing factors. These findings have helped to bring clarity into the reasons why those with signs and symptoms of BPD have intense emotional reactions, mood instability, and poor impulse control.
Moreover, alterations in certain neurotransmitters like serotonin have also been identified and linked with BPD. However, these findings are inconclusive in showing whether brain anomalies lead to BPD or if these occur because of the condition itself.
Genetic Factors: Looking at the Research
Although studies are scarce and outcomes vary, there is moderate evidence linking genetics with BPD. Most of these studies, however, cannot conclusively determine if genetic vulnerability is a cause. Instead, genetics is deemed a strong predictor for development. The majority of scientific research is typically inclined toward the theory of “nature” vs. “nurture,” meaning BPD evolves from a combination of genetics and environmental influences.
Here are several examples of research around BPD and genetics:
- Early 2000’s twin studies: two twin studies had moderate evidence for the genetic transmission and heritability of BPD. The findings revealed a higher rate of BPD between identical twins in comparison to fraternal twins. However, a third twin study indicated that environmental factors outweigh genetics in the development of BPD.2
- A 2014 scientific review: this review found genetic predisposition to be a strong underlying influence in the development of BPD. Nevertheless, it suggested that the onset of BPD was likely caused by a gene and environment interaction.4
- A 2019 twin study: perhaps a more compelling comprehensive study in 2019 examined identical twins and concluded that BPD would have likely developed even if the identical twins were raised in different environments.5
Will Children of a Borderline Parent Inherit BPD?
Although being raised by borderline parents may put children at a greater genetic risk for developing this condition, only a small percentage will. However, inserting your genetically predisposed child into a dysfunctional, traumatic environment will likely result in the development of BPD. Many studies conclude that early life chronic exposure to trauma and maltreatment are the most influential risk factors for BPD.1, 2
Negative childhood experiences linked to BPD include:
- Separation from or the loss of a parent/caregiver at an early age
- Sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse
- Inadequate parenting
- Invalidating family backgrounds
- Unstable and conflictive relationships
Having Kids When You Have BPD: How to Create a Safe Environment
As a parent with BPD, you may worry about how it could affect your parenting or passing on the disorder. Since the environment plays a significant role in your child’s development, you can put your worries to rest. There are many things you can do to create a nurturing, stable, safe, and validating atmosphere and reduce your child’s risk of developing BPD.
Take the following actions to create a healthy environment for your child:
- Get psychological help (individual or group therapy)
- Seek family therapy
- Join an in-person/online parenting-focused support group
- Take a course on effective parenting skills
- Grow your support network and reach out to close friends, family, and professionals
Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment
Seeking borderline personality disorder treatment is of utmost importance. It can help you develop the necessary skills for building a validating and stable family environment.7 Primary forms of treatment include dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), schema-focused therapy, mentalization, and borderline personality disorder medication.
Is BPD Curable?
People who are invested in their treatment plan can expect significant improvement and sustainable mental and emotional wellness over time. In addition, approaching the treatment of BPD in a multimodal fashion by complementing your individual treatment with family therapy, group therapy, and/or other supportive programs or services that address endeavors outside of therapy can lend remarkable results and long-term benefits.7
Find a Therapist For BPD
Begin your recovery process by searching an online directory to find a therapist who is experienced with personality disorders, uses evidenced-based techniques, and you can bond with. Evidence shows that psychotherapy is the most effective treatment path for those with BPD.
Final Thoughts on the Impact of Genetics on BPD
Borderline personality disorder has often been misunderstood and stigmatized. Luckily, decades of diligent research have advanced our understanding about this multifaceted disorder. As the research on BPD continues, more specific causes will likely be uncovered. This can pave the way for a more comprehensive level of care.