History of the Term ‘Borderline’ in Borderline Personality Disorder

Many wonder how the term borderline came to describe borderline personality disorder. Let’s learn more about the origin of this term, and why its use is debated by some experts today.

History of “Borderline” in Borderline Personality Disorder

The term “borderline” was first introduced in the United States in 1938. It was a term used by early psychiatrists to describe people who were thought to have a tendency to regress into “borderline schizophrenia” in certain situations. At the time, people with neurosis were believed to be treatable, whereas people with psychoses were deemed untreatable.

Then, by the 1970s, a deeper understanding of borderline personality disorder began to emerge. Psychoanalysts like Otto Kernberg defined borderline as a middle level of personality organization between psychosis and neurosis. People with BPD were described as having “primitive” psychological defenses such as splitting and projective identification.

Soon, a pattern of symptoms began to emerge to describe those with borderline personality disorder. These included:

  • Unstable self-image
  • Rapidly fluctuating mood swings
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Strong tendency for both self-harm and suicidal thinking

In 1980, BPD became an official personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III or DSM-III.

Borderline Personality Disorder Today

Today far more is known about BPD. Now BPD is recognized as a disorder characterized by intense emotional experiences and instability in relationships and behavior that begins in early adulthood and manifests itself in multiple contexts (for example, at home, and at work).1


In addition, experts have recognized that there is a strong genetic component to BPD.

According to the DSM-5, in order to be diagnosed with BPD, a person must meet these criteria:2

  • A pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self image, and emotions
  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imaged abandonment
  • Impulsivity that is self-damaging
  • Recurrent suicidal behavior
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • Inappropriate, intense anger
  • Transient stress related to alternations in reality

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

The Ongoing Debate 

The term “borderline” is still debated by some people. Many experts are now calling for BPD to be renamed because they believe the term “borderline” is outdated and potentially stigmatizing. Some believe that BPD should not be classified as a personality disorder, but rather as a mood disorder, or an identity disorder.

Suggestions for the new name have included:

  • Emotional Dysregulation Disorder
  • Emotional Intensity Disorder

What Does This Mean for You If You Have BPD?

It’s important to not get too hung up on the term “borderline.” The term is old and may be changed in the future. Instead, focus on working with your doctor or therapist in receiving the proper therapy and getting all your questions answered so that you can get healthy.


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