It's All In Your Head: Mirror Neurons and Borderline Personality Disorder

I am always fascinated when my DBT group therapist goes into the science of psychology, human development, and the wonders of the mind. Yesterday, when I mentioned that I have have an over-empathetic mind, often taking on the emotions of others who express burdens, she explained that this is not pathological. 

While having Borderline Personality Disorder, of course, adds to this with the complication of identity and boundary issues, it turns out that humans, primates, and many other animals naturally mimic others' behaviors through something called "mirror neurons."

(I've been sitting on the edge of my seat each time our therapist gets into these discussions with us -- so much so that I've felt inspired to apply to a masters program that focuses on psychology and writing. I'll keep you posted on that process. I'm in the school research stages and may be applying to a particular university soon!)

What are Mirror Neurons?

Mirror neurons are impulse-conduction cells of the brain, spinal column, and nerves that react when a person (also present in many other animals) sees another person perform an action or experience an emotion (Wikipedia, 2012). The mirror neuron of the person observing reacts as if it, itself, were the one doing the action.

Scientist debate over the intended function of these mirror neurons. Some think they are designed to help us learn empathy, others to learn to mimic survival behaviors, some think it's for animals to understand the behaviors of other animals species, and still others are not sure.

I remember seeing an image like this in my undergraduate studies of the subject. It is of a human being sticking out his tongue at a tiny little monkey. In response, after a bit of observing, the monkey stuck his tongue out at the human. I actually tried this with a very young newborn baby in my Early Childhood Development practicum and was so delighted when the newborn baby also responded by sticking out her tongue.

(Gross, 2006)

Empathy and Mirror Neurons

The concern that I brought up in DBT group was my intense empathy for others when they talk about their problems and are visually distressed. Two people in a new processing group I'm in discussed issues around terminally ill loved ones. I noticed after a few moments that my expression was so sympathetic, and my mind went to the years when my father was in hospice.

When another group member talked about her struggle with food, I became very empathetic with her and connected her experience to my own with disordered eating.

According to researchers at Social Brain Lab, people who experience higher levels of empathy show more activity in the part of their brains responsible for mirroring (Jabbi, Swart, & Keysers, 2007). This might explain a lot!

What are your thoughts on mirror neurons?  Can you relate to being highly empathetic to others? How do you feel your diagnosis of BPD contributes to this?

Thanks for reading.
More soon.


Gross, L. (Photographer). (2006). Evolution of neonatal imitation. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Jabbi, Mbemba; Swart, Marte; Keysers, Christian (2007). "Empathy for positive and negative emotions in the gustatory cortex". NeuroImage 34 (4): 1744–53. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.10.032

Wikipedia. (2012). Mirror neuron. Retrieved from 


  1. Hi Debby, It's funny that I've always done this too, and you never really stop to think about it, because to you it's normal. And I never thought of it as a bad thing, I just knew I was very empathetic and that I understood and identified with certain people and situations more so than other people did. One thing I am drawn to, is examples of great depths of sadness and tragedy, as I have suffered greatly in my own life and understand. It is familiar and often comfortable, so I try to acknowledge it and then move on. Now on the flip side, I also identify with the sad people on those Hoarders shows. Both my great grandmothers on both sides suffered very much from this disorder, and both my mother and I have to fight the urges and symptoms almost daily. I am not as bad as she, but I have my vices and I notice the instinct to collect things in my children as well, which is interesting. For people who don't know or don't understand, hoarding is an emotional disorder that effects one's reasoning abilities (as do most emotional disorders). When a person finds a thing they feel like they must have or that they cannot live without and must keep, they develop a strong emotional attachment with that thing. It may be irrational, but to that person, that one little thing (as well as the thousands of little things collected) mean the world, and they identify with it emotionally like one would a beloved pet. Since I am very very familiar with this sort of emotional attachment, (I do it with people as well as things, but people more so) when I watch these shows, and these poor people are crying or screaming or just completely distraught, I find myself mirroring their anxiety, depression, and sometimes anger. As with all my emotions, I have to first stop myself and recognize that I am experiencing these emotions. I have to identify them for what they are, and then I have to analyze what is truly making me feel that way. Only then can I pull myself back into reality and out of those negative emotions. This difficult process of realization and reasoning has been not only the hardest, but also the most helpful exercise when dealing with my BPD, anxiety, and depression. Sorry if this was long-winded, but I also hope it was helpful. Bottom line, if something is upsetting, a tv show for example, turn it off and walk away for a minute. Same thing with people, if you find yourself in an upsetting position, stop for a minute and take a break. Removal from this situation is often a good first step to being able to recognize and take control of your emotions. Good luck and try to have a good day friends :)

    1. whoa whoa, lets take a step back and think about this for a moment. How is being empathitc to others feelings and emotions a bad thing and a disorder? Its not!! You have a gift as I do. We have a better understanding of the world around us. It helps us relate to people in an instant. Its awesome because I can talk to whoever and whenever and connect with people. It took me almost 16 years to actually figure this out and my ability to empathize. Embrace it love it and stop taking meds for it!!

    2. Hi Crimson,

      I wouldn't say it's a "bad" thing -- it's part of human nature! As far as it seeming more pronounced in those of us with BPD, I see it more as an issue of blurred boundaries and a lack of sense of self. Many of us also tend to be highly empathetic. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. ♥



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