Understanding Cognitive Empathy vs. Emotional Empathy in BPD


Navigating the Twin Paths of Empathy in BPD: A Personal Journey

Hello, wonderful community!

I’ve been reflecting on a topic that recently came up on our Facebook page. It’s about the different types of empathy we experience, especially as individuals navigating the complex world of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). As someone who’s been on this recovery journey for over a decade, I feel it’s a topic close to my heart and crucial for our understanding.

Ten years ago, this was me, for example:

  • “You just sighed — you’ve had enough of me. You’re leaving.” (Meanwhile the person was exhausted from a long day of work and the sigh had nothing to do with me.)
  • A movie about dinosaurs 🦕showed their extinction and I couldn’t stop crying for them.

There are other examples, but basically, intellectually I would often read other people’s emotions as being negative and about me in a doomsday way.  Yet, I would have an abundance of emotional empathy in other circumstances. Relate? Here’s what gives…

The Two Faces of Empathy: My Revelation

For years, I grappled with the overwhelming waves of emotions that are the hallmark of BPD. I could feel the pain of others as if it were my own, a testament to the depth of emotional empathy that often accompanies this condition. It’s like being in the middle of a storm of emotions, feeling every drop of rain with acute intensity.

However, cognitive empathy was another story. Understanding and processing others’ emotions from an intellectual standpoint felt like trying to read a book in a language I was only just learning. This imbalance often left me bewildered, wondering why I could feel so much yet struggle to navigate those feelings in a way that made sense.

A Journey Through DBT: Finding Balance

It was while learning DBT skills that I began to untangle these threads. DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, became my roadmap in understanding and managing these forms of empathy. It helped me learn not just to feel, but also to understand, to see the emotional landscapes of others without losing myself in them.

Emotional Empathy: A Double-Edged Sword

Living with BPD means that emotional empathy can often feel like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allows for profound connections and a deep understanding of others’ pain and joy. On the other hand, it can be an overwhelming tide, threatening to sweep away my sense of self in the emotions of others.

Cognitive Empathy: The Learning Curve

Cognitive empathy, though less intense, was a skill I had to consciously cultivate. Learning to step back, to understand emotions without being engulfed by them, was a challenge. It was a journey of balancing heart and mind, of learning to navigate the emotional waters without getting lost in them.

The Path Forward

This understanding of the dual aspects of empathy in BPD has been a game changer for me. It’s a constant journey, one where balance is key. For those of you walking this path, know that understanding these nuances of empathy is a significant step in managing BPD.

And remember, if you’re seeking tools and strategies to navigate this aspect of BPD, my online DBT classes are a resource to definitely check out.

Thank you for being part of this journey with me. Your insights, experiences, and stories are what make this community so incredibly special.

In solidarity and healing,


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