The researcher, Khrohn, found that sufferers of borderline personality disorder (BPD), when they were children, were frequently exceptionally sensitive, perceptive, and empathetic (hence the use of the word ‘superempath’ in the title of this article) and had parents (or a parent) who took advantage of and exploited these skills and qualities in order to help them (i.e. the parent or parents) cope with their own emotional problems.
This theory is certainly relevant to my own childhood experiences; my mother relied upon me to be her personal counselor after my parents’ divorce; indeed, by the time I was eleven years old, she was referring to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist.’
Unfortunately, as well as being prone to anxiety, depression, and hysteria, my mother was also prone to outbursts of intense hostility and disturbing rage which could be provoked by the tiniest thing such as spilling a few drops of orange squash. So, when I wasn’t serving her as her own, private, ‘Little Psychiatrist’, she was often extremely verbally abusive and threatening. This verbal abuse could take the form of death threats and of permanent abandonment (indeed, she carried out this latter threat, throwing me out of the house when I started to show incipient signs of trying to stand up for myself. This meant I was obliged to live with my father who, by the way, also didn’t want me.
This personal experience chimes very well with Krohn’s findings who stated that when the sensitive and empathetic child no longer serves the parent’s emotional needs, the parent becomes intensely hostile towards the child and/or abandons him/her.
According to Krohn, two major effects this devastating treatment has upon the child that s/he (i.e. the child):
- is unable to develop a sense of him/herself as being separate from others (see my article about ENMESHED mother/child relationships) and so develops only a very weak sense of self.
- develops acute sensitivity and hypervigilance when it comes to intuiting the emotions of others as a form of self-preservation due to a constant fear of being hurt by others.
Whilst those with BPD can, often, essentially operate as ‘superempaths,’ Krohn points out that they can also make gross misjudgments concerning what those around them are feeling. A good example of such misjudgments is illustrated by a piece of research that found those with BPD are prone to misinterpret facial expressions.
We know, of course, that adult BPD is extremely strongly linked to early life, chronic and severe trauma. However, research shows that childhood trauma can also lead to an impaired ability to feel empathy for others, particularly if the trauma was caused by physical abuse. Children who are abused in such a way as to develop anti-social personality suffer particularly severe deficits in their ability to empathize with others.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).