Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissism, and Lance Armstrong

Did you watch the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey? Both parts of the profound interview are available at Winfrey’s OWN website. While Lance Armstrong most likely does NOT have BPD, he does show a high degree of narcissism; witnessed throughout the interview and his long career as a top cyclist that cheated his way to fame. I’m not here to pass judgment on Mr. Armstrong: he’s in a heap of trouble now, and will spend the rest of his life atoning for his sins. What interests me more are parts of his personality that are clearly very narcissistic, bordering on sociopathy.

Joseph Burgo, PhD, wrote an interesting piece in the Atlantic about “How Aggressive Narcissism Explains Lance Armstrong”. Although Burgo’s analysis could be construed as “pop psychology”, he raises a number of valid points about the way narcissism develops in people, most of which are similar to Borderline Personality Disorder. The article produced a great comments section, full of varying opinions on the difficult subject of narcissism.

People with BPD and NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) both suffer from what Burgo termed as “shaming messages” from their childhood. The messages could have been inappropriate verbal punishment from parents, shame felt from a parent abandoning them, or some form of abuse (physical, sexual, or mental). This concoction of unfortunate circumstances produces a hallow human being, needing recognition and validation from the rest of the world. In the case of Mr. Armstrong, this took the form of becoming an international cycling phenomenon and cancer survivor, only to later be exposed as a fraud, bully, and possessing sociopathic behavior.

The key difference between NPD and BPD is the degree of empathy shown for others. The NPD will show little regard for the welfare and feelings of others, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals and maintain their “status” as a superior human being. The BPD will show “selective” or “diminished” empathy, usually provoked from an extremely sensitive emotional disposition.

Borderlines feel empathy but also feel a need to be recognized for being empathetic, whereas the Narcissist wants constant recognition regardless of how he or she processes the emotions of other people.

The following chart illustrates other personality disorders comorbid with Borderline Personality Disorder, from a message board post:

The Amercican Psychiatric Association is trying to reduce this up in a revised version of the DSM (DSM-5) due to be published in 2013.

In a study of 34,653 people in the general population by the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Biometry, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, MD, USA the incidence of comordibities with BPD were very high.  

Comorbidity with another personality disorder (Axis II) was very high at 74% (77% for men, 72% for women) and as such, the PD are being redefined.

Comorbid w/BPD———

As you can see, a whopping 47% of men with BPD also have narcissistic qualities compared to only 32% of BPD women. Comorbidity with other personality disorders was more evenly distributed among women, with Schizotypal disorder being the most common at 35%. For men, Schizotypal was second only to Narcissistic, representing 39% of the sample group. So, if you’re attempting to identify a comorbid disorder in someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, you’re most likely looking at a Narcissistic or Schizotypal person.

Does this mean people with BPD are incapable of understanding the feelings of others? I don’t think so, but if BPD comes across as pure Narcissism, it is for different reasons. Most people with BPD understand the feelings of others, but have difficulty accepting them, particularly if those feelings involve rejection, anger, or indifference. The BPD will take someone’s feelings personally and think that his or her feelings are more important. Their need for validation comes from a tortured place, and rejection is extremely painful.

The person with NPD will have more of a ruthless persona, stopping at nothing to address their own feelings of inferiority. The concept of empathy and the emotions others experience as a result of their selfish actions is lost on the true Narcissist. They are too busy promoting themselves to realize the amount of destruction they have left behind them. Maybe they’ll “wake up to it” later, but their emotional well being and material success comes first. Lance Armstrong, take a bow. 🙂

I don’t dispute people with BPD come across as narcissists at times, perhaps childish in their quest for validation. For what it’s worth, BPD is not necessarily “better” than NPD. Both disorders present serious problems for the afflicted person and others around them.

Unfortunately, I believe my comorbid disorders might include Narcissistic traits, and to a lesser extent Schizotypal and OCD. What saves me from completely falling into the Narcissism trap?

Oddly, my anxiety. I often think “big” about myself and have grandiose daydreams. If I could only become a CEO, get elected to high office, or make a billion dollars, I’d feel much better about myself. Anxiety gets in the way of these aspirations: I’m afraid of socializing, nervous about performing (academically, athletically, musically, etc) and horribly afraid of rejection. Losing an election would feel like the whole world hates me and that I have no value as a human being. I would probably resort to self destructive behaviors and even suicidal gestures. That’s a BPD reaction to narcissistic pursuits that result in failure. Meanwhile, the Narcissist would be more likely to lash out at others, punishing them for not recognizing their self-determined superiority. Their anger is directed outward to penalize others for personal gain.

There’s no doubt enhanced Narcissism is behind the personalities of some of the most successful people. If you desire wealth, power, and fame you probably have a high opinion of yourself, shrouding an actual feeling of extreme inferiority. The more success you can feed yourself, the better. Some Narcissists do good things: think of local church leaders, philanthropists, or respected celebrities. All of them have big egos but are safely self righteous opposed to purely selfish. It can be difficult to tolerate the self righteous on a day-to-day basis, but at least they’re operating with a functional moral compass.

Lance Armstrong has years of contrition ahead of him. It might be best to duck out of the limelight and spend his time in therapy and offering meaningful apologies to those he has harmed.

People dealing with Narcissistic Borderline Personality Disorder need to be patient, set boundaries, and resolute. Know that the drive for validation comes from a weak inner-self, but make it clear to anyone with BPD what will and will NOT be tolerated.