Misplaced Guilt and Shame in Borderline Personality Disorder

**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

Experiencing intense and hard to manage emotions is commonplace for those living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). However of all the emotions experienced by this population, some of the most common and difficult to feel are guilt and shame. There are reasons for these recurrent emotional challenges in BPD, although it can take some time in therapy before the reasons are well understood.

Guilt happens to people when they believe they have made a mistake, hurt others, are at fault, or otherwise should be blamed for things that didn’t go well (e.g., “I yelled and she became scared, and for this I feel guilty). Shame is the experience of having one’s perceived flaws or lack of worth exposed and then sensing judgment from self or others (e.g., “I drove off in a rage again and got another speeding ticket; I can’t believe I keep doing this!; I should have known better”), and therefore, believing “I AM BAD”.

It is normal to sometimes have feelings of guilt because mistakes are made, and shame sometimes because patterns of behavior may be in need of some adjustment to better align with held values and morals. But in cases of BPD, feelings of guilt and shame tend to take on a type of permanence rather than transience. In other words, it can be very hard for a person with BPD to let go of things… to stop feeling guilty and ashamed for things that didn’t go well in the past, to stop directing blame and shame towards self when it isn’t clear who or what contributed to life problems, and also to consider if there is any room being given for self-love and self-forgiveness (permission to be imperfect).

Misplaced Guilt and ShameIn persons with BPD, guilt and shame feelings are rarely put into their proper perspective or considered for their relevance to the present moment (i.e., “does it make sense for me to be feeling this way right now?”). Sometimes this preoccupation with guilt and shame is due to the fear of having future interactions with others that may induce these kinds of feelings, and then trying to figure out ways to avoid it. But of course, the guilt and shame feelings tend to get re-experienced anyways because of the ongoing imagining and reliving of things.

The way a person with BPD experiences guilt and shame is furthermore different because of the way he has been conditioned to think about himself, his experiences with others, and his place in the world. He has learned that things tend to go wrong for him and that people tend to blame and judge him for the way he reacts/overreacts. He has been in trouble, corrected and criticized so much that he tends to believe that the world is against him, and so it is natural for him to take the blame.

He doesn’t yet know why it works this way, but he is making many assumptions (perhaps having bad thoughts about self; perhaps blaming others). He hasn’t considered his limited awareness of self; hasn’t reflected on his beliefs and level of understanding of mental health; hasn’t learned how disorder develops in the first place; and hasn’t developed the knowledge and skill to successfully manage disorder once it has taken root.

The manner and extent to which a person with BPD experiences guilt and shame feelings is therefore exaggerated and inappropriate because he does not yet understand himself or his illness. He doesn’t understand the significance of his childhood or development. He isn’t aware that he can’t manage his disorder without the necessary awareness, knowledge, and skills. He believes he “should have known better” and that there is no excuse for errors in functioning. He sets his own trap for repeat feelings of guilt and shame, and may likewise buy into to the unhealthy and unforgiving attitudes that others have about behavioral issues and mental health problems.

**Please take a moment look at this model for understanding the connections between events, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If you realize that you haven’t yet learned about how to take this kind of responsibility, then there is a very good chance you are guilting and shaming yourself way too much for things you haven’t been introduced to! In other words, you can’t know (or should have known) something you haven’t yet learned about, especially if you didn’t even know you needed to learn about it in the first place.

Misplaced Guilt and Shame

Then there is the unfortunate tendency to react verbally or behaviorally to chronic feelings of guilt and shame that have built up over time. Reactions may include all sorts of acting out, labeling oneself as “bad”, or seeking reassurance for fear that others will not tolerate any more mistakes of emotion or behavior. The reactions may result in getting in trouble once more as others don’t understand where the reactions are coming from. These experiences may then be interpreted by the struggling person as yet another “piece of evidence” that he is “always at fault”, “always annoys”, “always hurts”, or is “always a burden on others”.

Indeed it is a sad thing, but a person with BPD will habitually torture himself by inducing unnecessary guilt and shame feelings through his own thinking style. He can’t let things go. When bad things happen, he will personalize the situation and automatically assume he is at fault because he has been “at fault” so many times in the past. He can’t stop personalizing. He will react to his own thoughts and emotions and set off reactions in others. He can’t stop reacting.

When feelings like guilt and shame are felt unnecessarily (that is, when it doesn’t really make sense to feel that way given the circumstances) this is when the feelings could properly be labelled as “misplaced”. This is one of the keys to overcoming Borderline Personality Disorder… learning to become mindfully aware and critical of misplaced guilt and shame, learning to let it go, and learning to replace the misplaced guilt and shame with something more fitting to the situation.







photo credit: I will be an intellect ! via photopin (license)
photo credit: IMG_0259 via photopin (license)


  1. Hi, this is exactly how i feel. How do I get help? I was thinking of a therapist because I feel like it is impossible for me to solve this myself, because I always try to assess the situation and then it’s either that I solve it but because it’s ‘my own therapy’ I don’t respect it enough to follow up with it or I end up in this big hole that I can’t get out of. Usually my way of coping with these feelings are napping or sleeping it off, but it’s temporary and it chomps away from my time.

    • Hi 🙂 It can be very useful to get the help of a therapist, as long as you feel comfortable with the therapist and he/she is well-versed in treating BPD. Depending on where you live in the world, there may be public (free to access) or private therapists (pay a fee for each session), or both, or none at all. Sometimes people need to be self-taught because that is their only option. Hopefully BreakAwayMHE can be of some assistance for you, but there are many other free web resources as well (other websites and youtube channels).

    • Working with a therapist can help to solidify the learning of these concepts. There is often an underlying emotional aspect involved when continuing to fall into these “thought traps’ that needs to be understood and processed to fall into the traps less. Hopefully, there are both gov’t and private resources in your area to consider calling to set up an appointment.

  2. I’m too self-conscious to comment on websites normally, but as a 28 year old guy that was born with many of these traits (they greatly worsened at adolescence), and was improperly diagnosed until his early-mid 20s, I cannot tell you how much i identify with and appreciate this article; even once you start gaining more awareness of your flawed reasoning and impulses, guilt and shame will so easily trick you into assuming you’re to blame, when its frequently your brain. I’m very happy i stumbled onto this site; proper CBT/DBT-trained therapists aren’t always easy to find, and regardless, for the oblivious sufferer, you can’t find out what’s wrong with you if you don’t know the right questions to ask or where to even begin. I completed the Marsha Linehan modules a few years ago, so I’m very grateful for the convenient way you arranged all the major steps! The hardest part is remembering to constantly utilize your acquired coping skills, so something like this is very helpful.

  3. So much of this rings true. I grew up with enormous amounts of misplaced guilt and shame. It never even occurred to me that I was feeling guilty for things that made no sense or were completely out of my control until a therapist pointed it out to me. It’s yet another one of those things with BPD that you don’t know is wrong until someone tells you. That’s the hardest thing about living with this because there are so many elements of it I thought were normal and I was just bad at coping with them. I used to feel a lot of guilt and shame about not having more control over my emotions. I thought that split-second escalation from normal to angry or upset was a normal thing and everyone else was just better at suppressing it than me. Thanks for writng this, I have trouble describing some of the things relating to BPD to my friends and family, and this describes the guilt perfectly.

  4. As a 65 year old male you might well be wondering how the hell I managed to get this far along with a BPD and never realizing it. The various therapists , psychologists I have crossed paths with never gave a hint to me that this could be playing a factor in the way I have lived my life all these years.
    The fact that I diagnosed myself has given me an added lift as regards self esteem issues which in turn has made me realize how dependent I have always been on the opinions and judgement of others.
    Maybe I should be more positive but I have little hope of ever finding a therapist that has the skill to peel away the many layers of delusion that have engulfed my whole life as that means time and money, and I have not much of either left!
    I am truly greatful for sites like these as they do provide people in a similar position to myself with a few primitive tools to at least have a go at sorting our own lives , so many thanks .

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