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Emotional Intelligence & Borderline Personality Disorder

Kathryn Gardner
University of Central Lancashire
October 2006

Over the past decade or so there has been an increasing interest in the term “Emotional Intelligence” or “EI”. In 1996 Daniel Goleman made some grand claims about EI; he claimed that EI is twice as important as IQ for success in life and made the EI concept a household name. However, these claims have little scientific support, and it was John Mayer and Peter Salovey in the late 1980s early 1990s who actually coined the term “Emotional Intelligence”, later redefining the term in 1997 and proposing a model describing EI as a real cognitive ability similar to IQ. Mayer and Salovey currently suggest that EI involves four main cognitive based skills: “…the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotion; the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”

Is Emotional Intelligence Twice as Powerful as IQ?

So what about Goleman’s claims then? Is there now evidence to suggest that EI is twice as important as IQ in predicting life success? Have we found an alternative route to success for those with lower than average IQ? Unfortunately, the excitement of this possibility was short-lived. There are now numerous studies showing that EI is not twice as important as IQ in predicting successful life outcomes. However, what we do now know is that EI can have a significant impact on success in many life domains. EI affects our academic, occupational, personal and mental health functioning. Just like there are individual differences in happiness and self-esteem, so too do individuals differ with regard to their levels of EI: some individuals possess high levels of EI, others may have deficits in certain areas of EI but not others, and others may have generally low levels of EI.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence for Mental Health

Research on emotional intelligence has moved on in recent years. There are now a whole host of studies showing that EI is important for mental health. Low EI has been associated with depression, anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, suicidal feelings, aggressive behaviour, poor impulse control, poor interpersonal adjustment, increased stress, increased alcohol and drug use and even personality disorder. In contrast, high EI has been linked with increased well-being such as greater satisfaction with life and increased happiness.

In addition, research has shown that different components of EI may be implicated in different mental health problems. For example, Ciarrochi, Deane and Anderson (2002) found that low emotion regulation was related to increased depression, whilst perception of emotion was not.

Emotional Intelligence and Borderline Personality Disorder

Although there are now many studies pointing to the negative impact of low EI on a person’s mental health, there is still a great deal of research that needs to be done in this area. Only a small handful of studies have actually examined each of the mental health difficulties described above, with many studies suffering from inadequate methodology e.g., the continuous use of university students as participants means that the majority of research findings do not apply to members of the general public.

The relationship between EI and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has only been examined in one or two studies. According to the DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition Text Revision, 2000), BPD is “a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts” (p. 706). BPD is a disorder characterised by clear and profound deficits in the ability to understand and regulate ones emotions and moods; disturbances in emotion are associated with most of the DSM-IV BPD diagnostic criteria (Levine, 1992). It therefore comes as no big surprise that researchers Leible and Snell found that individuals with BPD had deficits in several aspects of their emotional intelligence. Despite these findings though, we are actually a long way away from developing EI based programs and therapies to assist those with BPD, as much research remains to be done if we are to really discover exactly what components of EI play key roles in which aspects of BPD. That said, it has been suggested that the BPD features of affective instability, chronic feelings of emptiness and inappropriate, intense anger are all indicative of problems in emotion processing, or to put it another way, these criteria are suggestive of low EI. Similarly, impulsivity, self-harm, fear of abandonment and dissociative symptoms (other characteristics of BPD) can all be viewed as abnormal responses to emotions, so those with low EI might display these behaviours and characteristics due to insufficient ability to manage their emotions. We could also say the same about problems with interpersonal relationships and identity disturbance, as both areas will be affected by how a person expresses, uses and manages their emotions on a daily basis. So it seems obvious really; we’d typically expect low EI to be related to all the main features of BPD, although research it is very rarely so clear cut!

Seeking to determine whether deficits in EI are associated with BPD may not seem like the most innovative scientific research question, given that researchers such as Marsha Linehan have spent decades developing theories of BPD that have a strong focus on emotion dysregulation, a concept that shares many similarities with EI. Linehan is currently the founder of one of the most effective treatment for BPD (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy: DBT; and I say “one of” because there are other effective treatments), based on her theory of the aetiology (i.e., causes) of the disorder. Amongst other things, DBT has a strong focus on helping people with BPD control and regulate their emotions, skills which would also be the focus of any treatment approach aimed at developing and enhancing emotional intelligence. To my knowledge though, DBT is currently only being offered to clients or researched in very few places around the UK. It is also an intensive and costly treatment (as discussed later) so developing new treatments (based on EI perhaps) could be one way forward.

Emotional Intelligence based Treatments for BPD

If in five years there are twenty more studies showing that low EI is associated with BPD, and also which aspects of EI are related to certain parts of BPD, does this then mean that we’ve found some sort of magical solution to treating BPD? That is, will treatments based on EI be effective for BPD? Well, it is highly unlikely that a therapy based solely on developing EI skills would be sufficient enough to treat a complex disorder such as BPD. Personality disorders such as BPD develop as a result of a complex interaction of factors, including abuse, certain life events and neurochemical imbalances. Consequently, treatment will never be simple. But this doesn’t mean that EI based therapy will be useless. For example, we could set up EI group therapy programs which would allow many people to attend at once to learn various emotional coping skills whilst they wait for more intensive therapy such as DBT. There are similar group treatments out there at the moment, but not ones that are based directly on EI models and core EI skills. In the UK our national health system currently has a 2 year waiting list to see a therapist, and so we urgently need treatments and programmes that can help people cope in the meantime, whilst they are on such waiting lists. EI programmes could be the way forward. Furthermore, EI-based skills are often the focus of Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behaviour Therapy which is an effective treatment for BPD. Alternatively, we could use EI based programs alongside more intense therapies, to act as an additional prop or support system. Either way, the teaching of certain emotion regulation skills targeted in EI therapies could have beneficial effects such as reducing the frequency of behaviours associated with BPD, such as self-harm.

What Might Programs and Therapies based on Emotional Intelligence Involve Exactly?

Individual psychological treatment such as DBT is both costly and timely, both to the NHS and ourselves if we opt for private treatment. Group therapy is a more cost effective treatment, and whilst there are differing views among professionals regarding the usefulness of group therapy for those with BPD, it can often be an effective treatment. For example, clients who have trouble recognising problems with their behaviour might be able to overcome their denial by observing these behaviours in others. Consequently, I therefore believe that one of the best ways that EI programs could have a positive impact would be in a group setting (as discussed above). In DBT, the teaching of emotion regulation skills is a skill that is taught in group therapy by someone other than the client’s individual therapist. “‘Emotion modulation skills’ are ways of changing distressing emotional states and 'distress tolerance skills' include techniques for putting up with these emotional states if they can not be changed for the time being” (Kiehn & Swales, 1995). EI treatment group members can be taught skills such as: recognising and identifying their own and others emotions; understanding their emotional patterns as opposed to being overwhelmed by them; expressing their emotions appropriately and in adaptive ways; and reflecting upon their emotional experiences. Clearly group therapy is not the only option though; it is also possible that EI based skill development could be incorporated into other existing one-to-one treatments. So far EI research has had little influence on existing clinical practice, as there is still much to be researched about this construct. Only time will tell whether BPD treatment such as EI based group therapy, really is the way forward.

Contributing to Research on Emotional Intelligence

If you would like to help to advance research on EI you can do so by participating in a study being run by myself at the University of Central Lancashire. The research is all conducted over the internet and simply involves completing a number of online questionnaires. The main purpose of the research is to investigate the relationship between emotional intelligence and different aspects of personality associated with BPD (e.g., changes in mood, impulsive behaviour). The research is not about showing what causes BPD (e.g., emotion regulation difficulties), but about seeing what psychological factors (e.g., EI) relate to the disorder. If EI is important to BPD (which I'm sure it is and there is evidence to suggest this will be the case), then this is a step toward showing that EI programs may be valuable for those suffering from the disorder. Everyone who takes part can receive their score and feedback on one of the most widely used (scientifically developed) EI instruments available, as well as a comprehensive EI Workbook. Finally, you can also receive feedback on your current levels of Happiness and Satisfaction with Life. The project is running from around October 2006 until May 2009. If you want to participate go to or if you require further information please contact Kathryn Gardner at the University of Central Lancashire using the following e-mail address:

Kathryn Gardner
University of Central Lancashire
October 2006