Borderline Personality Disorder:

What Is It, What Causes It? How Can We Treat It?
by Joel Paris, M.D.

See From Grief to Advocacy: A Mother's Odyssey

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Personality disorders affect about 10% of the general population. This group of mental disorders is defined by maladaptive personality characteristics that have a consistent and serious effect on work and interpersonal relationships. DSM-IV defines ten categories of personality disorder. Of these, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is the most frequent in clinical practice. BPD is also one of the most difficult and troubling problems in all of psychiatry.

The term "borderline" is a misnomer. These patients were first described sixty years ago by psychoanalysts who noted they did poorly in treatment, and therefore theorized that this is a form of pathology lying on the border between psychosis and neurosis.

Although we no longer believe that patients with BPD have an underlying psychosis, the name "borderline" has stuck. A much more descriptive label would be "emotionally unstable: personality disorder." The central feature of BPD is instability, affecting patients in many sectors of their lives.

Thus, borderline patients show a wide range of impulsive behaviors, particularly those that are self destructive. They are highly unstable emotionally, and develop wide mood swings in response to stressful events. Finally, BPD may be complicated by brief psychotic episodes.

Most often, borderline patients present to psychiatrists with repetitive suicidal attempts. We often see these patients in the emergency room, coming in with an overdose or a slashed wrist following a disappointment or a quarrel.

Interpersonal relationships in BPD are particularly unstable. Typically, borderline patients have serious problems with boundaries. They become quickly involved with people, and quickly disappointed with them. They make great demands on other people, and easily become frightened of being abandoned by them. Their emotional life is a kind of rollercoaster.

What Causes BPD?

We are only beginning to understand the causes of BPD. As in most mental disorders, no single factor explains its development. Rather, multiple risk factors, which can be biological, psychological, or social, play a role in its etiology.

The biological factors in BPD probably consist of inborn temperamental abnormalities. Impulsivity and emotional instability are unusually intense in these patients, and these traits are known to be heritable. Similar characteristics can also be found in the close relatives of patients with BPD. Research suggests that the impulsivity that characterizes borderline personality might be associated with decreased serotonin activity in the brain.

The psychological factors in this illness vary a great deal. Some borderline patients describe highly traumatic experiences in their childhood, such as physical or sexual abuse. Others describe severe emotional neglect. Many borderline patients have parents with impulsive or depressive personality traits. However, some patients report a fairly normal childhood. Most likely, any of these scenarios is possible. Borderline pathology can arise from many different pathways.

The social factors in BPD reflect many of the problems of modern society. We live in a fragmented world, in which extended families and communities no longer provide the support they once did. In contemporary urban society, children have more difficulty meeting their needs for attachment and identity. Those who are vulnerable to BPD may have a particularly strong need for an environment providing consistent expectations and emotional security.

Most likely, BPD develops when all these risk factors are present. Children who are at risk by virtue of their temperament can still grow up perfectly normally if provided with a supportive environment. However, when the family and community cannot meet the special needs of children at risk, they may develop serious impulsivity and emotional instability.

The Course of BPD

Borderline personality disorder is an illness of young people, and usually begins in adolescence or youth. About 80% of patients are women. BPD is usually chronic, and severe problems often continue to be present for many years. About one out of ten patients eventually succeed in committing suicide. However, in the 90% who do not kill themselves, borderline pathology tends to "burn out" in middle age, and most patients function significantly better by the ages of thirty-five to forty. The mechanism for this improvement is unknown. However, other disorders associated with impulsivity, such as antisocial personality and substance abuse, also tend to burn out around the same age.

The level of long term improvement in borderline patients varies a great deal. A minority will develop a successful career, marry happily, and recover completely. A minority will continue to be highly symptomatic into middle age. In the majority of cases, both impulsivity and emotional instability decline over time, and the patient is eventually able to function at a reasonable level.

BPD can be very burdensome for the patient's family. It is particularly difficult to deal with suicidal threats and attempts. Parents often wonder if they are at fault for the patient's condition and patients sometimes blame their parents, and some therapists will agree with them. However, the scientific evidence does not justify the conclusion that the family carries the primary responsibility for the development of borderline personality disorder.

The Treatment of BPD

There is no specific or universal method of treatment for BPD. At times, drugs can take the edge off impulsive symptoms. For example, some patients do better with low dose neuroleptics. However, no psychopharmacological agent has any specific effect on the underlying borderline pathology. In spite of the association between impulsivity and low serotonin activity, specific serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as fluoxetine) rarely produce a dramatic improvement.

The mainstay of treatment for BPD has always been, and continues to be psychotherapy. However, because of their impulsivity, about two thirds of borderline patients drop out of treatment within a few months. Those patients who stay in therapy will usually improve slowly over time.

The chaos that characterizes border line patients makes them difficult cases for therapists. A patient with BPD may be continuously suicidal for months or years. Moreover, many of the same problems that patients have with other people arise in their relationships with helping professionals.

A number of different therapeutic methods have been tried with borderline patients. The largest clinical literature has come from psychoanalytically oriented therapists. Traditionally, psychotherapists focus on building a strong working alliance with the borderline patient. When the therapeutic relationship provides a safe haven, it is easier to work on developing better relationships with other people.

Most of the work in psychotherapy consists of helping patients to be less impulsive, and to exercise better judgment in their management of their personal lives.

In view of the frequency of reported childhood trauma in borderline patients, some therapists have suggested that BPD should be thought of as a form of post traumatic stress disorder. These clinicians tend to focus on uncovering negative events so as to help patients process them. However, there is no evidence that these methods are successful. In fact, there is some reason to suspect they can make patients worse, by focusing too much on the past, and not enough on the present. In addition, borderline patients can be particularly prone to develop false memories in psychotherapy.

Recent research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has developed methods targeting impulsivity and emotional instability, may be particularly appropriate for borderline patients. Studies of a behavioral treatment specifically developed for patients with BPD, "dialectical behavior therapy," indicate that this approach can bring suicidality under control within one year. However, we do not know whether this method provides an effective long term treatment for the disorder.

BPD creates enormous suffering in those afflicted with it. Most patients describe a continuous state of emotional chaos, swinging from extremes of depression, anger, and anxiety. Borderline patients often need to feel suicidal in order to know that they can escape from their dysphoric feelings. The road to recovery in BPD is often long and difficult. However, borderline patients are often attractive and productive people. When treatment is successful, the patient, the therapist, and the family can all feel that it was well worth the trouble to see things through.

We need to conduct more research on the causes of BPD in order to develop more rational methods of treatment. In the future, we will probably have methods of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy specifically designed for this challenging patient population. In the meantime, the best hope for most patients consists of linking up with a good therapist.

Joel Paris, M.D. is a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Cnnada. He is the author of a recent book on borderline personality disorder.


From Grief to Advocacy: A Mother's Odyssey

by Valerie Porr, M.A.

What do you do when the person you love the most on this earth is stricken with an illness that so completely changes her behavior it seems as though she has disappeared, leaving behind only a hollow shell; an illness that you know nothing about; that your friends don't believe exists; that professionals don't talk about; for which there is little or no explanatory literature; an illness which even Oprah doesn't discuss? Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is such an illness and is the diagnosis given to my only child.

At seventeen, my daughter ran away from home for the first time, revealing an intense hatred for me that she said she had nurtured for years. She accused me of child abuse. She was aided and abetted in this venture by a wealthy family who took her in, hired a lawyer for her and took me to court for control of her trust fund and her child support checks, all the while reciting a litany that she is still repeating. The court papers implied that I was the sick one and she was the victim who needed rescuing from me. I, on the other hand, had eight diagnoses from the various "reputable" therapists who had seen my daughter over the course of her adolescence. As it turned out, the previous professional observations were all stepping stones leading to a diagnosis of BPD. Sadly, this label explained both her history of impulsive behavior and her letters and diary entries I later found, wherein acts and feelings were revealed of which I was completely unaware.

Empowered by the court and further enabled by her hippie godfather, my beloved daughter walked out of my life. I have not seen her for over five years. She is now twenty three.

Grief has become a permanent part of my daily existence. Unfortunately, for those of us whose children are thus afflicted, we are denied the solace of the ordinary rituals and rites of mourning. We must learn to live with our loss and disappointment as others live with physical disabilities.

This edition of The Journal in some ways represents my personal odyssey over the past five and one half years in search of information, expertise and an effective form of therapy that will help to restore some semblance of the child I've lost-that can lift the gloom that pervades my life. On the pages that follow you will be introduced to people I have met, lessons I have learned, and circumstances that account for my evolution as a determined advocate for persons with BPD and for their families.

Bewildered and deeply saddened when my child left, I read every available book about BPD trying to understand and although I found the descriptions of the illness to be accurate, the explanations given did not coincide with my experiences with my daughter. Confused, feeling completely alone and hopeless, I started a support group for family members of people with BPD. As family after family joined our group and shared their histories, I found echoes of my own pain. It seemed we had all been accused of some sort of child abuse. That was the common denominator of most of our experiences. All of us had a child who either loved us or hated us, who had rage attacks and bouts of depression, who harmed themselves in myriad ways from self mutilation to attempted suicide to gambling to sexual addiction to eating disorders; who were impulsive, lacked emotional control or were substance abusers. In addition, these children of ours rarely perceived themselves as having a problem. To hear them tell it they were merely the victims of the behavior of others. The pain of seeing our children in this condition was magnified by the professionals who didn't or couldn't help them yet never hesitated to blame us for the problem. We, the parents, were made to feel like destroyers of those we had brought into the world, loved and nurtured.

At this point, through the efforts of a dedicated fellow advocate, John Grelek, I had the good fortune to learn about the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington in Seattle. She had developed something called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) - a system of cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of BPD with outcome studies showing its efficacy. Suddenly, in her work, I found some answers to my questions and, for the first time, I felt there was hope for my child and for others. It became my "mission" to bring Dr. Linehan's work into the New York City Mental Health System.

With the help of key people in the city and state mental health systems, and my loyal ally and mentor, Dr. Robert Trestman, in record time we applied for and got funds to bring Dr. Linehan to NYC for a two day training conference that was attended by 350 professionals. It was an extraordinary event, and one that Dr. Trestman and I agreed would require appropriate follow up to insure any real progress. With that in mind, we created an entity called TARA-APD-an acronym for Treatment and Research Advancement Association for Personality Disorder. As a non-profit organization it would be the voice that was needed for the support of those suffering BPD and contending with the conflicts in today's changing world of research and health delivery systems. We would no longer tolerate the indignities that people with BPD and their families had historically been subjected to by governmental and medical authorities who should know better.

As a child I had seen a film called "Gaslight" in which Ingrid Bergman, an heiress who is newly married, remarks to Charles Boyer, her ne'er-do-well husband, that the gaslights in their home seem to be dimming. "No, they aren't darling," says Boyer, as he fawns over her, "You are imagining things." Ingrid soon feels that she is going mad when, over time, what she perceives as reality is not being validated by her doting husband. The dimming gaslight is the perfect metaphor for the experience of living with someone with BPD, and advocating for education, appropriate treatment and research for this painful disorder.

The person suffering from BPD, a severe and persistent mental illness, may appear completely "normal" and may often have the ability to act "as if" he or she has no problems. In fact, many people with BPD become professional actors. This "as if" ability of people with BPD can be particularly devastating to those who love them.

I remember a night when my daughter locked herself in the bathroom after a rage attack. I called the police. She kept the police waiting outside the door for thirty minutes while I escalated to absolutely frantic concern. When she finally emerged, dissociated from her rage, she acted with regal serenity "as if" she were Grace Kelly. The police gave me that "raised eyebrow" look to which I have since become accustomed. It is a look all too familiar to families of people with BPD who feel foolish and embarrassed when authorities arrive to assist with a problem that now seems not to be there. It is "as if..."

If one combines the professional's attitudes toward people with BPD with the ability of a high functioning person with BPD to act "as if " - one is having dinner with Boyer and Bergman as the lights dim. The supportive family member is frustrated and confused by the patient's demonstration of the ability to effectively act out a denial of the illness, while the doctor minimizes or avoids it with dismissal comments like, "She's just a teenager. She'll outgrow it..." and the gaslights seem to dim, again.

The attitude of the psychiatric community towards BPD is very complex. Many professionals fail to recognize BPD or try to avoid making the diagnosis. It is a disorder-an illness-that polarizes professionals into non-professional behavior which can then be called stigma or counter transference or just plain "I can't stand this patient." The sense of frustration and of failure which professionals experience when treating people with BPD makes some feel uncomfortable, inadequate or ineffective. This is usually blamed on the patient and, of course, on the family - bad patients from dysfunctional families.

NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally III, doesn't include BPD in its advocacy efforts, as if they have decided "it is not a brain disease." Current research findings in neurobiology and psychopharmacology disagree with their unsubstantiated position, however, one can see how they justify it by pointing out that, until now, BPD has been omitted from most epidemiological studies, and the American Psychiatric Association, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center for Mental Health Services, NMHA and NAMI have yet to produce even a brochure explaining BPD. This seems strange when you consider that BPD makes up 2% of the general population, 20% of the inpatients and 11% of the outpatients in the mental health system, has a 10% suicide rate and fills our prisons, divorce courts and civil courts. Thus I have become Ingrid Bergman, complaining that the lights are dimming while everyone looks at me with that "raised eyebrow." Should I tell the emperor he is naked while others are admiring his invisible new clothes?

The person suffering with BPD has a similar experience. Knowing that their treatment is inappropriate and their medication (generally thorazine) is not helping, they often quit treatment. Wouldn't you? They are then stigmatized, labeled treatment resistant and difficult patients. And so they are. Unless, of course you question the treatment offered by an antiquated mental health system that has not yet given up the gaslight for something more illuminating.

Living with the isolation that must accompany the experience of having BPD requires a great deal of courage and a very strong desire to survive. In 1994 the New York State Office of Mental Health Information Service reported only 297 borderline patients in the State of New York. Knowing these numbers couldn't possibly be accurate, Dr. Charles Swenson of NY Hospital Cornell Medical Center and I compiled a provider questionnaire. Out of 39 responses, 997 patients with BPD were reported. If you question any clinician or substance abuse counselor they will tell you how prevalent BPD is in their facility and complain about how hard this population is to treat. Lectures or workshops on BPD are always well attended. So many patients, families and providers are desperate for any information at all.

BPD patients are usually admitted to psychiatric hospitals through the emergency room after a suicide attempt. The patient usually makes four or five; one out of ten succeeds. These are tough odds. At a recent Suicide Prevention Conference not one of the presenters ever mentioned BPD. An esteemed researcher presenting his findings on adolescent suicide also omitted discussion of BPD. When I asked why he didn't mention an illness which effects so many adolescents, his response was, "Ah, yes. You're right, but it's a very difficult subject." Is that the gaslight I see dimming again? Because it is a difficult disorder, if we avoid discussing it, will it then, perhaps, go away? This professional avoidance is unacceptable to every parent or loved one of a person with BPD who lives in fear of that middle-of-the-night telephone call and to the parent whose child repeatedly tries to commit suicide.

And what solace is it for the family whose child has died. Yes, it's difficult! BPD can be fatal. Should we hush up and politely go away? Or do we go on till we have changed this professional denial of so serious and life threatening a problem? Yes, Dr. Esteemed Researcher, we agree "'s a very difficult subject!" BPD is co-morbid with anorexia and bulimia. Those who suffer from lack of impulse control will often use food as a means of acting out. At lectures on eating disorders it is rare to hear a discussion of how to deal with the anorexic who has BPD. When I ask my usual questions, the faraway look wil1 come into the eyes of the presenter as he says, "Yes, we should be studying that, as it is related." The voice will then trail off as they quickly take another question. But, I persevere; I send them related research papers, I ask more questions, and I tell them about TARA -the Association for Personality Disorder. I pose questions at each and every lecture or workshop I attend. You can hear some say, "Oh, no...not her again!" Yes, there I am...somebody's relentless mother, asking researchers the questions practitioners are desperate to learn about and should be asking themselves. When I am not there, does anyone else bring up this stigmatized disorder? BPD is spoken of in hushed tones, with a tinge of embarrassment-like syphilis or TB, taboo diseases at the turn of the century, or like AIDS when it first came to the public's attention. If we continue to allow BPD to remain in the psychiatric closet we will never get our children the treatment they deserve. More questioners are wanted. More advocates are needed; a chorus of voices demanding that things change!

Males with BPD are prone to domestic violence and rage attacks. They make up a large percentage of the prison population and seem to be resistant to treatment as usual. A leading specialist in schizophrenia who writes on the conditions of the mentally ill in the forensic system and advises families to be aggressive advocates and provoke wolf-like - confrontations recently, unashamedly, described BPD as a "garbage bag diagnosis." I took his advice and advocated aggressively, with letters to him, and finally a confrontation with him-eyeball to eyeball, face to face. And what did he do, this champion I had admired from afar for his courage and knowledge on other issues? He promised me he would never again describe BPD in those terms. Be assured we will monitor the keeping of that promise. It appears that to be a successful advocate one must perfect the role of professional pest. That is what I have proudly become.

People with BPD can be helped by combining sensitive and up to date psychopharmacological treatment and effective new methods of cognitive therapy. This will keep patients out of expensive hospital beds and help them back into meaningful roles in the community. Why would our society choose to ignore what can work to help people whose neurobiological disorder causes them to wreak havoc on themselves, bring despair to their families, create problems in the work place, fill our prisons and jails, clog our courts with stalkers and lengthy divorce and child custody battles, and burn out therapists faster than our schools can turn them out?

Finding the answers to these questions will not be easy. But we are determined to play a prominent role in putting BPD on the neurobiological disorders agenda. Some days I feel like Sisyphus pushing a huge rock to the top of the mountain. But, with TARA-APD and the people whose articles and experiences you will read in this edition, I know, at last, I am no longer alone. We are a growing community of mutual interest. To raise money for research, to create a family data bank and share our insights and information, and to advocate, advocate, advocate will, some day soon, turn out those metaphorical gaslights and illuminate the path to better tomorrows.

Valerie Porr, M.A. is a co-editor of this issue of The Journal and Executive Director of TARA Association for Personality Disorder whose offices are at 23 Greene Street, NY, NY 10013.

See the index from Volume 8, Issue 1 of The Journal.
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Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is one of the most controversial diagnoses in psychology today. Since it was first introduced in the DSM, psychologists and psychiatrists have been trying to give the somewhat amorphous concepts behind BPD a concrete form. Kernberg's explication of what he calls Borderline Personality Organization is the most general, while Gunderson, though a psychoanalyst, is considered by many to have taken the most scientific approach to defining BPD. The Diagnostic Interview for Borderlines and the DIB-Revised were developed from research done by Gunderson, Kolb, and Zanarini. Finally, there is the "official" DSM-IV definition.

Some researchers, like Judith Herman, believe that BPD is a name given to a particular manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder: in Trauma and Recovery, she theorizes that when PTSD takes a form that emphasizes heavily its elements of identity and relationship disturbance, it gets called BPD; when the somatic (body) elements are emphasized, it gets called hysteria, and when the dissociative/deformation of consciousness elements are the focus, it gets called DID/MPD. Others believe that the term "borderline personality" has been so misunderstood and misused that trying to refine it is pointless and suggest instead simply scrapping the term.


What causes Borderline Personality Disorder?

It would be remiss to discuss BPD without including a comment about Linehan's work. In contrast to the symptom list approaches detailed below, Linehan has developed a comprehensive sociobiological theory which appears to be borne out by the successes found in controlled studies of her Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

Linehan theorizes that borderlines are born with an innate biological tendency to react more intensely to lower levels of stress than others and to take longer to recover. They peak "higher" emotionally on less provocation and take longer coming down. In addition, they were raised in environments in which their beliefs about themselves and their environment were continually devalued and invalidated. These factors combine to create adults who are uncertain of the truth of their own feelings and who are confronted by three basic dialectics they have failed to master (and thus rush frantically from pole to pole of):
bulletvulnerability vs invalidation
bulletactive passivity (tendency to be passive when confronted with a problem and actively seek a rescuer) vs apparent competence (appearing to be capable when in reality internally things are falling apart)
bulletunremitting crises vs inhibited grief.
DBT tries to teach clients to balance these by giving them training in skills of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation.

Kernberg's Borderline Personality Organization

Diagnoses of BPO are based on three categories of criteria. The first, and most important, category, comprises two signs:

bulletthe absence of psychosis (i.e., the ability to perceive reality accurately)
bulletimpaired ego integration - a diffuse and internally contradictory concept of self. Kernberg is quoted as saying, "Borderlines can describe themselves for five hours without your getting a realistic picture of what they're like."

The second category is termed "nonspecific signs" and includes such things as low anxiety tolerance, poor impulse control, and an undeveloped or poor ability to enjoy work or hobbies in a meaningful way.

Kernberg believes that borderlines are distinguished from neurotics by the presence of "primitive defenses." Chief among these is splitting, in which a person or thing is seen as all good or all bad. Note that something which is all good one day can be all bad the next, which is related to another symptom: borderlines have problems with object constancy in people -- they read each action of people in their lives as if there were no prior context; they don't have a sense of continuity and consistency about people and things in their lives. They have a hard time experiencing an absent loved one as a loving presence in their minds. They also have difficulty seeing all of the actions taken by a person over a period of time as part of an integrated whole, and tend instead to analyze individual actions in an attempt to divine their individual meanings. People are defined by how they lasted interacted with the borderline.

Other primitive defenses cited include magical thinking (beliefs that thoughts can cause events), omnipotence, projection of unpleasant characteristics in the self onto others and projective identification, a process where the borderline tries to elicit in others the feelings s/he is having. Kernberg also includes as signs of BPO chaotic, extreme relationships with others; an inability to retain the soothing memory of a loved one; transient psychotic episodes; denial; and emotional amnesia. About the last, Linehan says, "Borderline individuals are so completely in each mood, they have great difficulty conceptualizing, remembering what it's like to be in another mood."

Gunderson's conception of BPD

Gunderson, a psychoanalyst, is respected by researchers in many diverse areas of psychology and psychiatry. His focus tends to be on the differential diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, and Cauwels gives Gunderson's criteria in order of their importance:

bulletIntense unstable relationships in which the borderline always ends up getting hurt. Gunderson admits that this symptom is somewhat general, but considers it so central to BPD that he says he would hesitate to diagnose a patient as BPD without its presence.
bulletRepetitive self-destructive behavior, often designed to prompt rescue.
bulletChronic fear of abandonment and panic when forced to be alone.
bulletDistorted thoughts/perceptions, particularly in terms of relationships and interactions with others.
bulletHypersensitivity, meaning an unusual sensitivity to nonverbal communication. Gunderson notes that this can be confused with distortion if practitioners are not careful (somewhat similar to Herman's statement that, while survivors of intense long-term trauma may have unrealistic notions of the power realities of the situation they were in, their notions are likely to be closer to reality than the therapist might think).
bulletImpulsive behaviors that often embarrass the borderline later.
bulletPoor social adaptation: in a way, borderlines tend not to know or understand the rules regarding performance in job and academic settings.

The Diagnostic Interview for Borderlines, Revised

Gunderson and his colleague, Jonathan Kolb, tried to make the diagnosis of BPD by constructing a clinical interview to assess borderline characteristics in patients. The DIB was revised in 1989 to sharpen its ability to differentiate between BPD and other personality disorders. It considers symptoms that fall under four main headings:
  1. Affect
    bulletchronic/major depression
    bulletanger (including frequent expressions of anger)
  2. Cognition
    bulletodd thinking
    bulletunusual perceptions
    bulletnondelusional paranoia
  3. Impulse action patterns
    bulletsubstance abuse/dependence
    bulletsexual deviance
    bulletmanipulative suicide gestures
    bulletother impulsive behaviors
  4. Interpersonal relationships
    bulletintolerance of aloneness
    bulletabandonment, engulfment, annihilation fears
    bulletstormy relationships

The DIB-R is the most influential and best-known "test" for diagnosing BPD. Use of it has led researchers to identify four behavior patterns they consider peculiar to BPD: abandonment, engulfment, annihilation fears; demandingness and entitlement; treatment regressions; and ability to arouse inappropriately close or hostile treatment relationships.


DSM-IV criteria

The DSM-IV gives these nine criteria; a diagnosis requires that the subject present with at least five of these. In I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me! Jerold Kriesman and Hal Straus refer to BPD as "emotional hemophilia; [a borderline] lacks the clotting mechanism needed to moderate his spurts of feeling. Stimulate a passion, and the borderline emotionally bleeds to death."


Traits involving emotions:

Quite frequently people with BPD have a very hard time controlling their emotions. They may feel ruled by them. One researcher (Marsha Linehan) said, "People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement."

1. Shifts in mood lasting only a few hours.

2. Anger that is inappropriate, intense or uncontrollable.


Traits involving behavior:

3. Self-destructive acts, such as self-mutilation or suicidal threats and gestures that happen more than once

4. Two potentially self-damaging impulsive behaviors. These could include alcohol and other drug abuse, compulsive spending, gambling, eating disorders, shoplifting, reckless driving, compulsive sexual behavior.


Traits involving identity

5. Marked, persistent identity disturbance shown by uncertainty in at least two areas. These areas can include self-image, sexual orientation, career choice or other long-term goals, friendships, values. People with BPD may not feel like they know who they are, or what they think, or what their opinions are, or what religion they should be. Instead, they may try to be what they think other people want them to be. Someone with BPD said, "I have a hard time figuring out my personality. I tend to be whomever I'm with."

6. Chronic feelings of emptiness or boredom. Someone with BPD said, "I remember describing the feeling of having a deep hole in my stomach. An emptiness that I didn't know how to fill. My therapist told me that was from almost a "lack of a life". The more things you get into your life, the more relationships you get involved in, all of that fills that hole. As a borderline, I had no life. There were times when I couldn't stay in the same room with other people. It almost felt like what I think a panic attack would feel like."


Traits involving relationships

7. Unstable, chaotic intense relationships characterized by splitting (see below).

8. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
bulletSplitting: the self and others are viewed as "all good" or "all bad." Someone with BPD said, "One day I would think my doctor was the best and I loved



A Promising Treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, often referred to as DBT, is an empirically researched psychotherapeutic treatment developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, Professor of Psychology, University of Washington, for patients struggling with chronic suicidality, intentional self-harm and borderline personality disorder (BPD). This therapy, employing cognitive and behavioral principles, is rapidly becoming a standard for treating borderline patients in both this country and abroad. DBT consists of two primary components involving individual psychotherapy once a week and a weekly skills training group. Additionally, patients are offered telephone consultations with their individual therapist as needed.

Biosocial theory. DBT is based on a biosocial theory of personality functioning in which BPD is seen as a biological disorder of emotional regulation. The disorder is characterized by heightened sensitivity to emotion, increased emotional in-tensity and a slow return to emotional baseline. Characteristic behaviors and emotional experiences associated with BPD theoretically result from the expression of this biological dysfunction in a social environment experienced as invalidating by the borderline patient. 

Although there are many examples of invalidating environments, all share three characteristics: (1) individual behaviors and communications are rejected as invalid; (2) emotional displays and painful behaviors are met with punishment that is erratically administered and intermittently reinforcing; (3) the environment oversimplifies the ease with which problems may be solved and needs met. Most of us have encountered such environments at some point in our lives and we commonly deal with them by changing our behavior to meet expectations, or by changing the environment so that it is no longer invalidating, or, ultimately, by simply leaving the environment. The dilemma for the borderline patient occurs when the individual is unable to meet expectations, cannot change the environment or cannot leave, thus experiencing what has been called a "double bind."

Treatment. The primary dialectic that defines the core treatment strategies in DBT is the tension between acceptance of the patient and the expectation that the patient needs to change. Acceptance strategies, drawn from Zen practice, involve emotional, behavioral and cognitive validation as well as teaching the patient personal strategies for validation. One example of a validation strategy would be recognizing how self-mutilation can be adaptive (i.e., useful for regulating emotion). 

The antithesis of acceptance is the expectation of change. This expectation is embodied in behavioral therapy with its emphasis on problem solving, rationality, logic and gaining knowledge by testing hypotheses. Strategies for promoting change include problem solving, contingency procedures, skills training, exposure and cognitive modification. 

An example of a problem-solving procedure is the use of a "chain analysis" to diminish cutting (self mutilation) behaviors. A chain analysis reviews the environmental and personal antecedents and consequences of the cutting behavior in mi-nute detail. An important goal of this procedure is to identify points during the chain of events when the borderline patient has an opportunity to do something different. This sets the stage for the patient to avoid the problematic behavior in the future.

DBT is organized along a fourfold hierarchy. The first priorities are suicidal or parasuicidal behaviors and ideation. The second priorities are behaviors that interfere with therapy. Third is behavior that interferes with quality of life. The fourth priority of DBT addresses skills deficits commonly found in individuals with BPD. 

The goals of skills training are to change behavioral, emotional and thinking patterns that cause personal misery and in-terpersonal distress. Specific goals include reducing dysregulation while increasing adaptive (i.e., more regulated) behaviors. Patients are taught to attend to the moment without judgment or impulsivity, a quality Dr. Linehan describes as "core mindfulness." Newly learned skills enable patients to improve emotional, cognitive and interpersonal functioning.

Empirical results. DBT was compared to treatment as usual (TAU), typically consisting of psychopharmacological treatment and intermittent supportive psychotherapy. In a landmark study, Linehan and colleagues found the following:

1. Compared with TAU, subjects assigned to DBT had significantly fewer and less severe parasuicidal behaviors during the treatment year. These results were obtained even though DBT was no better than TAU at improving self-reports of hopelessness, suicide ideation or reasons for living.

2. DBT was dramatically more effective than TAU in limiting treatment drop out, the most serious behavior interfering with therapy. At the end of one year, only 16.4 percent of DBT patients had left treatment. In contrast, approximately 50 percent of TAU patients had dropped out.

3. Subjects assigned to DBT had a tendency to enter psychiatric inpatient units less often and had fewer inpatient psychiatric days. Those in DBT had an average of 8.46 inpatient days over the year compared with 38.86 inpatient days for subjects receiving TAU. This finding suggests that DBT is cost effective.

4. DBT subjects rated themselves as more successful at changing their emotions and improving general emotional control. They also had significantly lower scores on self-reported measures of anger and anxious rumination.

In a subsequent study, the standard DBT (DBT individual therapy and the DBT skills group) was compared to a once weekly individual psychodynamic therapy and the DBT skills group. This study showed that the DBT skills group lost its effectiveness when combined with individual psychodynamic therapy. This study also supported the practice of providing telephone consultations to patients between sessions when needed. To explain this point, Linehan likens life to a basketball game — having a therapist unavailable between sessions would be like a coach being unavailable during the game.

DBT is usually considered a one-year treatment. In this time, the therapy targets behaviors involving life and death, behaviors that impede therapy and activities that affect quality of life. Concurrently, the patient learns techniques taught in the skills group. This one-year treatment has been empirically validated and designated as Stage I by Dr. Linehan; she has developed sequels to this treatment that are currently being evaluated. Stage II, which is begun only after the patient has acquired the basic skills of Stage I, is based on the rationale that patients must be able to cope with the consequences of trauma and focuses on reducing posttraumatic stress. Stage III emphasizes increasing self-respect, reducing self-hatred and achieving individual goals and interpersonal connections.

Additional Reading:

Linehan, Marsha M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York:
Guilford Press.

Linehan, Marsha M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York:
Guilford Press.

Linehan, M., Asuicidal borderline patients. Archives of General Psychiatry (1991). 48: 1060-1064.

Shearin, Edward N. and Linehan, Marsha M. Dialectical behavioral therapy for borderline personality disorder:
theoretical and empirical foundations. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica (1994). 89 (suppl. 379): 61-68.

* * * 

This article was contributed by Elizabeth T. Murphy, PhD, and John Gunderson, MD. Dr. Murphy conducts outpatient DBT individual therapy and skills groups with patients at McLean Hospital. Dr. Gunderson is director of McLean’s Ambulatory Personality Disorder Service and Psychosocial Research Program, and is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Permission of McLean Hospital



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