Tag Archives: neurosis

#23 – The Borderline-Narcissistic Continuum: A Different Way of Understanding “Diagnosis”

For the purpose of understanding psychiatric problems in a more nuanced and optimistic way, here is a diagram from Donald Rinsley’s book Treatment of the Severely Disturbed Adolescent:


Please click on the picture to see it larger. Each row corresponds vertically to the rows above and below in describing degrees of emotional development, and each row describes emotional growth over time from left to right. The majority of the text in brown is Rinsley’s own diagram; the bottom additions in white are mine.

Donald Rinsley was among the most respected authorities on borderline and narcissistic conditions in the second half of the 20th century. He was a psychodynamic therapist who ran a psychiatric hospital for severely troubled adolescents in Topeka, Kansas in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He later worked extensively with personality-disordered and psychotic adults in an outpatient psychotherapy practice.

I believe that much can be learned from studying Rinsley’s diagram. It explains how psychiatric diagnoses were originally understood in psychodynamic theory – as problems in relating and functioning that occur along a continuum of severity and merge into one another. In other words, psychiatric conditions are not distinct disease entities; there are no clear lines that separate one from another.

At the upper and lower ends of each “disorder”, one cannot confidently say that a person is, for example, a higher level borderline versus a lower-level narcissist, since the conditions fade into one another. Note how the arrows denoting each region don’t stop before running into each other; they overlap.

Here are explanations of the diagram’s different rows.

Row 1: Mahler’s Phases of Child Development: Autism-Symbiosis-Differentiation-Practicing-Rapprochement-Object Constancy.

In this row, Rinsley lists phases of healthy child development that, when interrupted, can cause arrests in emotional development – i.e. psychiatric problems. Roughly, autism (which does not refer to autism as understood today) refers to the earliest period when a baby is unaware of the external world and feels fused with its mother at a body-level. Symbiosis is when the child starts to relate in a back-and-forth need-fulfilling way with its mother.

During differentiation, the baby realizes that it is separate from its mother psychologically as well as physically. In practicing, the child discovers and explores the external world via its newfound ability to walk. And in rapprochement, the child develops a good relationship to the mother as a separate person and faces conflicts around dependency/attachment and independence/autonomous functioning.

In these descriptions, “mother” is synonymous with “caretaker”, “parental figures”, and “the external world of people”. In the object constancy phase, the mother is finally perceived as a mixture of good and bad qualities, meaning that splitting is overcome,, and the child is increasingly able to regulate their emotions. It is this achievement that is lacking in borderline conditiions. For progression through these phases to occur, it is crucial that good-enough mothering be consistently available; otherwise the child can get “stuck” in a certain phase.

There is one area where I disagree with Rinsley. I don’t think it’s possible to put the phases of infantile development into a neat timeframe (as Rinsley attempts to do by saying that object constancy takes over in healthy toddlers at around 24 months, for example). I think children’s development is highly individual and that aspects of these phases continue to be worked on long after the first few years of life, even in emotionally healthy children.

Row 2: States of Self-Object Fusion or Differentiation

In this row, Rinsley indicates whether a person sees themselves and others as fused (indistinguishable from each other; this is a psychotic state), split (self images experienced as separate from images of other people, but viewed as all-good or all-bad, a borderline state), or integrated (seeing a mix of good and bad qualities within both self images and images of other people, a neurotic/healthy state). Roughly, fused self/object images relate to “psychotic” states, split images to “borderline” or “narcissistic” states, and integrated images to “neurotic” or healthy states of minds.

Row 3: Specific Diagnostic Categories

Here Rinsley lists diagnostic labels that correspond vertically with the phases of child development and self-object differentiation from the higher rows: Autistic-presymbiotic schizophrenia, symbiotic schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, borderline personality, narcissistic personality, neuroses, etc. I will not describe specifically what these diagnoses mean; the reader who is familiar with DSM categories will recognize them.

The crucial thing is that the diagnoses overlap along a spectrum and thus are not distinct illnesses. Rinsley conceptualized diagnoses as morphing into one another as treatment progressed; for example, one could start treatment at an upper-level schizophrenic, become a “borderline” a year or two later, then become narcissistic, and finally end up functioning at a neurotic, essentially healthy level after several years.

As conceived by Rinsley, diagnoses never represented fixed “illnesses” that one had to have for life. Treatment could change diagnosis; there was the prospect of transformation. American psychiatry has fallen far from this viewpoint with its current pessimistic views of rigidly separate “mental illnesses” that one can only “manage.”

This reminds me of how many years ago, I attended a National Alliance of Mental Illness meeting. At this session people talked about how mental illnesses were “brain diseases” that one could “learn to live with”. Even back then I thought that was a pathetic, limiting idea. Who wants to just “manage their illness” when they could become truly well? Having realistic hope that one can transform oneself  is so much more motivating! In my opinion NAMI is not to be trusted, due to their reliance on drug company funding. This funding implies a tie to the hopelessness of the disease categories of modern-day psychiatry.

Row 4: Major Diagnostic Categories

Here Rinsley lists the broad diagnostic regions: firstly, psychoses, which include schizophrenias, bipolar disorders, and some lower-level borderline conditions. These conditions represent emotional arrests in the earliest developmental periods. They include people who have fused images of themselves and other people; i.e. the person cannot distinguish between themselves and other people at an emotional level (and they see themselves and others as all-good and all-bad).

The second group is characterological (personality) disorders. These include the borderline, narcissistic, and also schizoid disorders. These also exist on a continuum and flow into one another. They feature splitting as their primary defenses Such people can emotionally perceive differences between themselves and other people, but they still see themselves and others as all-good or all-bad. The shorthand “G (S O)” with the space behind S and O mean that good self and object images are perceived as separate from each other, but are not integrated with bad self and object images. By contrast, in the psychotic conditions, with S-O, the dash between S and O means that the person experiences a lack of separation or differentiation between images of themselves and other people; they cannot emotionally tell where they end and other people begin. This “fusion” phenomenon occurs in some people who gets labeled with severe borderline conditions, which are partly psychotic, but it is a chronic condition in schizophrenic states.

Finally, in the last major diagnostic group, the psychoneuroses, the psychic structure gets reorganized so that splitting is eliminated and the person can see good and bad qualities coexisting in both their self-image and in their images of others. The shorthand S (G B) means that good and bad qualities are perceived together in oneself and others without splitting.

Row 5: Quality of Internalized Self-Object Images

This row describes how supportive or comforting the person’s internalized images of other people are. The more positive experiences a person has had, the further to the right hand of this continuum they are likely to be. Unstable archaic images refer to states where a person feels psychologically unstable because they are not comforted by sufficient positive memories / internalized good experiences. This corresponds to psychotic conditions and to lower level borderline states. This deficit is the reason for the commonly cited inability to regulate emotions in Borderline Personality Disorder. I wrote about this in my article on Gerald Adler’s insufficiency model:


The “stable archaic introjects” refers to when a person uses splitting, but the positive images are predominant most of the time over the negative, so the person can regulate their feelings better. This corresponds to higher level borderline and narcissistic conditions.

Lastly, differentiated self and object states refer to the ability to see good and bad in the same self or other-image. In this way people can consistently be perceived as mixtures of good and bad. This makes truly mature relationships possible based on genuine caring and interest in the other person, as opposed to mainly using people for what they can do for you (as with narcissistic conditions), or being so deficient in supportive introjects that one has trouble comforting oneself or trusting others at all (as in borderline and psychotic states).

Row 6: Seinfeld’s Phases – Out-of-Contact, Ambivalent Symbiosis, Therapeutic Symbiosis, Individuation

In this row, I listed Jeffrey Seinfeld’s four phases in a way that corresponds vertically to the horizontal continuums in the rows above. Borderline states are associated either with the upper part of the out-of-contact phase, or more frequently, with the ambivalent symbiotic phase. As one progresses into the therapeutic symbiotic phase – corresponding to being able to trust and feel supported emotionally by other people consistently – one stops being “borderline” and progresses toward healthier narcissistic and neurotic levels of functioning. It occurs to me that it’s too bad these words still sound pathological and negative. Again, we need better words to describe challenges in relating and functioning, words to give people hope of becoming fulfilled and well, not just managing an “illness”.

Please see the article below for a detailed description of Seinfeld’s four phases. Understanding the relative strengths of positive and negative self/object images explains how schizophrenic states can evolve into BPD, which can evolve into NPD, which can evolve into neurosis/healthy personalities, etc. Really, all of these conditions represents problems with adapting and managing life problems; rather than “brain diseases” Given sufficient support, all of these conditions can evolve or morph into one another along the left-to-right continuum of emotional growth. Here are Seinfeld’s phases:


And here is an example of how a young woman progressed through the four phases, starting in the lower-level out-of-contact “borderline” phase”, progressing through the narcissistic phase, and finishing in the neurotic-healthy part of the spectrum:


Row 7: Common DSM levels and Hedges’ phases

In this row, I put common DSM labels – schizophrenia, BPD, NPD, neurosis, etc. These are not truly valid illness categories, but they have some meaning if understood as part of a developmental continuum.

Below these labels, I put Lawrence Hedges’ descriptions of the four developmental levels which Seinfeld described in his phases. I haven’t written about Hedges yet, but he is my favorite psychodynamic writer along with Jeffrey Seinfeld. His descriptions of people’s problems are much more empathic, human, and hopeful than the DSM labels. More on Hedges in a later post.


The equivalencies for the bottom row would be roughly as follows:

Schizophrenia/lower borderline (DSM) = Out-of-contact (Seinfeld) = Organizing Experience (Hedges)
Lower-to-mid level Borderline PD (DSM) = Ambivalent symbiosis (Seinfeld) = Symbiotic Experience (Hedges)
Higher-level Borderline through Narcissistic PD (DSM) = Therapeutic symbiosis (Seinfeld) = Self-Other Experience (Hedges)
Neurosis-Healthy = Individuation (Seinfeld) = Independence Experience (Hedges)


My goal in this article was to give the reader a taste of how psychodynamic theorists think about schizophrenia, borderline, narcissistic, and neurotic-healthy mental states as existing along a continuum of emotional development. This viewpoint is different than the rigid DSM categories which dominate American psychiatry today.

In my opinion, this spectrum or continuum based approach, while not perfect, is more informative and realistic than rigid DSM categories. Since it is developmental, it implies the hope that one can grow beyond frozen emotional development to become emotionally mature. That’s why it’s my rough guide for thinking about “borderline” and “narcissistic” states, although I try not to use those words too much!


I welcome any correspondance at bpdtransformation@gmail.com

If you are struggling with BPD yourself or are trying to help a borderline individual, I would be happy to listen to your story and provide feedback if possible. Feel free to provide constructive criticism of this site also.

This article is the opinion of a non-professional layperson, and should not be taken as medical advice or as the view of a therapist who is professionally qualified to treat Borderline Personality Disorder or any other mental health condition. Readers should consult with a qualified mental health professional before undertaking any treatment.

– Edward Dantes