A diagram showing some common psychodynamic approaches to understanding BPD. Read more to understand how this continuum works!
In earlier articles, I discussed the following ways of conceptualizing borderline mental states:
- Fairbairn’s Object Relations Approach, including the bad object, the internal saboteur and the moral defense.
- Harold Searles’ Four-Phase Model, including the out-of-contact phase, ambivalent symbiosis, therapeutic symbiosis, and individuation.
- Gerald Adler’s Deficit Model, which discusses the quantitative predominance of all-negative memories and the deficits of soothing-holding experience.
- Donald Rinsley’s Borderline-Narcissistic Continuum, which illustrates how BPD and NPD represent states of psychological developmental arrest that flow into one another.
If you are looking for explanations of why borderline mental states develop, what keeps people stuck in them, and how to become free from BPD, please check out the pages above. In my opinion these object-relational approaches explain BPD’s etiology and how to become non-borderline better than CBT or DBT approaches. The latter approaches typically focus on short-term symptom management rather than transformation and cure of BPD.
Today’s post will add another approach, the Kleinian Approach to Borderline States. Kleinian theory focuses on the Paranoid-Schizoid Position and the Depressive Position.
What do these words mean, and why are they useful in understanding borderline conditions?
Melanie Klein: An Early Psychoanalytic Pioneer
To start with, why is this approach called Kleinian?
The Kleinian Approach to BPD is based on theories developed by Melanie Klein, an early 20th century psychoanalytic theorist. Klein grew up in Austria and received psychotherapy as a young woman from Sandor Ferenczi, a Hungarian psychoanalyst who was himself an innovator in understanding schizophrenic and borderline individuals.
Klein studied psychoanalysis in Berlin and London, eventually becoming a renowned therapist of emotionally troubled children. Working with children enabled her to see processes of all-good and all-bad splitting occurring live in the therapy sessions. Having often been severely neglected or abused, the children misperceived Klein as all-good or bad based on their past experience with “bad” parents and their need for a “good” parent-substitute.
Melanie Klein noticed that the more abuse and neglect the child had experienced, and the worse the relationship between child and parents, the more severe the splits in the child’s perception of the therapist tended to become. This meant that, despite the fact Klein tried to treat them well, children with worse parents tended to more unrealistically perceive Klein as an “all bad” mother figure. This transference (transfer of feelings from past people onto present people) is related to how borderline adults tend to misperceive potential friends or lovers as uninterested and rejecting.
Klein also noticed that as they improved in therapy, children who had initially utilized all-bad splitting became attached to her as a good parent figure, growing emotionally to the point where they could trust her and feel concern for her wellbeing (reparation). Children from healthier families often started therapy at this more advanced position, allowing Klein to observe a more positive mode of relating from the beginning.
From these two different ways in which the children related, Klein posited two primary orientations toward perceiving the world as seen from the child’s perspective. She called the first, developmentally earlier, more dangerous and isolated way of experiencing the world the Paranoid-Schizoid Position. She called the second, later, more secure and dependent orientation the Depressive Position.
These two positions can be understood as regions along a continuum of increasingly healthy and integrated personality development, the early, paranoid-schizoid part of which anyone can get stuck in given enough trauma and deprivation, and the later, depressive part of which anyone can reach given sufficient positive resources.
The Paranoid-Schizoid Position
The paranoid-schizoid position is the way of experiencing one’s emotional life that corresponds with what are commonly labeled “borderline” mental states or “schizophrenic” mental states. In my understanding, borderline and schizophrenic states of mind are not different in kind, but only in degree; schizophrenia represents a more severe version of the splitting, self-fragmentation, and primitive defenses seen in borderline states. As discussed in the many psychodynamic books linked to in earlier posts, both borderline and schizophrenic states are fully reversible and curable with sufficient help over a long period.
Back to the topic at hand. Why is the “paranoid-schizoid” position called that and what does it mean? The “paranoid” part refers to misperceiving external others who are neutral or mainly good as “all-bad”, as paranoid people tend to do, and the “schizoid” part refers to the tendency to withdraw and isolate oneself from meaningful emotional interaction with others, as people who feel threatened and unsafe tend to do. When a person’s entire personality is centered around misperceptions of others as “bad”, and when a person isolates themselves interpersonally in a way that tends to perpetuate these misperceptions by not allowing in good corrective influences, they are operating in a “paranoid-schizoid” mode.
The term paranoid-schizoid is not meant to be pejorative, only descriptive. I think a better, more empathic term for the paranoid-schizoid position in adulthood would be something like, “The Adult Worldview of the Traumatized Child”, so please keep that in mind when reading these labels.
To Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position represented the earliest way of experiencing the world for a young child who is trying to test whether or not the external environment is safe and supportive. If parents and other important relationships mainly nurture and protect the child, then the child’s mind will develop a feeling of basic trust in others and of basic security in the world. This security will help them gradually move from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. If neglect, abuse, trauma, and excessive stress predominate during childhood and early adulthood, if bad experiences tend to outweigh good experiences, then the person will get stuck in or regress back to the paranoid-schizoid position. In experiential terms, such a person will continue to feel unsafe and to distrust others relatively indefinitely, and may not even know what they are missing.
Core Features of the Paranoid-Schizoid Position
The paranoid-schizoid position features:
- Lack of basic trust in others’ good intentions (“the basic fault” as discussed by Michael Balint).
- Predominance of all-bad splitting, i.e. viewing others as rejecting and oneself as unworthy.
- Predominance of feelings of aggression and envy over love and gratitude.
- High levels of anxiety, a constant feeling of insecurity at the core of one’s being (“ontological insecurity” as discussed by R.D. Laing).
- Frequent acting out – drinking, drugs, sex, food, etc – to defend against overwhelming negative emotions and lack of self-soothing ability.
- Tendency to isolate oneself and withdraw emotionally and physically. Related lack of awareness of others as psychologically separate from oneself.
- Lack of subjective sense of self.
- Use of primitive defenses to block awareness of what a precarious emotional state one is really in, including denial, avoidance, splitting, projection, and projective identification.
My Emotional Experience of the Paranoid-Schizoid Position
These descriptions are highly technical and removed from real experience. So here is how I experienced the paranoid- position, i.e. the out-of-contact and ambivalent symbiotic phases, emotionally:
- As my being a tragic, pointless character from Dante’s Inferno, The Myth of Sisyphus, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis, doomed to endlessly repeat the same self-defeating behaviors.
- As being alive and dead at the same time – alive physically, but dead emotionally and dead because no one knew the real me.
- As being unable to trust or confide in anyone, because nobody cared and nobody had time.
- As waging a constant battle to keep my terror and rage controlled enough to survive.
- As having no idea how normal people handled relationships and problems so easily, resulting in intense envy.
- As continuing to live emotionally in “the house in horrors” (my name for my childhood home with its physical abuse).
- As being a cork on a stormy ocean on which you could never tell where the next rogue wave was coming from.
- As being very aware of negative inner thoughts and very unaware of what was going on around me. These bad thoughts felt to me like persecutory demons.
- As having to preserve as much energy as possible to defend against potential threats and dangers. I often thought of myself as an emotional warrior, spy, antihero, or survivor.
- As being willing to do almost anything addictive or distracting rather than feel the bad feelings and the lack of love.
- As a vengeful, hateful, evil person who wanted to take revenge on those who hurt me and strike back at the world to feel some power and self-control (It is, I think, this type of paranoid-schizoid experience in young men that leads to many mass shootings).
These experiences are correlates of periods when the all-bad self and object images were mostly or fully dominant over the all-good self and object images. For many years this paranoid-schizoid nightmare was my predominant way of experiencing myself and the world.
Kleinian Theory Compared to Other BPD Models
The paranoid-schizoid position correlates with the following elements of other psychodynamic approaches to borderline states:
- 1) Searles’ Out-of-Contact and Ambivalent Symbiotic Phases.
- 2) Adler’s Structural Deficit of positive-soothing representations of others.
- 3) Rinsley’s Psychotic and Borderline Segments of the Developmental Continuum.
The Four Phases, the Structural Deficit, the Borderline-Narcissistic Continuum, and the Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive Positions are all analogous ways of describing a continuum of early emotional development. They can be diagrammed as follows:
These “primitive” (meaning developmentally early) mental states are consequences of the quantitative predominance of bad self/object images along with a structural deficit or quantitative lack of positive, loving memories. In other words, they result when someone has many more bad than good experiences with other people, and/or when the absolute quantity of good experiences is severely lacking.
The lack of love in the past, combined with present fears that keep a person from getting help, can keep an adult frozen in the paranoid-schizoid position for long periods. In this situation, partly out of a fear of being totally alone or objectless, the person will maintain a closed psychic system of all-bad internal relationships which feel like tormenting inner demons, monsters, and ghosts. The paranoid-schizoid state can feel like an inner hell or prison.
How All-Bad Splitting Perpetuates the Past in the Present
The psychoanalytic writer James Grotstein discussed the persecutory inner representations of the paranoid-schizoid individual as acting like a “band of merciless thieves” or “gang of brutal thugs”. These internalized relationships attack the vulnerable part of the person that wants help by “warning” or convincing them that other people are untrustworthy, uninterested, dangerous, and rejecting, even though this may no longer be true in the present.
These all-bad identifications are seen when borderline people tell themselves, “I am worthless”, “Nobody wants to help me”, “Other people are always too busy”, “Things never work out for me,” and so on. There is sometimes a large grain of truth to the negative perceptions about others, but the individual also colors what they perceive and how they “self-talk” to make things seem worse than they are. In other words, they only perceive the all-bad aspects and spit out the all-good aspects of external reality. In this way they treat themselves as did people in the past who rejected or neglected them. This is what I call “perpetuating the past in the present.”
These paranoid-schizoid inner objects or memories can be understood as schemas, i.e. models of representing past experience in relational terms. These models actively (and often negatively) influence the ability to perceive reality accurately and to take action in the present.
Examples of Paranoid-Schizoid Experiences in the movies Psycho, Memento, and Beauty and the Beast
Several dramatic films illustrate how past attachments to “bad people” (and more importantly the internal memories and self-images based on them) block potential relationships to new good people and serve to keep a person in the paranoid-schizoid position.
1 – Psycho: Norman Bates, the main character in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie Psycho, exemplifies the paranoid-schizoid position. Because he fears his mother will be jealous, Norman is unable to tolerate the presence of Marion, the lovely young woman who comes to visit his motel. In reality Norman’s mother is long dead, her rotting body sitting in a rocking chair in the manor house. But her remembered voice is alive and well in Norman’s mind, guiding his actions and ordering him to kill off the threatening “good” Marion. Norman constantly experiences the paranoid-schizoid position, always feeling in danger and unable to trust outsiders.
While Norman is actively psychotic, a parallel process plays out in less disturbed borderline mental states. Norman’s acting out of the way he imagines his mother would reject his wish for a positive relationships is disturbingly similar to how some older borderline adults keep sabotaging potentially good relationships even after their abusive parents are gone.
Memories of disappointing interactions with parents and peers therefore “warn”, discourage, and forbid the borderline person not to trust and enjoy relationships with friends and lovers in the present, because if they do they would be betraying their past bonds to “bad” parents (for which they often blame themselves) along with risking rejection by the potentially good new person. These unconscious identifications with all-bad memories of others explain the repeated frustrations that many people labeled BPD have with keeping friends and sustaining romantic relationships.
Check out the Psycho Trailer.
2 – Memento: In the Christopher Nolan movie Memento, Guy Pearce plays a man, Leonard, suffering from an unusual problem: He cannot form any new memories. This disability occurs after he is beaten by thugs who killed his wife. Therefore, Leonard is unable to remember or trust anyone new he meets. He becomes at the mercy of others who take advantage of his limited memory. The constant sense of paranoia that Leonard exhibits, along with his great difficulty in discerning what is real and what is a deception, brings to mind the paranoid-schizoid mental experience.
People in severe borderline states experience similar difficulty in trusting others, usually not because they are amnesiac, but because they are terrified that being dependent and close will result in rejection or abandonment. In other words, they believe that the present will repeat the past, i.e. that new potentially good people will turn bad, just as parents and peers rejected them before. These inner identifications with bad objects (objects meaning memories of past experiences with others), combined with a lack of past good object experience to rely on, results in the extreme sensitivity to imagined rejections that borderline people experience.
I remember watching the Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver as a boy and being terrified by the scenes where a human suddenly turned into a monstrous alien and devoured a fellow colonist. I think these scenes unconsciously reminded me of my father’s sudden transformations into a violent “monster” who physically beat me, which fed my expectation that other adults would turn on me if I trusted them.
Check out the Memento Trailer.
3 – Beauty and the Beast – This classic Disney children’s movie features another example of the paranoid-schizoid position. Due to his selfish and unkind nature, the Beast has been condemned to live alone in his castle. He can only be redeemed if he learns to love, and earn another’s love in return, by the time the last petal falls from a magic rose. Rather than seeking someone to love him, the Beast becomes hopeless, withdrawing and isolating himself inside his castle. When beautiful Belle tries to penetrate his “closed psychic system” of all-bad expectations, the Beast is at first aggressive and untrusting, not believing that anyone could love his true self.
Gradually, the Beast is able to permit himself to be vulnerable and experience closeness with Belle. This move toward dependence, attachment, reparation of past harms done to Belle, and realization of the love he has been missing out on, represent the Beast’s movement from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. Gaston and his henchman represent the all-bad objects that serve to impede reunion with the hoped-for good object, and the Beast must courageously fight them off to defend his loving relationship with Belle (i.e. to securely reach the depressive position).
Check out the Beauty and the Beast Trailer.
The Reunion Adventure – The Transition from Paranoid-Schizoid to Depressive Positions
The timeless theme of reuniting with a lost good person by fighting past inner demons and their external representatives repeats in many classic stories, including Homer’s Odyssey, the Star Wars movies, the epic films Gladiator and Braveheart, Disney’s Aladdin and the Lion King, The Crow starring Brandon Lee, and the novel Ulysses by James Joyce.
To see the repeating narrative, the reader need only think of how the heroes in these stories are separated from those they love by evil forces (“bad objects”) before having to fight for reunion with the lost beloved person. Joseph Campbell provides many additional examples in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This epic battle comes alive in long-term psychotherapy of borderline states, when the battle is to overcome all-bad projections onto the therapist in order to trust and depend on the therapist as a new good person who can help the client move from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position.
The Paranoid-Schizoid Position and DSM Diagnoses
Different degrees and permutations of the paranoid-schizoid way of relating are commonly (mis)labeled as: Borderline Personality Disorder, Paranoid Personality Disorder, Schizoid Personality Disorder, Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia.
I don’t believe in the validity of these labels as distinct illnesses; rather, people should be viewed as individuals with strengths and deficits along a continuum of ego functioning. If they are used at all, labels like “borderline” should be viewed as a cross-sectional working hypothesis which loosely describes the problems a person has at a given time. Labels like borderline emphatically do not represent a life-long incurable illness. In my view, DSM labels should be abolished since psychiatrists are unable to use them as descriptions of pathological ways of relating with which people can work creatively and from which healing is possible.
Instead of something descriptive and hopeful, the labels become perversely distorted into “lifelong mental illnesses” which may have a genetic or biological cause. This is ridiculous since no evidence exists that these diagnostic labels are reliably discrete from each other, nor that biology or genes cause the behavioral, thinking, and feeling problems to which they refer. It’s offensive, harmful, and arrogant for psychiatrists to misrepresent problems of thinking, feeling, and behaving to vulnerable people in this reductionistic, pessimistic way.
Therefore I again encourage readers to consider dismissing labels like Borderline Personality Disorder from your mind. Instead, consider thinking of individuals as experiencing different degrees of borderline mental states at different points in time and of borderline states as being reversible and curable.
The Depressive Position and Healthy Personality Organization
Since much of psychology is focused on what is wrong, pathological, symptomatic, or immature, I now want to focus on maturity, wellbeing, and psychological health, using these questions:
How do many people become emotionally healthy, i.e. able to regulate their feelings and self-esteem, to work productively, to form families, become loving parents, have intimate friendships, etc.?
Are emotionally healthy people just born that way, or does childhood experience matter, and if so how much?
Why are healthy people not borderline?
How can borderline people become healthy?
These are complicated, contentious issues. In most cases the answer to the first three questions is that emotionally healthy people have had many more good than bad interpersonal experiences during childhood and early adulthood. Compared to people who are labeled “borderline”, healthy people usually had more opportunities for trusting, secure, long-term relationships with family, mentors, and/or friends.
These good relationships helped them to overcome the paranoid-schizoid position and the splitting defense – which when not prolonged are normal parts of every child’s development – and to develop the capacities for ambivalence, self-soothing, and intimacy. In one sense, emotionally healthy people were simply lucky – lucky as helpless children to be born into families where love and security were readily available.
I believe that that healthy adults usually had parents who, while they were not perfect, were good enough most of the time. They were “good parents” in the sense of empathically responding to the child’s needs, comforting the child when vulnerable, and supporting the child’s independent activities. These parents themselves usually had a considerable degree of healthy personality development; i.e. the parents themselves did not make heavy use of splitting, and were able to accurately perceive their children as mostly good and only slightly “bad”.
In other words, non-borderline parents tend to raise non-borderline children, and borderline parents are more likely to raise future borderline children. NAMI won’t like to hear that parents can cause BPD, but sometimes the truth hurts! As suggested by the ACE Study below, poor parents do more frequently raise “borderline” and “schizophrenic” children. That doesn’t mean poor parents are “bad people” or that they should be blamed for their children’s problems. Of course they shouldn’t.
Rather, the passing of abuse and neglect from generation to generation is a tragedy for which no one should be blamed, and the maximum amount of support should be given to such parents to help understand and change destructive patterns.
The ACE Study – How Adverse Childhood Events Increase Risk of Psychiatric Diagnoses
What evidence is there that childhood neglect and abuse correlate with increased mental illness diagnoses? The recent Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) Study of 17,000 people has explored the connection between childhood trauma and psychological disorder diagnoses. This study polled a large sample of people seen in hospital and medical settings to examine how frequently different childhood experiences co-occurred with physical illnesses and mental health diagnoses. The ACE study shows that childhood emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are directly linked to likelihood of both physical illnesses and psychiatric disorder diagnoses in a dose-response fashion.
In other words, the more abuse and neglect a person reports in childhood (a higher “dose amount”), the more likely a person is to be labeled depressed or schizophrenic in adulthood. In my way of thinking, more childhood abuse and neglect increases the chances that a child will become developmentally frozen in the paranoid-schizoid position and experience borderline or psychotic mental states as an adult.
Here are details on The ACE Study.
Drawing from the ACE Study, one can deduce that the less frequent and severe are a person’s experience of childhood abuse or neglect, then the less likely the person is to experience “borderline” or “psychotic” mental states as an adult. Although the survey didn’t cover it, I’d bet that a strong group-level relationship exists between having had reliable, loving parents (as the child experienced and perceived them) and an absence of adulthood mental health diagnoses. It makes sense because families with less abuse and neglect also tend to have more love, safety, closeness, and support (I could be wrong about this, but I doubt it. Let me know what you think in the comments).
Further Sources on Healthy Childhood Emotional Development
I’ve now digressed again from the topic of healthy personality development. The point I’m trying to make is the obvious one that loving, secure human relationships are crucial to healthy personality development. Rather than discuss this in further detail, I wish to refer the reader to sources with more knowledge than I.
Some good writers on healthy emotional development, i.e. on what helps young people become navigate past the paranoid-schizoid position (avoiding borderline mental states) and enter the depressive position (and reach psychological maturity) are:
1) Donald Winnicott (e.g. Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment). Drawing on his experience as a English pediatrician-therapist, Winnicott wrote beautifully about the healthy emotional development of children. Winnicott viewed psychotic states, including severe borderline conditions, as the “negative” or mirror image of healthy emotional development. They illustrated for him what happens when healthy parenting and secure childhood emotional development break down or never become firmly established.
Winnicott’s book is available for free as a PDF on this page.
2) James Masterson (e.g. The Seach for the Real Self). The American psychiatrist Masterson wrote mainly about borderline and narcissistic personality problems but always discussed what happens in healthy development contrasted with borderline/narcsisistic development. Masterson explained how the borderline/narcissistic personality could become healthy via internalizing self-parenting functions that they had missed out on in childhood.
Check out Masterson’s book on the search for the real self.
View a Youtube interview with Masterson.
3. Heinz Kohut (e.g. How Does Analysis Cure?). German psychoanalytic pioneer Kohut developed the field of self-psychology, which emphasizes how crucial empathic parental responses are to the young child’s healthy emotional development. He developed the ideas of idealizing relationships (referring to how children need a strong, safe figure to protect them) and mirroring relationships (how children need a supporter for their independent functioning).
It is instructive to understand how these relationships fail to occur between parents and future-borderline children, and why such relationships do not immediately develop when borderline adults go to psychotherapy. From Kohut’s work one can see that if most borderline adults had received adequate mirroring and idealizing responses earlier in life, they would likely be normal, healthy people today.
Here is an Overview of Self-Psychology.
4. Lawrence Hedges (e.g. Working the Organizing Experience; Interpreting the Countertransference). Hedges is a California-based psychogist who recasts schizophrenic and borderline disorders as “organizing” and “symbiotic” ways of relating. He has a beautiful way of writing about how certain “potentials” for relateness never get activated and become frozen in borderline and psychotic mental states.
In the link below, which is a free e-book download, the sections “Borderline Personality Organization” (pg. 98) and “A Brief History of Psychiatric Diagnoses” (pg. 175) may be of interest. Hedges’ writing is not about healthy personality development per se, but he constantly discusses what positive elements are missing in the relational development of psychotic and borderline individuals.
Access a free e-book copy of Hedges’ Relational Interventions.
5. Allan Schore (e.g. Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self, The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy). Schore is an American neuroscientist who writes about how reliable, secure attachments to caregivers are crucial to the developing child’s brain, and how attachments to parents directly modify how genes express or do not express themselves. Schore does fascinating brain scans showing how the child’s brain reacts to good and bad relational influences. He also shows why nature and nurture cannot be separated and quantified in such myths as, “BPD is 50% genetic.”
Here is an Interview with Allan Schore on Youtube summarizing Attachment Theory.
6. Ed Diener (e.g. Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth). Diener is a sociologist who researches how social conditions on a national level promote psychological wellbeing. Good parents and mentors are extremely important for psychological wellbeing, but factors beyond family relationships a lot too, like poverty, educational opportunities, diet and exercise, safety at a national level, freedom of speech, economic inequality, etc. Diener shows how these factors correlate with psychological wellbeing for national populations.
As you might guess, people in Iraq, North Korea, and Zimbabwe really are far less happy than people in Sweden, Australia, and South Korea. While advanced nations have their own problems, Diener shows how some poor countries suffer such severe instability that they are almost “paranoid-schizoid” worlds, in which people constantly feel threatened and are unable to actualize their potential for wellbeing.
Here is Diener’s Book on Wellbeing.
Compared to the simplistic, symptom-focused descriptions of Borderline Personality Disorder in the DSM , I believe so much more can be understood from these etiological depth approaches to borderline conditions and healthy emotional development.
Returning to the Kleinian theory, how does the Depressive Position fit into healthy emotional development?
Key Characteristics of the Depressive Position
The Depressive Position, although it might sound negative (like “depression”) actually refers to increasing psychological attachment, closeness, and maturation. It was called “Depressive” because Melanie Klein focused on how the young child experienced guilt, depression, loss, and increased concern for their parents’ wellbeing as they emerged from the paranoid-schizoid position. These “depressive” feelings emerged as the child became more aware of the mother as a separate person and realized how their actions could negatively affect her.
But the real thrust of the depressive position lies in these characteristics:
- Increasing security in positive emotional attachments to other people (development of basic trust).
- Predominance of all-good splitting followed by capacity for ambivalence.
- A richer, nuanced, three-dimensional view of oneself and others.
- Predominance of love, gratitude, reparative urges, and guilt over aggression, envy, hatred, and vindictiveness.
- Increasing ability to self-soothe, tolerate frustration, and maintain self-esteem.
- Repression replaces splitting, denial, and projection as primary defense.
- Increasing awareness of others as psychologically separate from oneself.
This link from the Melanie Klein Trust explains the depressive position in more detail.
My Experience of the Depressive Position and Therapeutic Symbiosis
As stated before, a lot of these descriptions are technical and removed from real experience. So here is how I experienced the early part of depressive position, i.e. therapeutic symbiosis, emotionally:
- As the end of a war in which I was a survivor emerging from the ruins, realizing that the whole battle had been going on in my mind, not the outside world.
- As an incredible realization that I was not in danger, people could be trusted, the world was safe.
- As emerging into real life after years in emotional hibernation.
- As seeing the world and other people in color for the first time.
- As “the halcyon (blessed) days”, my term for this period in my diaries.
- As the sense that everything was right between me and my therapist, that I was like a blessed child and she was like a loving mother.
- As a regression to being the playful, carefree child that I had never been able to be in my actual childhood.
- As an overpowering sense of loss about how many years had been lost to misery and fear because of my parents’ abuse.
- As feeling like a savior because I had saved myself by finding good people, just like the Beast found Belle to free himself from the curse.
- As a feeling that I had become a self, a real spontaneous person for the first time.
- As being able to enjoy other people and experiences, finally.
These feelings are correlates of the period when all-good self and object images begin to outweigh all-bad self and object images, i.e. the phase of therapeutic symbiosis as described by Harold Searles. In this stage the formerly borderline person achieves a healthy narcissistic level of object relations and reaches the depressive position.
Why Don’t Some People Reach the Depressive Position?
In severe borderline mental states, a person remains fixated psychologically in the paranoid-schizoid position as described above. Viewed from various vantage points, the borderline person tries to become healthy, functional, securely attached, and able to regulate their feelings but may fail because:
- They have a quantitative deficit of internal positive memories that healthy people use to soothe themselves (Adler’s structural deficit), but don’t yet have the resources in their daily life (friends, family, therapist, etc) needed to repair this deficit.
- They are simply unaware of the positive relationships they are missing (Searles’ out-of-contact state).
- They are scared of trusting and depending on others due to past trauma which they fear new people may repeat, and thus choose to remain attached to their internal all-bad relatoinships (Fairbairn’s object-relations model of the attachment to the bad object, Searles’ phase of ambivalent symbiosis).
- Their use of primitive defenses like denial, avoidance, acting out, projection, projective identification, leads them to unconsciously repeat self-destructive patterns.
This is only a brief attempt to answer the question about why some borderline individuals remain in the paranoid-schizoid position. I am still optimistic that healing and progress out of the paranoid-schizoid position is possible with appropriate insight and help.
Final Thoughts On Recovery From Borderline States and Progress to the Depressive Position
My own experience and research suggests that the single most crucial thing for recovering from borderline states in a long-term, dependent, loving relationship with somebody. It could be a therapist, a friend, a family member, or some combination of these. Feeling safe and loved by others for years is what enables children to become healthy adults, and it is also what enables once-borderline adults to become healthy adults. There is no substitute for internalizing the self-soothing and self-organizing functions of a loving, mature outside person. As I described in an earlier article, I experienced these healthy relationships for the first time with my therapist and a few key friends.
In normal childhood development, there is a “healthy” or normative paranoid-schizoid experience called the practicing phase, in which the child jubilantly explores the world and is relatively unaware of mother’s separateness. For most children, the parents and environment are supportive enough that the children don’t get stuck in a pathological paranoid-schizoid position that later becomes a borderline adult mental state.
Rather, most healthy children progress out of the normative paranoid-schizoid position into the depressive position at a relatively young age. These children are unlikely to regress and become borderline unless they encounter some overwhelming prolonged stress in later life. For children who are constantly neglected and abused, the risk is much greater that they will psychologically retreat and stay in the pathological paranoid-schizoid position, which leads to experiencing a chronic borderline or psychotic mental state in adulthood.
Again, it should be remembered that “normal”, healthy people would often have become borderline adults if they had experienced sufficiently severe abuse and neglect in earlier life. In Kleinian terminology, anyone can get stuck in the paranoid-schizoid mode of functioning when subjected to enough prolonged stress. People opearting in borderline mental states are not fundamentally different than the rest of us – they are just as human, but more unlucky in some ways.
With sufficient insight and resources, borderline people can become weller than well, i.e. become free from borderline symptoms, study and work productively, have intimate friendships and relationships, and experience joy and meaning. After they have become psychologically mature, life challenges still present themselves, but former borderlines can handle them with confidence as the capacities for ambivalence, regulating feelings, and maintaining self-esteem are developed in the depressive position.
I welcome any correspondance at firstname.lastname@example.org
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