Tag Archives: stigma

#22 – Proof That Borderlines Are Motivated for Psychotherapy and Can Fully Recover

This post will answer critics who say: “Borderlines are not motivated to attend therapy. Borderline patients don’t stay in treatment. At best, therapy can manage but not cure BPD.”

These statements are absolutely false. Yet these myths continue to appear online, often being communicated to people recently diagnosed. As the studies below demonstrate, most people diagnosed with BPD do want help, most will stay in good treatment, and most do recover to different degrees.

Earlier posts have elaborated my dim view of the (non) validity of the BPD diagnosis. Since it cites studies using the BPD construct, this post might be viewed as hypocritical. That may be a valid criticism! Nevertheless, these studies provide evidence that people with “borderline symptoms”, however defined, can be motivated and recover both with and without therapy

Study 1:  88 Borderline Patients Treated Twice a Week for Three Years

Highlights: Led by Josephine Giesen at Maastricht University, Dutch researchers treated 88 borderline patients for three years with twice-weekly psychotherapy. Patients were randomly assigned to either Schema-Focused Therapy or Transference-Focused Psychotherapy, which are described in detail below.

After three years, a large majority of patients showed significant improvement, with many considered fully recovered and no longer diagnosable as borderline. In the group of 45 patients undergoing Schema-Focused therapy, more than half were no longer diagnosable as borderline after three years, and many more had improved significantly.

The researchers commented, “These treatments demonstrate that patients with BPD can be motivated for and continue prolonged outpatient treatment… Three years of treatment proved to bring about a significant change in patients’ personality, shown by reductions in all BPD symptoms, increases in quality of life, and changes in associated personality features.”

Here are details from the study:

Patient Population:  88 Dutch patients diagnosed with BPD. Average age around 30 years, with most patients in their 20s or 30s. Over 90% of patients were female. The group had average educational levels for Holland; about half had attended some college or completed a degree. As for functioning before treatment, around 50% were on state disability, 20% were working, and the remainder were students or stay-at-home wives/mothers.

Trauma in Patients’ Histories:  Over 85% of the patients reported childhood physical abuse. About 90% reported childhood emotional abuse or neglect. More than 60% also reported sexual abuse. Over half the patients had seriously contemplated or attempted suicide within three months before treatment. About three-quarters were taking some type of psychiatric medication.

Intervention: For a three-year period, patients attended two 50-minute sessions per week of either Schema-Focused Therapy (SFT) or Transference-Focused Psychotherapy (TFP). Treatment occurred at outpatient medical centers in four Dutch cities. The type of therapy given was randomized.

Definition of Schema-Focused Therapy: SFT is a psychodynamic treatment which assumes the existence of schemas (mental models of relationships) expressed in pervasive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. The distinguished modes in BPD are detached protector, punitive parent, abandoned/abused child, and angry/impulsive child. Change is achieved through a range of behavioral, cognitive, and experiential techniques that focus on (1) the therapeutic relationship, (2) daily life outside therapy and (3) past traumatic experiences. Recovery in SFT is achieved when dysfunctional schemas no longer control the patient’s life.

Definition of Transference-Focused Therapy: TFP is a psychoanalytically-derived therapy which focuses on the transference relationship between patient and therapist. Prominent techniques are exploration, confrontation, and interpretation. Recovery in TFP is reached when good and bad representations of self and others are integrated and when fixed primitive internalized object relations are resolved.

Therapist Composition: 44 different therapists treated the 88 patients. Over 90% of the therapists had doctoral or master’s level training. All therapists had previous treatment experience with BPD patients. Therapists averaged 10 years of experience working with borderline individuals.

Outcome Measures: Patient progress was assessed every 3 months for 3 years. The primary outcome measure was the BPDSI-IV, a 70-item scale measuring the severity and frequency of borderline symptoms. Patients also completed regular quality-of-life questionnaires. These included the World Health Organization quality of life assessment, a 100-item questionnaire covering level of satisfaction with interpersonal relationships, level of independent functioning, psychological wellbeing, and physical health.

Dropout Rate: Of 45 patients treated with Schema Therapy, only 11 dropped out during the entire 3-year period. So 75% of this group persevered in intensive therapy for at least three years.

Of 43 patients treated with Transference-Focused Therapy, 18 dropped out during the 3-year period. However, the study notes that 10 of these 18 drop outs disliked the therapy method or their therapist, and 5 of 18 had issues around TFP’s method of enforcing contracts. Many of these dropouts occurred in the first few months. In my opinion, TFP is a more rigid, less effective form of treatment, and so it’s unsurprising that more patients dropped out. There’s no reason these patients couldn’t do better in another treatment.

Understanding Improvement in these BPD Patients

So how was improvement in these patients measured?

To answer this, one has to understand the measures used in the study. The primary gauge was the BPDSI-IV scale, which was filled out by patients every three months for three years. The BPDSI consists of 70 items arranged in 9 subscales. For each of the 9 DSM symptoms, 7-8 questions are asked to determine how severe and frequent the behaviors/feelings have been over the past three months, from the patient’s perspective. Each question is rated on an 11-point scale, running from 0 (never, not at all, low) to 10 (daily, very intensely, high).

For example, several questions would ask about the intensity/frequency of a patient’s feelings of emptiness (DSM BPD criteria #7), several questions would ask about the intensity/frequency of a patient’s suicidal thinking/behavior (DSM criteria #5), several questions would ask about how unstable or intense the patient feels their relationships to be (criteria #2), and so on.

The scores relating to each symptom are then averaged, producing an overall rating for that symptom. (For example, the scores for all questions about emptiness would be averaged to produce one “emptiness score”, a number between 0 and 10.) These 9 average rating for the 9 symptoms (numbers between 0 and 10) are added up to give a “BPDSI-IV” score, which represents the severity of the patient’s borderline problems over the last three months. This number will be anywhere between 0 and 90, with 0 being perfect mental health and 90 being the severest borderline disorder.

Although I dislike the BPD diagnosis, I don’t mind the method used in this study, because it involves asking the “borderline” patients how they feel. In other words, the BPDSI scale is not a judgment by clinicians, it’s a report from patients.

Improvement in BPDSI and Quality of Life Scales during the first year:

With this understanding in mind, here is how the patients did over the first year:

borderlineimage1

In the top left graph, we see that in the schema therapy group (line with squares), the patients started out at an average BPDSI rating of around 35 (out of 90, with 90 being the most severe, representing the worst rating for each of the 9 BPD symptoms), but this had dropped to almost 15 by the end of the first year. The patients in the transference therapy group also improved, but a little less so.

The other measures are as follows:

The bottom left Euro-QOL scale is a measure of the patient’s subjective feeling of well-being on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being the best. We can see that it improved significantly for both patient groups over the first year.

The top right WHO-QOL scale is another quality of life scale, and the bottom right scale is a measure of psychopathology, neither of which I researched in depth. But the trend lines in each case are positive

Outcome In Terms of Symptom Reduction

Now let’s take a look at how the patients did in terms of each of the 9 BPD symptoms. Here is the graph of the treatment groups’ averages for symptom severity over time:

borderlineimage4

The left-hand numbers on each graph represent the average BPDSI rating for the group for that symptom. For example, for item C (top right), the “Identity Disturbance” rating (DSM symptom #3) started at an average of 5 out of a worst-possible rating of 10. This rating is an average for all the patients in the group. It then drops to an average of less than 2 out of 10 after the first year, an impressive reduction.

Average group ratings over time for all 9 BPD symptoms can be seen. From the top left, the items are: Abandonment score, Unstable Relationships sore, Identity Disturbance, Impulsivity, Suicidality, Emotional Instability, Emptiness, Anger, and Paranoid/Dissociative Tendencies. All of these ratings are from the patients’ perspective. The reader can see that in every case the trend is positive (symptoms getting less intense and frequent).

Detailed Outcomes Over Three Years

Lastly, here is data showing the patients’ progress over three years:

borderlineimage3

We can see that the patients improved a lot in the first two years, and tended to maintain that improvement between years two and three. I don’t interpret this pessimistically. After a significant period of early improvement, there is often a time where a person works to become more secure in their new level of functioning and relating. This may partly account for the “leveling off” of the scores between years two and three. If the patients continued in treatment (or on their own), they could improve further.

After three years, at least half of the Schema therapy group’s patients had recovered to the point where they felt well enough to no longer be considered “borderline”, and more than two-thirds were considered highly improved. “Recovery” was defined in this study as achieving a BPDSI score of lower than 15 out of 90, and maintaining that level through the end of the study. Other patients who improved a lot (e.g. going from a BPDSI rating of 50+ down to 25 or 20) would only barely be diagnosable as borderline, even if they weren’t considered “fully recovered”.

These studies tend to be very binary (e.g. people are either “recovered” or “not recovered”, but reality is not like that). It’s important to remember that improvement is a process; it’s never all or nothing!

Jeffrey Young’s Comments

Dr. Jeffrey Young of Columbia University is the developer of Schema Therapy for BPD. He commented on this study as follows: “With Schema Therapy, patients with BPD are now breaking free from lives of chaos and misery. Not only are they learning skills to stop self-harming behaviors, as they have with Dialectical Behavior Therapy, but a high percentage of BPD patients are finally making deeper personality changes that have not been possible until now.”

For Young, this study demonstrates that therapy for BPD can lead to full recovery, and that longer-term psychodynamic therapy can be very effective. However, his comment might be a little grandiose, as people with borderline symptoms made “deeper personality changes” long before he invented Schema Therapy.

Young’s group added that this intensive schema therapy may have advantages over Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. According to Young, “DBT relieves many of the self-destructive behavioral symptoms of the disorder, but may not reduce other core symptoms, especially those related to deeper personality change.”

Interestingly, Young noted that part of schema therapy’s success may involve its emphasis on “limited reparenting”, i.e. on the creation of a loving relationship between patient and therapist. This is closely related to what I discussed in article #10, in the phase of Therapeutic Symbiosis:

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/four-phases-of-bpd-treatment-and-recovery/

More information is available at www.schematherapy.com, and I adapted the statements above from this webpage – http://www.schematherapy.com/id316.htm

My View on Schema Therapy

I am by no means an expert on Schema Therapy, and I have no affiliation with Dr. Young. My understanding is that SFT involves a mix of cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic techniques. It focuses on building a positive therapeutic relationship, on better managing daily life, and on working through past traumatic experiences. These elements are common to most therapies.

Schema therapy also contains an object-relations (psychoanalytic) foundation, in that it conceptualizes the borderline patient as using “schemas” in their mind to represent and relate to themselves and others. Examples of these are punishing parent and angry child, uncaring parent and abandoned child, etc.

Schema therapy helps the borderline patient understand how these faulty models developed – often due to trauma and poor parenting – and to stop the replaying of negative past interactions from destroying the potential for new, better relationships in the present. In this sense, it is based on Fairbairn’s object relations model, discussed below.

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/the-fairbairnian-object-relations-approach-to-bpd/

As Fairbairn said, “The psychotherapist is the true successor to the exorcist. His business is not to pronounce the forgiveness of sins, but to cast out devils.” 🙂

How Individuals Get Lost in Group Studies

My biggest criticism of this type of study is that it obscures individuals’ experiences behind numbers and averages. Of course, its intent is not to provide individual detail. But,I would like to hear from individual patients what their life experience was like at the end of treatment compared to the beginning. I’m sure many would speak very positively about their progress. Since we don’t have that, I recommend the reader to case studies referenced in these posts:

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/what-to-do-if-you-are-diagnosed-with-bpd/

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/18-heroes-of-bpd-jeffrey-seinfeld/

The Mystery of Why People Are Still Pessimistic About BPD Treatment

In the bigger picture, this study’s results are obvious. Intensive help helps people, just like the sky is blue and the sun rises in the east. “Borderlines” are no exception to this. If they can access effective support – and are given a reasonable sense of hope – people diagnosed with BPD will do very well. What we need to be doing is getting more people access to effective treatment, and leaving behind the outdated myths that BPD is untreatable or incurable.

It’s amazing how such common sense escapes people who say, “borderlines don’t seek help, borderlines won’t stay in treatment, borderlines can’t be cured etc.” In my opinion, they are about as well-informed as people who think the Earth is flat.

Here is the original study of the 88 Dutch patients: http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=209673

Other Studies on Psychotherapy’s Effectiveness for BPD

This study is one of many investigating psychotherapy’s effect on BPD. Below are additional examples, one from a hospital outpatient program, one from DBT, and one comparing different psychotherapies:

Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder with Psychoanalytically-Oriented Partial Hospitalization, An 18 Month Follow-up: http://psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.158.1.36

Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder and Drug Dependence: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10598211

Evaluating Three Treatments for BPD: A Multi-wave Study: http://www.borderlinedisorders.com/images/AJPRCT.pdf

All of these studies show positive results. Again, this is not rocket science – good treatment helps people diagnosed with BPD!

What If Borderlines Don’t Get Good Therapy?

But what is people diagnosed with BPD don’t get good long-term psychotherapy? Do they inevitably do badly?

No.

Several studies address this question, including the one summarized below:

http://www.borderlinedisorders.com/images/AJPRCT.pdf

Here are the highlights of this study:

Study 2:  290 Borderline Patients In Massachusetts

Patient Population: 290 patients diagnosed with BPD, assessed at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. They were first treated as inpatients during brief hospital stays.

Method of Study: This was a longitudinal-observational study. The patients were interviewed every two years for at least 10 consecutive years, starting in the early 1990s. During interviews, their level of functioning in work/school, satisfaction with interpersonal relationships, and degree and frequency of borderline symptoms were measured. After 10 years, 90% of the original cohort of 290 patients were still participating.

Therefore, this study followed the “natural course” of BPD. This medical-model idea is misleading (the notion that BPD has a “natural course”), but I won’t go into that now. Suffice it to say that the researchers in this study did not “treat” the patients – they just followed them after hospitalization and went to great lengths to see how they were doing every two years.

High Remission of Symptoms: After 10 years, 93% of the formerly borderline patients had experienced at least two consecutive years during which they no longer qualified for the BPD diagnosis, according to DSM criteria:

Time to Remission

Low Recurrence of Symptoms: After 10 years, among the 93% of patients who achieved symptomatic remission, only 29% became “borderline” again. In other words, once they improved to the point of no longer being diagnosable as borderline, a large majority did not get worse and become “borderline” again:

Time to Recurrence

Good Social and Work Functioning: After 10 years, 78% of patients had achieved good psychosocial functioning – defined as good performance in a job for at least two years, along with at least one emotionally sustaining relationship with a partner or friend:Good Functioning

To me this last slide is questionable, as it’s not clear how “good work performance” was defined (and a certain period of work is not a prerequisite for “recovery”, anyway). Nevertheless, this study shows how, in a group of previously hospitalized borderlines, most people improve to the point where they are able to function in a job and have an intimate relationship. Again, the study authors provided these patients with no treatment beyond brief hospitalization, although many probably sought help on their own.

Other Longitudinal Studies of Borderlines Are Also Positive

There are many other ways to critique this study; for example, one could say it only applies to “borderlines” in the northeastern United States who went through McLean hospital. However, other studies following borderline patients for decades reach similar conclusions.

These include Thomas McGlashan’s Chestnut Lodge study (Maryland, USA), Michael Stone’s “Fate of Borderline Patients” study (New York, USA), and Joel Paris’ longitudinal study of borderlines (Montreal, Canada). All of these studies concluded that a large majority of borderline patients improved significantly, and many recovered in the long term. Collectively these studies included over a thousand patients. These studies can be found by searching online, as well as through the books by McGlashan, Stone, and Paris on Amazon.

The Limitations of Naturalistic Studies Based on Diagnosis

The anti-psychiatry side of me says that these longitudinal studies reveal what a meaningless and unreliable diagnosis BPD is. It doesn’t make sense that some percentage of people are initially borderline, then at varying points in time they are suddenly no longer borderline, then a few of them are borderline again, and so on.

Maybe BPD was never a valid illness to begin with. But such common sense seems to escape Harvard-educated researchers like Zanarini 🙂 Then again, to admit that what they’re studying is an unscientific fabrication wouldn’t be great for their careers, nor for receiving funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Although these studies have flaws, I hope readers will see that people diagnosed with BPD do seek help, and that they can recover to be emotionally well and free of “borderline” symptoms. These are not just opinions. They’re facts.

On The Nature of Quasi-Experiments

Lastly, it is important to understand that these studies – like most in psychology – are quasi-experimental. This means they are not perfectly controlled experiments, because when studying human beings many factors simply cannot be controlled. One can never study a person as reliably as one studies solar radiation or the molecular structure of uranium.

No one quasi-study can “prove” a point definitively. Nevertheless, quasi-experimental studies can estimate the effect of a variable(s) on a group of people under certain conditions. And a pattern of quasi-studies with similar results can show that something real is happening

These studies should also not be interpreted as applying to any particular person. Rather, they are averages of many different people’s outcomes, and only have meaning on a group level.

Wow, I am exhausted thinking about all this data. Time to get a beer!

——————————–

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

#18 – Heroes of BPD: Jeffrey Seinfeld

A few months ago I discussed Gerald Adler, a clinician who treated BPD using a psychodynamic method. Today I’ll write about Jeffrey Seinfeld, the New York-based social worker who pioneered a Fairbairnian approach to Borderline Personality Disorder.

On this blog, it has been discussed several times how psychodynamic therapists have already “cured” BPD. Here is an example of a borderline patient’s recovery from Jeffrey Seinfeld’s book, The Bad Object.

seinfeld1

I thought the reader might be interested to hear in detail about one of the “successes” in BDP recovery that are often referenced on this blog. Her story shows how complex, challenging, and interesting the journey may sometimes be. Some of this account is paraphrased, while the parts in quotations come straight from the text:

A Case Study: Kim (from The Bad Object, pages 101-123)

At the start of her therapy with Jeffrey Seinfeld, “Kim” was a 22-year-old Irish-American young woman. From ages 17-22, she been in regular treatment with another therapist, but had made little progress. After dropping out of high school at age 16, Kim lived at home with her mother. She did not work or attend school; rather, much of her time was spent abusing alcohol and illegal drugs.

With her first therapist, Kim showed no motivation to change, and indeed would boast about antisocial and destructive behavior, including tempting friends trying to quit drugs into again using them. She would regularly miss therapy appointments without calling to cancel. Her therapist as the time described her attitude as, “Who can blame me for messing up with all I’ve been through?”

Eventually, Kim’s first therapist referred her to Jeffrey Seinfeld. He had not lost hope for her, but felt that they had reached an impasse and that a change of approach might help her. Seinfeld scheduled Kim for twice-weekly appointments at a social-work center. For the first year or so of their work, she continued to regularly miss appointments without cancelling ahead, and to abuse drugs and alcohol regularly.

Kim’s Early Childhood

Seinfeld describes Kim’s childhood in this way: “Kim was an only child in an intact family. Kim’s mother alternately neglected and overindulged her. During Kim’s first year of life, her mother often ran out of the house to escape a psychotic husband… The mother would promise to return later in the evening, but often stayed away for days at a time. Kim therefore had repeated experiences of awakening to find herself abandoned by her mother. She grew to hate falling asleep if her mother was present, and she had frequent tantrums, insisting that her mother sleep with her…”

“Kim’s psychotic father had delusions that he was Jesus Christ and that demons possessed him. He underwent psychiatric hospitalization, and his condition was finally stabilized with psychotropic medication. Kim’s mother went to work when Kim was 3 years old, leaving her at home with her father, who was on disability. He would ignore her as he read the Bible or sat in a catatonic-like stupor. If she disturbed him with her romping and playing, sometimes designed to get his attention, he would beat her…”

“Throughout childhood, Kim was on a merry-go-round in her relationships with her family members. First she would side with her mother against her father. When her mother upset her, she would go to her father and side against her mother. When her father upset her, she’d go to her grandfather and side against everyone. As an adolescent, Kim took no interest in learning at school but instead “hung out” with peers and smoked marijuana daily. She dropped out of high school at the age of 16.”

Kim’s Early Therapy – The Out of Contact Phase

Seinfeld described how Kim’s life had little structure outside of her regular abuse of alcohol and drugs. She had trouble sleeping at night, and often slept during the day instead. Kim could not bear to be alone, and would often call her drug-abusing friends from high school to chat at all hours of the day. However, these friends were becoming less interested in her as they grew older and got jobs or moved away.

Kim felt that people were always too busy for her and would eventually abandon her. Thus, according to Seinfeld, her internalized bad object was a “busy object” who did not make time for her. Kim projected this image onto outside people based partly on experience with her real mother, who often did not take time to care for her.

(If the reader is not familiar with projection of internal object relations onto present day relationships, based on past bad experience with parents, the following article may be useful – https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/the-fairbairnian-object-relations-approach-to-bpd/ )

Seinfeld notes that his main experience in relation to Kim early on was that she was oblivious to him psychologically. Seinfeld felt that Kim was unaware of his separate presence, but simply “told him stories” about her adventures with drugs, friends, alcohol, and other adventures. She did not expect any help, understanding, or admiration from her therapist. Referencing the out-of-contact phase, Seinfeld stated, “My position as an object was that of a witness as opposed to an admirer.”

After several months, Kim showed the first sign of becoming aware of Seinfeld’s intent to help when she wrote about him in her diary. She felt concern that her life was “going nowhere,” and wished that she could work or attend school. Shortly after this awareness, Kim cut her wrist with a razor. Seinfeld describes how “the self-mutilation is an antidependent attack against the vulnerable, libidinal self’s expressed need for an internal holding object. The antidependent self thereby reestablishes a closed, internal, invulnerable position.” In other words, the patient identified with how people rejected her need for help and support in the past, and repeated the same behavior toward herself in the present, acting as the bad parent and punishing herself (the bad child) inside her own mind.

This early phase of Kim’s treatment was an “Out of Contact” emotional phase, as described here:

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/four-phases-of-bpd-treatment-and-recovery/

Dwelling on the Rejecting Object

Seinfeld acknowledged noted how Kim’s life was in reality extremely difficult. Her “friends” were self-absorbed and did not truly care about her, she had little support from her parents, and she had no structure in terms of a work or academic program, in addition to addictions to drugs and alcohol.

However, despite these severe difficulties, Kim did not respond by looking for positive ways out of her predicament. Rather, as Seinfeld describes,

“Kim was constantly preoccupied with how her friends and family exploited, rejected, and did not care about her. She would dwell on the rejecting object and rejected, unimportant self-image through the day and so would remain in a depressive, victimized position… Even when the external person did not in reality reject her, Kim would interpret the situation as rejection…. All of this is not to say that the external objects did not often treat Kim badly; on the contrary, they often did. But Kim had her own need to perpetually activate the all-bad self-and-object unit.”

Seinfeld noted that if one person in her life disappointed her, she would flee to a different person, but then find them equally disappointing. For example, Kim would go from her too-busy mother, to her drug-abusing and neglectful boyfriend, to her psychotic father, to friends who were moving on with their lives and did not care. Frustrated by each of these people, Kim comforted herself by using drugs, alcohol, and by stealing her mother’ car and “joyriding” despite not having a license.

Seinfeld said that none of his interpretations of her self-destructiveness worked at first. He stated,

“Throughout the first of fourteen months of her treatment, she seemed relatively out of contact with mer. She would recount her adventures and seemed to expect nothing from me but my continued presence… There was no spontaneous, gradual shift in her relatedness. She continued to miss sessions at the same rate as characterized her previous (five year) therapy… She used my empathy to justify her “who can blame me” attitude.”

The Safety of the Bad Object

Seinfeld began to intervene with Kim by gradually making her more aware of how her feelings of rejection and worthlessness were caused not only by the actual behavior of other people, but by how she responded to and interpreted their actions. Seinfeld states, “When she described a bad experience in reality, I empathized with how she felt but then shifted the focus to what she was doing to herself in her mind with that experience. It was not difficult so show that all of the external people she discussed reflected one image – that of rejection in relation to her own image as rejected.”

Seinfeld notes how Kim eventually became aware that she continually maintained a negative pattern of thinking and expectation about others, even when nothing happened in the outside world to justify such thinking. Seinfeld commented to her that such dwelling on negativity might occur because it felt safer to Kim to feel rejected than to feel accepted.

Seinfeld also beautifully described how, “I listened to all that she said and commented from the vantage point of the activation of internal object relations units. I listened to this patient as one would follow the stream of consciousness in a novel by Joyce or Proust, in which reality is always brightened or shaded by the narrator’s internal vision and experience. Kohut (1984) has suggested that such novels reflect the fragmented sense of self in severe psychopathology. One does not ignore external reality from such a vantage point; rather, close attention is given to the subtle but constant interplay between internal and external worlds.” In other words, when listening to a borderline patient speak, the skilled therapist constantly tries to perceive how reality is distorted or “colored” in a positive or negative direction by the patient’s splitting defenses.

Ambivalent Symbiosis

Seinfeld notes that the foregoing work gradually move Kim toward an ambivalent symbiosis. She gradually became aware that Seinfeld cared about her and wanted her to get better. For the first time, Kim asked her therapist in subtle ways about whether he was interested in her viewpoint. She was no longer only telling stories or complaining about abuse. She would ask Seinfeld if he felt that her mother and boyfriend cared about her. She wanted to know if Seinfeld understood the desperation and uncertainty she felt. Seinfeld described how Kim displaced many of her wishes for closeness and support from him onto the mother and boyfriend, because it was initially too threatening to get close to Seinfeld and trust him directly.

The relationship now assumed a stormy, emotional, push-and-pull quality. Kim would want support from Seinfeld but then be angry that she only saw him occasionally for therapy. She wanted him to understand her feelings about her family, but then criticized him as overly intellectual and detached. She became jealous that Seinfeld’s own family own family got most of his time and love, while she only got the leftover scraps. Outside of sessions, she began to cut down on her drinking, but then would return to it when she felt that two hours a week with Seinfeld was inadequate. She would perceive Seinfeld, “sometimes as a saint and at other times as a psychotic with delusions of grandeur, like her father.”

Seinfeld therefore described how Kim tried to take in his support and acceptance, but would then reject it, both due to her familiarity and loyalty to the rejecting object and to her fear of vulnerability and openness toward the good object. For example, Kim asked Seinfeld for help with getting a referral to a doctor who worked in the same hospital as Seinfeld for a minor medical problem. When Seinfeld responded helpfully, she rejected the referral as inadequate by viewing the doctor negatively. This related to her being threatened by feeling that someone truly cared about her.

At this point, Kim began attending therapy regularly and never missed sessions, even becoming upset if she was forced to be late. Rather than being upset with her mother or friends as often, she became intensely upset with Seinfeld if he did not meet her demands for caring and empathy in a perfect way. Despite Seinfeld making extra time to talk to her on the phone outside of regular appointments, she would become angry when he eventually had to leave to go see his family. She viewed him as a “too busy” bad object just like her mother and friends had been the “busy bad objects” before. She again felt angry with Seinfeld for expecting her to depend on him for support, but having only a few hours a week to spend with her. She continued to alternately view him as a caring, supportive person whose help she desperately wanted, and then suddenly to transform him into a too-busy, uncaring, impersonal therapist.

Seinfeld comments on this ambivalent symbiosis in the following way:

“The patient activates the all-bad self-object unit to defend against internalization of the positive self and object unit. The insatiable need serves the antidependent defense. By making her need for contact with the external object insatiable, the patient can perceive of herself as rejected regardless of the external object’s behavior. Therefore, the patient is always able to think of her needs as being unmet, to think of herself as rejected and of the object as rejecting. The activation of the all-bad self and object unit results in depression and rage. Insatiable need, the oral self-exciting object relationships (e.g. use of alcohol while rejecting a truly supportive other), is then activated to counter the depression and rage. In this regard, the all-bad self-object relations unit becomes a vicious cycle constituting both the rejecting and exciting objects… Insatiable need serves to maintain the perception of the object as rejecting in antidependent defense. This patient succinctly stated the antidependent position, “If I don’t think you like me, why should I bother to like you?”

In other words, it’s necessary to understand how the patient is an active agent in perpetuating their view of the therapist and others as rejecting (creating an impossible-to-fulfill, or insatiable need) rather than potentially helpful and positive.

The Transition to Therapeutic Symbiosis

Seinfeld now constantly remarked upon the ways in which Kim focused on the ways in which he (Seinfeld) was not available because this felt safer and more familiar than focusing on the ways in which he was available. Kim came to recognize more and more how she herself played an active in viewing the external world negatively and keeping herself in a depressed state. She realized that if she were not provocative and looked for positive things in the outside world, they would appear there much more often than she expected. In this way, she could become an agent of positive change.

Gradually, Kim became aware of how unstructured and vulnerable her current life situation was. She realized how she was hurting herself by her continuing alcohol and drug use, and by ignoring opportunities to return to school or work.

Regarding the developing therapeutic symbiosis, Seinfeld stated,

“Kim’s vulnerable self became more connected to the internal holding object (the therapist as supporter of independent functioning and provider of love) through the transference, and she experienced severe separation anxiety. She faced the fact that her life was a mess and that she felt like a vulnerable child. She began to believe that I really was going to help her, that our relationship could affect the direction of the rest of her life.”

Seinfeld continued to explain that, at the same time as these positive feelings emerged, Kim feared that letting Seinfeld get too close to her would allow him to overpower and dominate her sense of self. She still feared trusting another person closely due to all the rejection from her past. So, she had to be very careful and gradual in the way she came to trust Seinfeld, lest he turn “bad”. Occasionally, she had dreams in which the “good” Seinfeld would turn into a psychotic madman like her father.

Gradually, Kim let herself get more and more attached to Seinfeld, and as this happened she began to feel self-empathy for the first time in her life. She remembered the alone, fearful child she had been and wanted to help herself.

Strengthening the Therapeutic Symbiosis

Kim bought a pet parrot that she would care for at home. She imagined herself as a good parent nurturing a good child most of the time. When the bird became difficult and squawky, she would briefly view herself as the bad mother and the bird as bad child. As her relationship with Seinfeld improved, she came to nurture her pet more and more and to be bothered less and less by its noisiness. As a projective container, it reinforced her positive internal self-and-object images via the fantasies of love she projected into it, supported by her relationship to Seinfeld.

Over the next year, Seinfeld described Kim’s progress as follows,

“As Kim became less depressed and angry , her vulnerability and strivings for autonomy emerged. Having decided that she must do something to change her life, she managed to earn a high school diploma. She then pursued college courses and part-time work… She brought to me her ambitions and interests for mirroring admiration. Her ambitions, which were originally grandiose, gradually became realistic. She informed her drug-addicted boyfriend that he had to stop using cocaine if he wanted to continue to see her. She saw him less as a rejecting object and more as a person with problems that interefered with his capacity for intimac. His family eventually arranged to have him go for detoxification. Kim remained in contact with him but also started to see other men.”

Seinfeld then described how Kim gradually focused more and more on her own goals and independence, and became less dependent and close to Seinfeld as she had been at the height of the therapeutic symbiotic phase. Thus she transferred into a more “resolution of symbiosis”-like phase, as described in Article #10.

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Comments on Seinfeld’s Case of Kim

In this case study, one can see how in the early phases of treatment, Kim was at first oblivious to Seinfeld as a potential helper, due to the extreme neglect and abuse she experienced as a child which left her with a structural deficit of positive internal self and object images. She literally could not recognize help and love when she saw them.

As she gradually became aware of Seinfeld as a potentially helpful therapist, her fear that he might reject her like her parents had done, as well as her general unfamiliarity with and distrust of genuinely kind people, caused her to distance herself from him as a potential good object. It required painstaking work to become aware of how she herself continually viewed others (and later Seinfeld) as “all-bad” while rejecting the good aspects of the outside world in order to overcome this phase.

Eventually, the therapeutic symbiosis took over, and Kim was able to trust Seinfeld and take in his love and support. At this point, she was no longer “borderline”, and began to feel well and stable much of the time. She resumed school and work, developed new positive relationships with other men, and gained a healthy capacity to view people like her mother and abusive boyfriend as troubled people rather than persecutory rejectors.

In reading this article, I learned how important it is to identify the subtle ways in which we distort others into “all-bad” and “all-good”, when we are borderline. We can apply these case examples our own lives, since we all distort external reality to a greater or lesser degree. Since they are often based unrealistic projections from past negative relationships, learning to “distrust” or question our initial negative perceptions can be a positive, corrective process. It allows us to realize how the world outside is much more positive than it sometimes appears when we are viewing things through the lenses of “bad objects.”

Seinfeld As An Author

Seinfeld is one of those authors I read about a certain topic and say, “Wow, this guy is brilliant! That really is how things are!” I remember being struck right away by his penetrating descriptions of borderline problems and what was necessary to transform them. The reader is again recommended to his book, “The Bad Object”, which is available used on Amazon. Its case studies of successfully treated borderlines are some of the best of any book I’ve read, especially the cases of “Kim” described here, along with similar-length successful cases of “Justine”, “Diane”, “William”, and “Peggy.”

To understand Seinfeld’s concepts, it may again be useful for the reader who is unfamiliar with the psychodynamic explanation of BPD to skim through the following articles:

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/the-fairbairnian-object-relations-approach-to-bpd/

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/four-phases-of-bpd-treatment-and-recovery/

Seinfeld adapted an object relations theory of trauma, building on theories developed by Ronald Fairbairn working with abused children in the early 20th century. Seinfeld understood how parental neglect and abuse became internalized by the (future borderline) child, and then was constantly replayed in their adult life, causing the borderline symptoms. He adapted the four phases that Harold Searles pioneered with schizophrenic patients, and modified them for use with less-disturbed borderlines. These phases – Out-of-Contact, Ambivalent Symbiosis, Therapeutic Symbiosis, and Individuation – involved “reparenting” the borderline individual so that they learned to love themselves and eventually became able to love other people.

It’s hard to summarize everything else from Seinfeld’s book on how to treat Borderline Personality Disorder (The Bad Object). So, as with the post on Gerald Adler, I will focus on a few key points.

#1: The Concepts of Structural Deficit and Bad-Object Conflict

One of Seinfeld’s foundations for understanding BPD was seeing a borderline individual as having both “a structural deficit of positive self-and-object images” and “bad object conflict.”

What the structural deficit means is that, compared to a healthier or “normal” individual, a borderline has not taken in sufficient positive experiences with the outside world to feel secure psychologically. This results in an inner emptiness or psychic void that makes it harder for the borderline to take in new positive experiences in the present, since they have trouble recognizing them as positive. This is the same concept as Adler’s notion of introjective insufficiency:

https://bpdtransformation.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/15-heroes-of-bpd-gerald-adler/

In healthier people, who have had much nurturing, love and security in childhood, the high number of past positive memories serve as “receptors” that help them recognize, seek out, and take in new positive experiences. By contrast, the borderline-to-be child usually receives very poor responses to their need for nurturance. Instead of internalizing a sense of love, security, and blessing, the future borderline child is left with an emptiness or longing for love which then becomes repressed. That is the structural deficit as described by Seinfeld and Adler – the quantitative insufficiency of internal positive memories based on a lack of past external positive experiences.

It is the structural deficit that results in the borderline’s being relatively unreceptive to new positive experience. For the adult borderline, positive experience – for example, being offered friendship, acceptance, and interest by other people – will seem unfamiliar, strange, alien, and even threatening when they are encountered. This is why, early on in the therapeutic process, Seinfeld found that severely borderline patients often didn’t know how to relate to him in a positive way. Rather, they experienced him in his helping role as, “an alien creature from another psychic planet.”

#2: Bad Object Conflict

As for “bad object conflict”, Seinfeld understood this to mean that not only is there a lack of positive memories, but there is a predominance of powerful negative memories (or images of oneself and other people) in the borderline’s mind. These scary, traumatic negative memories don’t just sit there – they act to reject the internalization of new positive memories. They are like metaphorical demons or monsters that scare the patient away from trusting others.

The child who becomes borderline internalizes many memories of being unloved, rejected, and even hated by inadequate parents. These memories collectively form the unconscious “internal bad object” or “rejecting object.” Despite its painful nature, relating to a rejecting other as an adult often feels safer and more familiar than trusting someone new who might prove disappointing. Also, the borderline tends to feel a perverse loyalty toward the people who abused him in the past, and to feel he is “bad” and therefore unworthy of help from good people.

For both these reasons – fear of being vulnerable toward good people, and loyalty toward the bad people from the past – the borderline individual tends to reject potential help and remains attached to the image of themselves as a worthless, undeserving, bad person. This can be acted out in many ways – via remaining alone and isolated, via abusive or neglectful relationships with present-day partners, via staying attached to the original abusive parents in the present day, via self-injurious acting-out behaviors, and so on.

Therefore, Seinfeld described how the borderline acts in subtle and overt ways to actively maintain an internal negative view of themselves and others. I would call this, “Perpetuating the past in the present.” The bad-object conflict thereby works in a vicious cycle to maintain the “structural deficit” because as long as the activities focused around bad perceptions of oneself and others predominate, quantitatively speaking, then new positive experiences are not being taken in in sufficient amounts to “tip the balance” and effect lasting psychic change.

Seinfeld likened the negative and positive relationships of a borderline patient (as long as they remain borderline) to a mathematical equation. In his formula, negative relationships to external others are activated more frequently than positive relationships, maintaining the attachment to the internal bad object and preventing the internalization of a good set of self-and-object images strong enough to displace the bad object.

According to Seinfeld, unawareness of the good object (“object” meaning person or people) tends to occur more in the out-of-contact phase, and active rejection tends to occur more in the ambivalently symbiotic phase, as described in post #10 on the Four Phases. Active rejection is necessary in the ambivalent symbiotic phase, because the good-object images are strong enough in that phase to pose a threat to the internalized bad object, which the patient unconsciously fears losing (since it is what he is familiar with).

#3: The Exciting Object

Another key concept from Seinfeld’s writing is the nonhuman exciting object. The exciting object is any addictive, stimulating, non-human object that serves to fill the void created by the lack of the good object. Food, drugs, sex, alcohol, medications, excessive use of TV or internet, and other nonhuman “things” can provide an addictive fix to compensate for the lack of love that a borderline feels.

The exciting object is part of Seinfeld’s mathematical equation of how BPD works. Because of the structural deficit and the bad object conflict, the all-negative split self and object units are mostly dominant in the borderline’s mind. These all-negative images reject the taking in of new positive experience which could be soothing, and therefore the borderline feels mostly empty, unhappy, and unstable emotionally.

To try to assuage these bad feelings, the borderline turns to nonhuman exciting objects as described above. These exciting objects plug the “hole” or emptiness created by the lack of truly satisfying positive relationships to good people in the outside world. However, exciting objects can only do so temporarily, since they are not truly satisfying long-term. Once their effect wears off, frustration will set in, and the borderline will usually return to involvement with the bad self and object images. This will then lead to more psychic pain around bad objects, resulting in the need for more exciting objects to assuage it, and so on.

#4: Interrupting the Rejecting-Exciting Object Cycle – Therapeutic Symbiosis

The main focus of Seinfeld’s book was not on the negative aspects of how a borderline functions, but on how to heal them. Seinfeld believed this could be done by interrupting the constant oscillation between rejecting and exciting objects via the internalization of a new good object relationship.

In normal language, the borderline needs to overcome their fear of trust and dependence, allowing themselves to develop a satisfying, loving relationship with the therapist. Seinfeld emphasized that successful therapy must move beyond a detached, professional relationship, and should explicitly involve love and closeness between patient and therapist. This does not mean that the pair are friends outside the sessions; rather, it means that a parental-like relationship of vulnerability, tenderness, and support is nurtured within the frame of the sessions.

This is the phase of therapeutic symbiosis. Seinfeld described how, “In this phase, there is a full reemergence of the vulnerable, regressive true self, in the care and protection of the idealized holding-therapist… At first, the patient’s vulnerable self is increasingly related to the therapist as holding object. The Internal positive self and object representation unit is increasingly dominant over the negative self and object representation unit, as long as the external therapist is highly available to reinforce the strengthening of the positive unit… As one patient said, “So long as everything is all right between you and me, I feel that all is well with the world. The good internal object serves to neutralize the bad, persecutory, rejecting object….

“In the later part of therapeutic symbiosis, the patient internalizes and identifies with the therapist to the point at which he is no longer so dependent upon the external therapist… The patient can now increasingly comfort, soothe, and mirror himself, regulating his own affect, mood, and self-esteem. In unconscious fantasy, he is now the comforter, sympathizer, and holder, as well as the comforted, empathized with, and held… All goodness is taken into the self; all badness is projected into the external object world…. In this way, the patient can establish a psychic foundation (of primarily positive self and object images) to eventually integrate the good and bad self and object units into whole, or ambivalently experienced, self and object images.” (pages 73-74)

Seinfeld’s Model of BPD – The Inversion of the Normative Developmental Psychic Process

Seinfeld continues, “The healthy child tries to take in or internalize the good object and reject or externalize the bad object. In the model I’m developing, the borderline patient manifests an inversion of the normative developmental process. Instead of taking in the positive object relations unit and rejecting the negative object relations unit, he takes in the negative object relations unit and rejects the positive object relations unit. In Fairbairn’s terms, he is attached to the internal bad object. The out-of-contact phase and ambivalent symbiosis are manifestations of the pathological inverted symbiosis in terms of the attachment to the bad object and rejection of the good object. Symbiosis becomes therapeutic when the patient adopts the normative but primitive developmental position of taking in all that is good and rejecting all that is bad. In this way, the patient can establish a psychic foundation to eventually integrate the good and bad object relations unit.” (page 75)

To me, this is a beautifully clear model of what causes BPD – bad relationships are taken in during development and reenacted continuously during adulthood, whereas good relationships are not taken in and are rejected later on. Successful recovery from BPD involves an reversal of this process.

Through the phase of therapeutic symbiosis, the patient can gradually gain confidence and make progress in three main areas in their outside life: 1) Leaving behind negative relationships (for example, to abusive partners, friends, or parents), 2) Developing new positive friendships and relationships to replace the bad ones, and 3) Developing enhanced autonomous functioning, work and interests.

In this way, the formerly borderline patient reverses the mathematical equation that had predominated when they were “borderline.” Instead of remaining attached to the all-negative images of themselves and others, the patient engages in new relationships and activities that are good, encouraging and self-supporting. In this way they take in a quantitative predominance of positive self-and-object images, and “spit out” the bad self and object images.

How To Interrupt the Rejecting-Exciting Object Cycle – Insight

The reader is probably interested as to how a borderline may start to break out of the negative-exciting object attachments. What Seinfeld worked on in therapy (and what one can work on with oneself) is developing the insight into how one sabotages oneself, which allows one to start making more constructive and adaptive choices instead.

Attachments to bad objects from the past are like schemas or relationship-templates that one replays over and over in the present “perpetuating the past in the present”), even though one doesn’t have to keep doing so. A person needs to identify how they are replaying bad relationships in the present, and treating themselves in the way that their parents did, to begin realizing how their behavior could change. As they become aware of the structural deficit (of positive self and other representations, resulting in unreceptivity toward good experience), and of the bad object conflict (which actively rejects and causes a person to fear good relationships), the borderline can start to actively seek out better experiences.

A great way to illustrate how this process works is via a case example. Hopefully, in the case of Kim above, the reader should be able to identify the structural deficit, bad object-conflict, use of exciting objects, and the ways in which Seinfeld interrupted these activities and nurtured insight in the patient, to encourage internalization of the therapist as a good object.

Recovery as a Mythic Journey

Lastly, I loved Seinfeld’s view of the therapy process as a mythic or epic journey. Seinfeld states (page ix), “This volume shows how to help the patient overcome what has been decribed as the most serious obstacle to psychotherapy: the negative therapeutic reaction. It is the bad object that is predominantly responsible for this reaction. The patient and therapist enduring the travails of the therapeutic journey often resemble Odysseus and his crew forced to outwit the demons, sirens, witches, and Cyclops threatening to thwart the long voyage. In fact, those mythological demons personify the manifold masks of the bad object often described as exciting (but not satisfying), enticing, bewitching, addicting, engulfing, rejecting , punishing, and persecuting…

“The bad object is comprised of the actual negative attributes of the parental figures – often a composite of both mother and father along with later figures resembling them – and the child’s fantasies and distortions about these figures. In this regard, the unsatisfactory experiences with the parental figures give rise to frustration and anger, which color the child’s perception of the object… The designation “bad” regarding the other person does not refer to a moral valuation but rather to the child’s subjective unsatisfactory experience with it… Therapeutic progress threatens the patient and therapist with the terrible wrath of the bad object. The patient is conflicted between his loyalty and fear of the bad object and the longing to enter into a good object relationship that will promote separation from the bad object… Fairbairn believed that the term “salvation” was a more apt designation than that of “cure” for the patient’s subjective experience of his need to be rescued from the bad object.” (preface page x)

This article is getting long enough already! I hope the reader, whether having borderline traits themselves, or wanting to help or understand someone with BPD, has found some interesting insights in Seinfeld’s approach to treating Borderline Personality Disorder.

Lastly, here is an interview and memoriam for Jeffrey Seinfeld, who sadly passed away a few years ago.

http://www.orinyc.org/JeffSeinfeld_InMemoriam.htm

Please share any comments you have below!

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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