Trust is key in treating borderline personality disorder


Customizing the treatment

Physicians can choose from one of these manualized forms of treatment to see what’s appropriate and what works for the patient. “You can individualize the treatment, borrowing from these approaches and shaping it based on what your patient needs,” Dr. Oldham recommended.

Recently, the field of psychiatry has seen the benefits of combining manualized, evidence-based approaches with general psychiatric management (GPM), a method conceived by Dr. Gunderson. GPM “reflects a sensitive understanding of mental illness, offering ‘non attacking’ or collaborative work with the patient and a sensitive recognition of appropriate interventions or corrections to help the patient stay in treatment,” said Dr. Oldham.

It aims to conceptualize BPD in a clinically objective way, medicalizing the disorder so it’s something that the patient has, rather than something he or she is, explained Dr. Choi-Kain, who worked with Dr. Gunderson to train clinicians on using this approach. Using a framework that’s compatible with good medical practices, the clinician tries to define the problem together with the patient, “really assessing whether or not the treatment works, setting goals, managing safety, and trying to promote functioning, something we need to pay more attention to with BPD,” she said.

For these patients, the goal is to have positive, corrective experiences in the real world, reinforcing their hopes and what they’re capable of, and an interface with the world that makes them feel like contributors, she said.

Cycle of rupture and repair

Many people with BPD struggle with the desire to find and feel love, but also deal with their rage and hate. Hence, therapists must prepare themselves for the experience of sometimes being hated, said Dr. Plakun. The patient needs to feel they’re in a safe enough space to express those feelings, activating a cycle of “rupture and repair,” he continued.

The key in working with these patients is to avoid any language that will make them feel attacked or criticized, said Dr. Oldham.

A patient may get furious and say “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t say that.” When in truth, the psychiatrist is flat accurate about what the patient said. Instead of arguing with the patient, a physician can back up and say: “Help me understand what you’re feeling right now. What did I say that made you feel that you couldn’t trust me? Help me understand you. I may have made a mistake,” he advised.

Trust is a key ingredient in an alliance-based intervention for suicidal patients with BPD that Dr. Plakun has frequently written about. A bond he had with a deeply suicidal patient helped her overcome her grief and come to terms with an abusive childhood.

“She had a horrible history of abuse and had BPD and bipolar disorder. Even controlled with medications her life was still awful. She contemplated suicide relentlessly.” Working through her history of sexual abuse, the patient discovered that much of what she and clinicians thought of as a depressive illness was in fact intense grief about the irreparable damage that had taken place during childhood.

Through their work she was able to mourn, and her depression and BPD improved.

Developing a trusting relationship with the patient isn’t a starting point; it’s the goal, he emphasized.

“You don’t prescribe trust to someone. It’s earned.” Through the shared journey of therapy, as the patient suffers from inevitable injuries and ruptures and as the therapist reveals his or her imperfections, opportunities arise to nonjudgmentally examine and repair ruptures. This lead to gains in trust, he said.


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