For Residents

Borderline personality disorder: Remember empathy and compassion

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Oh, great!” a senior resident sardonically remarked with a smirk as they read up on the next patient in the clinic. “A borderline patient. Get ready for a rough one ... Ugh.”

Before ever stepping foot into the patient’s room, this resident had prematurely established and demonstrated an unfortunate dynamic for any student or trainee within earshot. This is an all-too-familiar occurrence when caring for individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), or any other patients deemed to be “difficult.” The patient, however, likely walked into the room with a traumatic past that they continue to suffer from, in addition to any other issues for which they were seeking care.

Consider what these patients have experienced

A typical profile of these resilient patients with BPD: They were born emotionally sensitive. They grew up in homes with caretakers who knowingly or unknowingly invalidated their complaints about having their feelings hurt, about being abused emotionally, sexually, or otherwise, or about their worries concerning their interactions with peers at school. These caretakers may have been frightening and unpredictable, randomly showing affection or arbitrarily punishing for any perceived misstep, which led these patients to develop (for their own safety’s sake) a hypersensitivity to the affect of others. Their wariness and distrust of their social surroundings may have led to a skeptical view of kindness from others. Over time, without any guidance from prior demonstrations of healthy coping skills or interpersonal outlets from their caregivers, the emotional pressure builds. This pressure finally erupts in the form of impulsivity, self-harm, desperation, and defensiveness—in other words, survival. This is often followed by these patients’ first experience with receiving some degree of appropriate response to their complaints—their first experience with feeling seen and heard by their caretakers. They learn that their needs are met only when they cry out in desperation.1-3

These patients typically bring these maladaptive coping skills with them into adulthood, which often leads to a series of intense, unhealthy, and short-lived interpersonal and professional connections. They desire healthy, lasting connections with others, but through no fault of their own are unable to appropriately manage the normal stressors therein.1 Often, these patients do not know of their eventual BPD diagnosis, or even reject it due to its ever-negative valence. For other patients, receiving a personality disorder diagnosis is incredibly validating because they are no longer alone regarding this type of suffering, and a doctor—a caretaker—is finally making sense of this tumultuous world.

The countertransference of frustration, anxiety, doubt, and annoyance we may feel when caring for patients with BPD pales in comparison to living in their shoes and carrying the weight of what they have had to endure before presenting to our care. As these resilient patients wait in the exam room for the chance to be heard, let this be a reminder to greet them with the patience, understanding, empathy, and compassion that physicians are known to embody.

Suggestions for working with ‘difficult’ patients

The following tips may be helpful for building rapport with patients with BPD or other “difficult” patients:

  • validate their complaints, and the difficulties they cause
  • be genuine and honest when discussing their complaints
  • acknowledge your own mistakes and misunderstandings in their care
  • don’t be defensive—accept criticism with an open mind
  • practice listening with intent, and reflective listening
  • set ground rules and stick to them (eg, time limits, prescribing expectations, patient-physician relationship boundaries)
  • educate and support the patient and their loved ones.

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