Trust Is 'Key' in Treating Borderline Personality Disorder

Jennifer Lubell

September 21, 2021

Difficulties associated with treating borderline personality disorder (BPD) make for an uneasy alliance between patient and clinician. Deep-seated anxiety and trust issues often lead to patients skipping visits or raging at those who treat them, leaving clinicians frustrated and ready to give up or relying on a pill to make the patient better.

John M. Oldham, MD, MS, recalls one patient he almost lost, a woman who was struggling with aggressive behavior. Initially cooperative and punctual, the patient gradually became distrustful, grilling Oldham on his training and credentials. "As the questions continued, she slipped from being very cooperative to being enraged and attacking me," said Oldham, Distinguished Emeritus Professor in the Menninger department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College in Houston.

Oldham eventually drew her back in by earning her trust. "There's no magic to this," he acknowledged. "You try to be as alert and informed and vigilant for anything you say that produces a negative or concerning reaction in the patient."

This interactive approach to BPD treatment has been gaining traction in a profession that often looks to medications to alleviate specific symptoms. It's so effective that it sometimes even surprises the patient, Oldham noted. "When you approach them like this, they can begin to settle down," which was the case with the female patient he once treated.

About 1.4% of the U.S. population has BPD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Conceptualized by the late John G. Gunderson, MD, BPD initially was seen as floating on the borderline between psychosis and neurosis. Clinicians now understand that this isn't the case. The patients need, as Gunderson once pointed out, constant vigilance because of attachment issues and childhood trauma.

A stable therapeutic alliance between patient and physician, sometimes in combination with evidence-based therapies, is a formula for success, some experts say.

A Misunderstood Condition

Although there is some degree of heritable risk, BPD patients are often the product of an invalidating environment in childhood. "As kids, we're guided and nurtured by caring adults to provide models of reasonable, trustworthy behavior. If those role models are missing or just so inconsistent and unpredictable, the patient doesn't end up with a sturdy self-image. Instead, they're adrift, trying to figure out who will be helpful and be a meaningful, trustworthy companion and adviser," Oldham said.

Emotional or affective instability and impulsivity, sometimes impulsive aggression, often characterize their condition. "Brain-imaging studies have revealed that certain nerve pathways that are necessary to regulate emotions are impoverished in patients with BPD," Oldham said.

An analogy is a car going too fast, with a runaway engine that's running too hot – and the brakes don't work, he added.

"People think these patients are trying to create big drama, that they're putting on a big show. That's not accurate," he continued. These patients don't have the ability to stop the trigger that leads to their emotional storms. They also don't have the ability to regulate themselves. "We may say, it's a beautiful day outside, but I still have to go to work. Someone with BPD may say: It's a beautiful day; I'm going to the beach," Oldham explained.

A person with BPD might sound coherent when arguing with someone else. But their words are driven by the storm they can't turn off.

This can lead to their own efforts to turn off the intensity. They might become self-injurious or push other people away. It's one of the ironies of this condition because BPD patients desperately want to trust others but are scared to do so. "They look for any little signal – that someone else will hurt, disappoint, or leave them. Eventually their relationships unravel," Oldham saod.

For some, suicide is sometimes a final solution.

Those traits make it difficult for a therapist to connect with a patient. "This is a very difficult group of people to treat and to establish treatment," said Michael A. Cummings, MD, of the department of psychiatry at University of California, Riverside, and a psychopharmacology consultant with the California Department of State Hospitals' Psychopharmacology Resource Network.

BPD patients tend to idealize people who are attempting to help them. When they become frustrated or disappointed in some way, "they then devalue the caregiver or the treatment and not infrequently, fall out of treatment," Cummings said. It can be a very taxing experience, particularly for younger, less experienced therapists.

Medication Only Goes So Far

Psychiatrists tend to look at BPD patients as receptor sites for molecules, assessing symptoms they can prescribe for, Eric M. Plakun, MD, DLFAPA, FACPsych, medical director/CEO of the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., said in an interview.

Yet, BPD is not a molecular problem, principally. It's an interpersonal disorder. When BPD is a co-occurring disorder, as is often the case, the depressive, anxiety, or other disorder can mask the BPD, he added, citing his 2018 paper on tensions in psychiatry between the biomedical and biopsychosocial models (Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2018 Jun;41[2]:237-48).

In one longitudinal study (J Pers Disord. 2005 Oct;19[5]:487-504), the presence of BPD strongly predicted the persistence of depression. BPD comorbid with depression is often a recipe for treatment-resistant depression, which results in higher costs, more utilization of resources, and higher suicide rates. Too often, psychiatrists diagnose the depression but miss the BPD. They keep trying molecular approaches with prescription drugs – even though it's really the interpersonal issues of BPD that need to be addressed, said Plakun, who is a member of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry's Psychotherapy Committee, and founder and past leader of the American Psychiatric Association's Psychotherapy Caucus.

Medication can be helpful as a short-term adjunctive therapy. Long term, it's not a sustainable approach, said Oldham. "If a patient is in a particularly stressful period, in the middle of a stormy breakup or having a depressive episode or talking about suicide, a time-limited course of an antidepressant may be helpful," he said. They could also benefit from an anxiety-related drug or medication to help them sleep.

What you don't want is for the patient to start relying on medications to help them feel better. The problem is, many are suffering so much that they'll go to their primary care doctor and say, "I'm suffering from anxiety," and get an antianxiety drug. Or they're depressed or in pain and end up with a cocktail of medications. "And that's just going to make matters worse," Oldham said.

Psychotherapy as a First-Line Approach

APA practice guidelines and others worldwide have all come to the same conclusion about BPD. The primary or core treatment for this condition is psychotherapy, said Oldham, who chaired an APA committee that developed an evidence-based practice guideline for patients with BPD.

Psychotherapy keeps the patient from firing you, he asserted. "Because of the lack of trust, they push away. They're very scared, and this fear also applies to therapist. The goal is to help the patient learn to trust you. To do that, you need to develop a strong therapeutic alliance."

In crafting the APA's practice guideline, Oldham and his colleagues studied a variety of approaches, including mentalization-based therapy (MBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which was developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD. Since then, other approaches have demonstrated efficacy in randomized clinical trials, including schema-based therapy (SBT), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP).

Those treatments might complement the broader goal of establishing a strong alliance with the patient, Oldham said. Manualized approaches can help prepackage a program that allows clinicians and patients to look at their problems in an objective, nonpejorative way, Lois W. Choi-Kain, MD, MEd, director of the Gunderson Personality Disorders Institute at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., said in an interview. DBT, for example, focuses on emotion dysregulation. MBT addresses how the patient sees themselves through others and their interactions with others. "It destigmatizes a problem as a clinical entity rather than an interpersonal problem between the patient and the clinician," Choi-Kain said.

The choice of approach depends on several factors: the patient's needs and preferences, and the therapist's skills and experience, said Oldham. Some patients don't do well with DBT because it involves a lot of homework and didactic work. Others do better with TFP because they want to understand what drives their behavior.

Cummings recalled how one of his patients used TFP to look inward and heal.

He first met the patient when she was in her early 30s. "She had made some progress, but I remember she was still struggling mightily with relationship issues and with identifying her role in relationships," he said. The patient was becoming increasingly aware that she was going to end up alone and didn't want that as an outcome.

Adapting to a TFP model, "she worked very hard trying to understand herself as she related to other people, understanding her own emotional volatility, and some of her proneness to behavioral problems," Cummings said. The patient also had to learn how to negotiate her relationships to the point where she didn't end up destroying them and alienating people.

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," 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 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 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 Choi-Kain, who worked with 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 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 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 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.

It's Not Just About Genes

Many in the psychiatric and psychological communities tend to develop a very nihilistic view of BPD patients, observed Cummings. "They'll say: 'Oh, well, it's hopeless. There's nothing that can be done.' That isn't true," he said.

Epidemiologic studies of these individuals have shown that many of these patients no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for BPD by the time they reach middle age. This means they get better over time, noted Cummings.

Plakun's hope is that the field will evolve in a direction that recognizes the importance of psychosocial treatments like psychotherapy, in addition to biomedical treatments. The drive to medicate still exists, which can contribute to underdiagnosis and undertreatment of BPD, he said. "Although there are manualized, evidence-based treatments, few clinicians learn even one of these for BPD, not to mention those for other disorders."

In 1996, Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, predicted that the decoding of the human genome would transform treatment of medical and mental disorders [and] "that we would discover the ways in which genes equal disease," said Plakun. What the science has since shown, is genes by environmental interaction lead to disease and health.

Nature and nurture both matter. "And I don't think we're paying enough attention to the nurture side," Plakun said.

The solution is a return to a biopsychosocial model, recognizing that psychotherapy is an essential part of treatment of BPD and other conditions, and an essential clinician skill, he said.

Oldham is coeditor of the "Textbook of Personality Disorders", 3rd edition (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2021).Choi-Kain is coeditor with Gunderson of "Applications of Good Psychiatric Management for Borderline Personality Disorder: A Practical Guide" (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2019).

Cummings and Plakun had no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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