Depathologizing The Borderline Client

Depathologizing The Borderline Client

Learning to Manage Our Fears

By Richard Schwartz

May/June 2013

I’ve specialized in treating survivors of severe sexual abuse for many years, which means that many of my clients fit the diagnostic profile of borderline personality disorder. Therapists typically dread these clients since they can be among their most difficult, unpredictable, and unnerving. My clients have often been highly suicidal—some threatening suicide to manipulate me, and others making serious attempts to kill themselves. Many have been prone to self-harm, cutting their arms or torsos and showing me the raw, open wounds. I’ve known them to binge on alcohol to the point of ruining their health, to drive under the influence, and to show up drunk for sessions. Sometimes they’ve acted out by stealing and getting caught or exploding into such rage in traffic or on the street that lives were actually in danger.

At times, they’ve formed a childlike dependence on me, wanting—and sometimes demanding—not only my continual personal reassurance, but also my help in making even small decisions, like whether to get a driver’s license. Some have had tantrums when I’ve left town. Others have wanted regular contact between sessions and asked to know in detail how I felt about them and what my personal life was like. They’ve continually tried to stretch my boundaries by demanding special treatment—such as free sessions and…

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Friday, September 4, 2020 11:04:42 AM | posted by Harvey Hyman
Thank you so much for your article Dr. Schwartz. I have been working with my first BPD client for several months now and it has been an emotional roller coaster but I have stayed loyal, non-judgmental, and caring the whole time. My focus has been on developing sufficient trust and safety for the client to examine his feelings and work with them. However, I have never come across a strategy for helping him reassure his protectors and heal his exiles. Your article provided the method.

Monday, January 23, 2017 9:22:22 PM | posted by Marion
I like the idea of asking my protectors to let my inner Self shine through...

Thursday, February 26, 2015 5:59:26 PM | posted by Meredith Munro, LMFT
Hi Dr. Schwartz,

I'm later to the conversation since I just came across this article last night, but just wanted to say thank you so much for your work and sharing your experiences working with trauma and BPD. I found it extremely helpful. As an LMFT, I've also found your work with your IFS model to be incredibly fascinating. This was a great couple of case studies that helped me understand how the model is applied in your work with clients. Thank you again!

Monday, November 18, 2013 11:45:07 PM | posted by OLAF HOLM
Magnificent article from Dr. Schwartz; for us IFS people it´s a big plus for our daily work

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 12:48:58 AM | posted by Jeff Kayes, LPCC
I don't think I will apply for sainthood anytime soon! Your article was humbling for sure. I found that I had to remind myself (quickly!) that I do succeed with some of my clients. Thank you for your brutal honesty with your internal reactions in working with these two women.

Friday, September 27, 2013 11:02:31 PM | posted by Sherry J. Zitter LICSW
This is a moving, skillful and superbly helpful article to me. It ha shifted my relationship to 2 of my clients who have a huge amount of self-hate and a tough time holding onto the work we do in between sessions.
The most useful part for me, of course, is the focus on noticing my own parts and how they can take over my natural compassion and wisdom. When I unblock my own heart, and open it toward any client is any situation with deep curiosity, miracles can happen -- as Dick shows us time and again.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 8:03:28 PM | posted by Terri
I am a Borderline. I have been having a terrible time adjusting to a new therapist, after the retirement of a much loved and cared for counselor. The feelings of abandonment and loss have been horrible. Thanks for a great article that has helped me understand more about myself than years of therapy ever have.

Sunday, June 30, 2013 6:03:11 PM | posted by Stana Paulauskas PhD
Excellent article and highly attuned compassion for self and client!!

Thursday, June 20, 2013 4:49:54 AM | posted by Cecille del Gallego, LCSW, CEAP
So spot on and very well articulated....I think the article captures the complexity of working with those who have had enormous pain and who have been violated on so many levels. It gives voice to the deepest yearning that is essentially in all of us - to be seen, heard, accepted and believed in. Great job humanizing this "population"...

Monday, June 17, 2013 1:57:22 AM | posted by Jake Eagle
Dick, I really appreciate your article this month, Depathologizing the Borderline Client. The specific details you shared about using IFS—both in dealing with parts of your client as well as dealing with parts of yourself—were illuminating.

This may not surprise you, but I recently experienced remarkable success using IFS with a client struggling with multiple parts—I don't label my clients—but she most certainly would be labeled with multiple personalty disorder by most in our profession.

I think what may have be unique in my approach is that I had her read the first 60 pages of Internal Family Systems after our first session. I asked her not to read any more of the book because I didn't want her to get caught up in the details, but the first 60 pages provided a context for our work. She immediately recognized herself reading your book and felt hopeful for the first time in her life. No one had previously been able to explain her confusion and internal conflict, but after reading your book she felt seen.

During the six months of working with my client she has identified all of her parts, engaged in conversation with all of them, and now talks openly about her family and how they are learning to live together and love each other. It's been a remarkable and relatively quick transformation. I don't think it would have been possible without your IFS model.

Hope you're well and maybe I'll see you again in Tulum.


Monday, June 10, 2013 9:23:04 PM | posted by Kimberly April (not my real name)
Thank you for humanizing the reality of the results of adult survivors of childhood abuse, and for specific ways to help therapists effectively relate to, treat, and heal those affected by this senseless horror. I am a survivor, and yes, I saw parts of myself in your dialogue. I am almost finished with my therapeutic journey of 4 long and sometimes painful years, yet also colored by unequivocal joy encontered through the ability to finally feel and deeply connect to another human being, my therapist. I appreciate all of your research and practical steps with parts work designed to help heal a shattered self. Doing parts work was one of the most painful yet healing parts of therapy after the much feared phase of establishing safety and trust, which took a very long time, and was filled with a lot of acting out in many forms.
Thanks again for this article and your work which has given those of us who have survived destructive secrets of the past much hope for unibiased treatment and point us to a live worth living, full of connecting with others. I am not out of the woods yet as the termination part of therapy seems to be a difficult one full of loss and pain, because although I intellectually realize that my therapist is not my father, all my little girl wants to do is take her blankie and climb up on the couch and sit next to him, because he helped me feel safe and finally alive. (This definitely is embarrassing for me because I am older than he is, and part of the baby boomer generation.)I am sure I will get through this because my therapist has given me coping skills, and I know he will walk with me to show me the way. Although he will not walk for me, he will walk with me, and that for me makes all the difference!

Monday, May 20, 2013 11:22:40 PM | posted by toni aguilar
this article has excellent advice for the therapist whose "parts" get too reactive and take things personally. (one of my clients taught me the term "QTIP"--quit taking it personally.) the rage (coming at us or simply to us)that some of these clients can exhibit is very difficult for some of us to handle w/o getting weary, no matter how compassionate or skilled we are. i DO believe in and use the idea of internal family systems, and i teach all my clients that all human behavior is purposive, geared toward whatever the subconscious THINKS it needs for survival. so i try to hang onto curiosity and that compassion at my core....but whew! i find it to be very hard work sometimes, choosing just the right words, the right tone, the right demeanor to help those protectors accept all of us who are in the room! thanks for running the article.

Sunday, May 19, 2013 3:02:20 AM | posted by Gary Brown
though I am not a therapist, nor a phsychologist or anything like that, I have been reading and enjoying this magazine for five or six years. I found this article to be very interesting and if I might dare to say, insightful. I talk with a lot of people and many of them ask me questions similar to those a therapist might receive.
I like to relate back to different articles I have read in this magazine to suggest things to those people. Many times I find that those to whom I speak find the way we interact to be thoughtful and insightful, I suspect this article will lead to further insights I might be able to share with those who ask for my input.
Thank you for the article, I feel it was a very worthwhile read.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 9:14:08 PM | posted by Suzanne Watts
As a therapist treating survivors of sexual abuse, this article was very informative for me. Therapists can be very nervous about treating clients who have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, especially if they are described and identified with that label. Viewing these clients as trauma survivors enables therapists to reframe their own countertransference reactions and possibly see the clients in a different light, as you so elequently pointed out.

However, as the article concluded it appeared as though you might have been referencing a client with Dissociative Identity Disorder (Colette in your article). It is difficult to tell given the brief summary of your interactions. I found that internal family systems therapy is very effective in treating DID and am interested in learning more about it.

In any event, all trauma therapists can benefit from helping clients speak to their inner "parts" which may have opposing messages at first glance.

Thank you for the informative article!