What is a Personality Disorder? Storm's Edge Therapy

What is a Personality Disorder?

What is a Personality Disorder? Storm's Edge TherapyDistress, Dysfunction, Danger

A person has a disorder of their personality when they don’t feel safe and secure in the world; they do not assume their world is safe; therefore, they are compelled to make it safe for themselves. However, they only have one strategy to make themselves safe in the world using this tried and tested strategy in all situations and all of the time. While in theory, these are good strategies, their unsystematic causes distress, dysfunction and/or danger. This means that their earnest efforts at creating a safe and secure environment have very real limits; their approach does work at times but when it doesn’t, they have no flexibility.

Let’s take a look at some of these helpful strategies that now they might cause harm to a person due to a lack of flexibility. There are different types of personality disorders; these are defined by their safety strategy:

  • The Narcissists’ strategy is to feel safe by being insulated (not isolated) and superior. This can be a great approach to situations where others are “losing their heads”, like in a crisis for example. This is one of the reasons that narcissists thrive in certain roles like management or as surgeons. However, this is a terrible way of trying to make friends, dating, when trying to make a sale, etc; any area of life that requires connection or co-operation.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder makes safe by cocooning themselves in chaos; in crisis they legitimately don’t need to worry about the bigger picture, like who you are or where you belong.
  • Dependent Personality Disorder, they are safe by exclusively focusing on the needs of others; you don’t have needs, so you don’t need to feel safe as long are others are ok.
  • Schizotypal Personality Disorder, they are safe from reality in magical thinking realms.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, in perfectionism they feel safe because they do everything possible hoping that a problem never even arises.
  • And so on for each personality disorder; centred on one inflexible strategy to be safe and to feel okay.

What is a Personality Disorder? Storm's Edge TherapyThe House Always Wins

One of the most well-established psychological principles is that when a reward is inconsistent its use is reinforced, in this case the occasional success of your safety strategy. This means that when there is a disordered personality, the sufferer knows from experience that their approach does in fact work. This fortifies the idea that “if it is not working now, then I should just try harder”; the problem today is my implementation, not the proven strategy. This is the same scenario that digs gamblers into deep holes, an instinct called doubling down. The gambler was winning with a strategy and when their “luck turns”, they stick to the same tactic merely because it worked well in the past.

The key flaw underlying this entire problem of personalities in disorder is the lack of flexibility. Like the gambler, you are not evaluating why your current method of making safe is not working. This is largely because you feel too fragile to let your defences down long enough to look at the situation and partly because you don’t have alternative tactics ready to apply. Deep down you feel fragile, vulnerable, stuck and don’t know what else to do.

Do take a look at our pages and other blogs relating to personality.

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Is Mindfulness Useful in Therapy? Storm's Edge Therapy

Is Mindfulness Useful in Therapy?

What is Mindfulness?

Is Mindfulness Useful in Therapy? Storm's Edge Therapy

Currently, this fashionable catchphrase is everywhere and promoted as the cure for everything from improving your relationship to weight loss. So what is it and can it possibly live up to all the hype? At the simple level mindfulness is noticing your thoughts, well that’s not a big deal everyone knows what they are thinking. The key element the practice of mindfulness adds is noticing what is happening at the time and not getting caught up in those thoughts. So if you are worried about paying your bills or what a friend said earlier, your mind is thinking about the issue and, hopefully, on task to solve the situation. But without noticing this can go in any number of directions:

  • your mind could go around in loops without getting anywhere,
  • you could slip into a dark place unawares,
  • you could work yourself up into anger about a small incident, etc.

Is Mindfulness Useful in Therapy? Storm's Edge Therapy

Catching Your Own Slippery Thoughts

Mindfulness is aimed at putting you in the driver seat in relation to your thought processes. So instead of getting lost for hours worrying about the nasty comment from your friend, you catch your thoughts and find a way out. This is especially helpful when trying to change a habit, even a thinking habit. For example, after a nasty comment you might steam and swirl until you explode. By noticing that you are spiralling you have the possibility of catching your pattern and make a different choice; without the skill of noticing then the only choice is running with the same old damaging habit.

A Guide Is Needed

Well if it is so simple and so useful why isn’t everyone already mindfulness whizzes? Firstly, it is a skill; mindfulness is an ability that you need to develop over time with practise. Secondly, it is simple but vague and elusive; which means that you need guidance and there will be ups and downs. Thirdly, it can be uncomfortable and the benefits don’t come immediately or systematically. In short, it is useful, but not particularly easy to learn.

This is made so much worse by the casual and superficial marketing; do this thing and it will be great. Mindfulness is actually multifaceted with different elements having different benefits; it is not just one tool. The benefits of mindfulness in a therapeutic context is that you have an experienced guide and that the process is focused on individualised problem solving. It is specifically structured around learning to use the abilities of your own mind to understand and improve your mental health struggles.

Using mindfulness can be a powerful tool within a therapy process whatever you are trying to resolve.

Myths and Misunderstandings about Self-Harm Storm's Edge Therapy

Myths and Misunderstandings about Self-Harm

  • Myth 1: People who self-harm are attempting suicide
    • Fact: Self-harm is most often used as a way to keep living despite experiencing emotional distress, rather than a way to end their life
  • Myth 2: People who self-harm are just attention-seeking
    • Fact: In fact, they tend to keep their self-harming a secret as a result of feelings of embarrassment, shame or guilt as well as not expecting others to understand or that it is a deeply personal act. It is not ‘just attention-seeking’ however sometimes it can be a cry for help
  • Myth 3: Don’t approach a person who self-harms, leave it to the professionals
    • Fact: Taking time to listen without judging encourages people to get their problems out into the open; the first and essential step along the road to recovery. You don’t need to focus, or even discuss, the self-harming, rather focus on the distress that is underlying the need to harm
  • Myth 4: You will know if someone is self-harming if they have cuts on their arms
    • Fact: Cutting is one form of self-harm; others include burning, hitting, bruising, swallowing, poisoning, etc. There is usually a great deal of effort made to keep the injuries and scars hidden; including actions that leave no mark or a mark in an area hidden by clothing
  • Myth 5: Self-harming is just the latest fashion and young people will simply grow out of it
    • Fact: Self-harm is not a phase or a fashion; read our blog on the different functions of self-harming. Listening to certain music, or dressing in certain ways does not lead to self-harming. People of all ages, backgrounds and of both genders self-harm. Self-harm is always a signal that something is seriously wrong
What is Self-Harming? Storm's Edge Therapy

What is Self-Harming?

In its broadest sense, self-harm describes a wide range of acts that people do to themselves in a deliberate and usually hidden way, which are damaging; includes cutting, burning, scalding, banging heads and other body parts against walls, hair-pulling, biting, swallowing or inserting objects as well as self-poisoning. It is a practice that has not fully settled on a name with other terms frequently being used; self-injury, self inflicted violence, self-injurious behaviour and self mutilation. Currently the phrase Deliberate Self-Harm (DSH) is being used in professional contexts.

Importantly, Self-harm in defined as inflicting immediate and direct physical damage or pain without the intent to kill oneself. The damage can be alarming with the uninformed not being able to understand and, therefore, making the assumption that the act was an attempt at suicide. Self-harming has many varied functions, but it is always a sign of emotional distress and that something is seriously wrong.

It is listed in the DSM-IV-TR (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) as a trait for diagnosing Borderline Personality Disorder and often associated with mental illness, trauma & abuse, low self-esteem & perfectionism and eating disorders.

People self-harm for a number of reasons, for some people self-harm provides the means to cope with overwhelming emotions, a way to control feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. For others, self-harm temporarily combats feelings of numbness to the world around them. It is important to bear in mind that everybody’s experience is unique, and there are no universal rules or reasons for self-harm.

Read further about the different function of self-harming.

Borderline Personality Disorder in the Media Storm's Edge Therapy

Borderline Personality Disorder in the Media

Many of my clients are devastated at the very suggestion that they have a mental health diagnosis, especially one as notorious as Borderline Personality Disorder. I have had patients in tears after looking up the diagnosis online where they have found a great deal of anger expressed against people that are supposed to be like them. And absolutely, both in and out of public life, there is a focus on the destructive elements. However, there are some key points to note about people that fall within this category:

  • they have positive and negative characteristics like everyone else, just more extreme
  • some are more extreme than others, like anything else
  • they make up a significant portion of the general population: between 1 in 20 to 1 in 50 people
    • they are not some strange outlying alien species, but part of your everyday life
  • the more extreme characteristics are stress related and not evident everyday
    • the more extreme behaviours relate to primary attachment figure, i.e. people close to them
  • treatment offers significant gains that make real differences

Below are some examples of borderline people or characteristics in popular media that we see every day. Hopefully, this will both normalise and show that these difficult traits can have positive aspects. These are intense people so they can be very charismatic, loyal, loving, intelligent, sensitive, humorous, among many other attributes.

Celebrities with BPD

The following have shown strong Borderline traits in their public life:

Amy Winehouse, Angelina Jolie, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Heather Mills, Christina Ricci, Britney Spears, Winona Ryder, Megan Fox, Charlie Sheen, Courtney Love, Lindsey Lohan and Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Certainly I would not diagnose people whom I have never met; the purpose her is simply to highlighting that their public personas have elements that are clear representations of borderline characteristics. They may well be the result of a different underlying cause. Diagnosis is a complex and in-depth processes.

Borderline Characteristics in Film and Television

In line with the outdated clichés, the earlier films show the destructive potential of these personality traits in their full cinematic glory. After “Girl, Interrupted”, a more realistic and mixed narrative started showing the characters as full rich and diverse people.

Fatal Attraction (1987)

In “Fatal Attraction,” the infamous femme fatale character played by Glenn Close displays the emotional instability and fear of abandonment that are symptomatic of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her character also exhibits symptoms of self-harm, obsession, intense anger and manipulation as she stalks her former lover and his family.

Single White Female (1992)

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in “Single White Female” exhibits fear of abandonment, identity confusion, impulsivity and mirroring as she attempts to take over the life of Bridget Fonda’s character.

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

This autobiography in diary format tells the story of Susanna Kaysen’s experiences as a patient with Borderline Personality Disorder in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960’s. The film (1999), which stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, centres around Kaysen’s 18-month stay at a mental hospital as a young adult. Both stars struggle with features of this disorder themselves.

Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron transformed into the role of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Wuornos was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which may have contributed to the unstable and angry behaviours that led to her killing at least six men.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

A comedy in which Uma Thurman portrays a woman with superpowers and a secret identity who also displays the BPD symptoms of impulsivity, unstable interpersonal relationships and poor self-image.

Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009)

The central character of Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace played by Katee Sackhoff shows many Borderline traits, including unstable emotions, behaviours and relationships, self-destructive behaviours, boundary diffusion, identity confusion, impulsivity and intense attachments. Starbuck is a richly diverse and nuanced character which shows both the destructive and heroic sides of a Borderline Personality that typifies these engaging and powerful people.

Katee Sackhoff also plays another character, Sarah Corvus, with Borderline traits in the American TV series Bionic Woman (2007).

Dexter (2006 – 2013)

In the American TV series Dexter’s his adoptive sister Debra Morgan, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is a well-developed character that consistently and accurately portrays a comprehensive span of Borderline features; lack of boundaries, intense attachments, erratic relationships, impulsivity, self-destructive behaviours, balanced with great loyalty, drive and compassion. Conversely, one of Dexter’s girl-friends Lila Tournay, portrayed by Jaime Murray, equally fits the diagnosis only in a dramatically different with a focus on self-centred behaviours, lack of containment and destructiveness directed outward at others. Although, not exact opposites these two characters show the wide range of expressions possible within this diagnosis.

Brooklyn Nine Nine (2013)

This 2013 American offbeat police sitcom starts Andy Samberg as Officer Jake Peralta who is erratic, unboundaried, self-focused and self-destructive; but equally exciting and endearing.

Taxi Brooklyn (2014)

Chyler Leigh plays determined and passionate, but chaotic Detective Caitlyn Sullivan who has broken the rules so many times the Captain won’t even let her drive. She forms a close attachment with taxi driver Leo Romba played by Jacky Ido who provides her stability and perspective.

Murder in the First (2014)

Homicide detectives Terry English and Hildy Mulligan investigate two murders that outwardly appear to be unrelated. As the investigation proceeds, they find that both murders have a common element – that being Silicon Valley rising star Erich Blunt. The show examines the crime through the investigation, arrest and trial. Hildy is played by Kathleen Robertson to show a dedicated mother and detective contained by her work role, but with a strong underlying self-destructive drive. Her loyalty, authenticity, and passion are evident through story times where her struggle with boundaries can be admired even whilst getting her into trouble. Again the show provides the chaotic character with a stabiliser and sensible perspective in her partner played by Taye Diggs, an example of a Dependent Personality Disorder. Their antagonist is an Antisocial character being investigated for murder, played by Tom Felton.

Although all played a little close to cliché, this story does provide an excellent illustration of a Borderline/Dependent/Antisocial triangle at a sub-clinical intensity. All the characters demonstrate a limited range of life strategies definitive of a Personality Disorder, but all are functional and contributing members of society.