Psychotherapy for personality disorders (PDs), like any other form of

treatment, should be evidence based. For many years, if you wanted to

read about treatment, the only choices you had were to read books describ-

ing the clinical experience of an “expert.” You could also go to workshops

to learn about these ideas. Recommendations were not based on empirical

evidence, however, because there wasn’t any.

Almost all research on the treatment of PDs has studied patients

meeting criteria for borderline PD (BPD), which is also the condition

that most interests clinicians. Starting with the seminal work of Linehan

(1993), a number of innovative methods of treatment have been tested

in clinical trials and shown to be effective. There are now half a dozen

therapies for patients with BPD, each described by an acronym. I am not

convinced, however, that they work in different ways and have different


http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14642-011A Concise Guide to Personality Disorders, by J. ParisCopyright © 2015 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.

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Three caveats should be considered. First, even if one follows a tested

method of psychotherapy, many decisions still need to be made that

derive from experience and skill. Second, research on the therapy of BPD

does not have the heft of literature on other mental disorders, such as

depression or anxiety. Third, there is no evidence that any one method

that has been tested is better than any other. Any therapy that is well

planned will be better than unstructured treatment as usual (TAU)

because it provides patients with external structures that make up for their

inner chaos.

A further limitation, one that applies to any psychotherapy, is that not

every patient can be expected to benefit from treatment. Even in the most

seriously ill, however, rehabilitation can have partial effects. Yet some are

sicker than others, and those who do best usually have “ego strengths”—

a job, an intimate relationship, or both. These areas of positive function-

ing provide patients with a base on which to build skills in other areas.

Although there are always surprises and some patients who are seriously

ill may recover, the observation that better functioning is predictive of

outcome in psychotherapy is a well-known and consistent finding in

research (Bohart & Greaves-Wade, 2013). If you are treating patients

who have no job, no relationship, and no life to speak of, what is there to

work on? If, on the other hand, patients have a life, then therapy benefits

from a laboratory setting in which people can practice what they learn

in treatment sessions.

Although specialized therapies may not be different from each other,

not all psychotherapies applied in practice are equal. What researchers

call TAU tends to be a mess in which patients talk about their problems

to a sympathetic professional but are not given specific guidance in over-

coming dysfunctional emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This is why

clinical trials always find that specific methods do better than TAU: It

is not hard to do better. Yet when comparisons are made between two

well-structured approaches, differences usually disappear (McMain et al.,

2009; Zanarini, 2009). Patients need planned and structured forms of

therapy, but the brand name may make no difference.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was the first evidence-based treatment

for BPD. Developed by Marsha Linehan (1993), this was the first psycho-

therapy for BPD to undergo successful clinical trials (Linehan, Armstrong,

Suarez, Allmon, & Heard, 1991; Linehan et al., 2006). The introduction of

DBT was a turning point in the treatment of the disorder, and its principles

lie at the core of all successful therapy in this population. Here, at last, was

a practical approach that targeted the key traits and symptoms of BPD.

Today, DBT remains the leading evidence-based method of therapy

for patients with BPD. It is an adaptation of cognitive behavioral therapy

(CBT), combined with interventions common to other approaches, but

specifically designed to target the emotion dysregulation that characterizes

BPD, and to reduce impulsive behaviors. It applies chain analysis to inci-

dents leading to self-injury and overdoses—that is, showing patients what

emotions lead up to impulsive behaviors and teaching them alternative

ways of handling dysphoric emotions. DBT also emphasizes empathic

responses to distress that provide validation for the inner experience

of patients. The program consists of weekly individual therapy, group

psychoeducation, telephone availability for coaching, as well as support

through consultation for therapists undertaking these procedures. The

method is an eclectic mix of behavior therapy, CBT, mindfulness based

on Zen Buddhism, and original ideas such as radical acceptance (Linehan,

1993). These techniques have been described in some detail (Linehan,

2014; Linehan & Koerner, 2012).

The first published trial (Linehan et al., 1991) compared 1 year of DBT

with TAU and found DBT to be superior, especially in regard to reductions

in self-harm, overdose, and hospitalization. The question was whether it

was too easy to do better than TAU. For this reason, Linehan et al. (2006)

conducted a second clinical trial in which the comparison group was

“treatment by community experts”—therapists who identified themselves

as interested in BPD and experienced in its treatment. The results again

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favored DBT, with reductions in overdoses and subsequent hospitaliza-

tions within a year, although this time there were no differences between

the groups in the frequency of self-harm. Replication studies in other cen-

ters produced similar results, albeit with higher rates of attrition (Linehan

& Koerner, 2012). A meta-analysis (Kliem, Kröger, & Kosfelder, 2010) sup-

ported the conclusion that DBT is an effective and specific method that is

superior to traditional ways of treating BPD patients.

Although several specific methods of therapy designed for BPD

symptoms have been supported by randomized controlled trials (Paris,

2010b), the strongest evidence supports DBT. The method is a clinical

application of psychological research on emotion regulation (Gross, 2013).

The dysregulation in BPD leads to unstable emotions that are abnormal

responses to interpersonal conflict (Koenigsberg, 2010). That conclusion

has been confirmed by studies of BPD patients using ecological momen-

tary assessment, a technology that allows researchers to track emotional

instability more closely by immediate recording of affective and behav-

ioral responses to life events (Russell et al., 2007; Trull et al., 2008). In

DBT, patients are taught better ways of calming down, during and after

emotional storms, which then reduces the frequency of self-harm and


There are some important unanswered questions about DBT. Although

the original cohort received therapy 20 years ago, it has never been fol-

lowed up, so we do not know whether treated samples maintain their

gains and continue to improve beyond a 1-year posttreatment follow-up.

Also, given the resources required to conduct DBT, it needs to be deter-

mined whether this complex program can be dismantled or streamlined

for greater clinical impact. One report found that a 6-month version of

the therapy can also be effective (Stanley, Brodsky, Nelson, & Dulit,

2007). A treatment lasting for a year (and often more) becomes quickly

inaccessible as waiting lists grow and most patients and their families

cannot afford the expense.

Finally, there is the question of whether DBT is a uniquely effica-

cious treatment for BPD or whether other well-structured approaches

can produce the same results. To address this issue, McMain et al. (2009)

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administered DBT for 1 year, with random assignment to a comparison

condition called general psychiatric management, a manualized version of

the American Psychiatric Association (2001) guidelines for the treatment

of BPD. The results of this comparative trial found no differences between

the groups in overdoses, hospitalization, or self-harm. This negative find-

ing had important clinical implications. It suggests that although DBT is

better than most treatments, it can be matched by other therapies that are

designed for this population and that are equally well-structured. Further,

because results were good in both groups, the treatment package used for

the comparison has now been studied on its own, under the name of good

psychiatric management (Gunderson & Links, 2014).

A key question about DBT is whether the results of the treatment are

specific to the method or to the structure. By and large, psychotherapy

research supports a common factors model in which all well-structured

treatments yield similar outcomes (Wampold, 2001). The positive results

of DBT could be due to its high level of structure rather than to its specific

interventions. This supposition was supported by the study by McMain

et al. (2009). So although DBT is clearly better than TAU and somewhat

better than treatment by therapists with experience in treating BPD,

it is not necessarily better than a well-thought-out program of clinical


The popularity of DBT depends on its comprehensiveness, as well as

on its commitment to conducting research to demonstrate its efficacy.

DBT is not the only evidence-based therapy on the market, but it is the

only method that has been tested in multiple clinical trials outside the cen-

ter where it was developed, showing that its efficacy cannot be accounted

for by allegiance effects. The ideas behind DBT are fundamental for any

therapist seeing patients with BPD. It is not a narrowly focused form of

treatment that only deals with cognitive schemata; it also provides vali-

dating responses to current emotional upsets and offers education about

emotion regulation.

However, there is a serious problem with DBT: Its expense makes it

inaccessible. This is mainly because of the length of therapy. DBT has been

tested for a year, but even that length of time is beyond most insurance

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policies or the financial resources of most families. Of even more concern,

Linehan (1993) suggested that even this lengthy period may be only the

first phase of a treatment that could go on for several years. I am reminded

of the story of psychoanalysis in which inevitably incomplete results led to

an interminable course of therapy. DBT is effective but is accessible only

to those who can pay for it. Even if it were properly insured, its length

would still make access a problem: Clinics offering the treatment, even for

12 months, often have extensive waiting lists. It is important to shorten

DBT or to make it intermittent (or do both). This is the only way to provide

service to more patients.

We all owe a debt to Marsha Linehan. I have learned an enormous

amount from her and have applied her principles in all the clinics I lead

that treat BPD. Moreover, Linehan’s recent public statements, acknowl-

edging that she herself once suffered from BPD but recovered, were coura-

geous and have done a great deal to reduce the stigma associated with this

disorder. Nonetheless, treatment for BPD suffers from the perception that

DBT is the only brand that works. Therapists should not feel badly if they

are not in a position to provide DBT in a formal way or to refer patients to

a DBT clinic. In the next chapter, I show that its principles can be incor-

porated into normal clinical practice. In my view, brand names are bad for

therapy. As cognitive theory evolves, it has become a more general term for

what might be called simply psychotherapy (Beck & Haigh, 2014). Livesley

(2012) recommended that DBT give up its brand name and incorporate

its best ideas into a general model of treatment for BPD.

Other Evidence-Based Psychotherapies for BPD

Although other methods have been devised, they do not differ from DBT in

any essential way (Paris, in press). We now examine those that have under-

gone clinical trials.

Mentalization-based treatment (MBT; Bateman & Fonagy, 2006) is

rooted in attachment theory, but the method also has a strong cognitive

component. Its assumption is that BPD patients have trouble recognizing

emotions (their own and those of other people), that is, mentalization.

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MBT teaches patients how to do that better. Like most effective programs,

it uses a combination of group and individual therapy. Although devel-

oped by psychoanalysts, it uses a number of cognitive methods similar to

DBT in that patients are taught to recognize their emotions, learn how to

tolerate them, and manage them in more adaptive ways.

MBT was first tested in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in a day

program lasting 18 months (Bateman & Fonagy, 2001) and found to be

superior to TAU. A second study in a larger sample of outpatients given

18 months of treatment found a decline of both self-reported symptoms

and clinically significant problems, including suicide attempts and hospi-

talization (Bateman & Fonagy, 2009). This is the only method for which

researchers have followed up a cohort for 8 years to determine if the effects

of treatment remain stable, which turned out to be the case (Bateman &

Fonagy, 2004).

MBT needs successful clinical trials in centers outside the hospital where

it originated. Thus far, the only attempt at replication outside the United

Kingdom reported few differences from standard therapy (Jørgensen et al.,

2013). However, Bateman and Fonagy (2008) do not consider MBT as a

“one-and-only” approach but encourage mental health workers to learn

its principles and then apply them in their own clinical settings, without

necessarily following a strict protocol. One can only applaud such open-

mindedness and flexibility. Finally, Bateman and Fonagy (2008) have stated

that the results of their research are not specific to their method but sup-

port any structured approach to psychotherapy. This may be the most con-

sistent finding in this literature (Choi-Kain & Gunderson, 2008).

Transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP; Clarkin, Levy, Lenzenweger,

& Kernberg, 2007) is based on the theories of the psychoanalyst Otto

Kernberg. It differs from other methods in that its focus is on distortions

between therapist and patient in the session, used to illustrate inter-

personal problems elsewhere in the patient’s life. It has thus far under-

gone two clinical trials, one comparing it with DBT, with only minimal

differences (Clarkin, Levy, Lenzenweger, & Kernberg, 2007), and one

comparing it with TAU, to which it was superior (Doering et al., 2010).

TFP aims to generalize what happens in therapy to outside relationships.

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Given the long record of failure for psychodynamic therapy in BPD, one

might consider this approach with caution. Nonetheless, at this point TFP

has about as much support as MBT. It shares the advantage of being struc-

tured and well thought out.

Cognitive analytic therapy is based on similar concepts and can be

considered as another psychodynamic–cognitive hybrid. It applies object

relations theory to establish a firmer sense of self in patients. It has been

tested in a population of adolescents (Chanen & McCutcheon, 2013),

where it was effective, albeit not superior, to a manualized version of

“good clinical care.”

Schema-focused therapy (SFT; Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003) is

another mixture of cognitive and psychodynamic approaches that aims

to modify how patients think about their world (i.e., cognitive schemata),

but it also focuses on the distorting effects of negative childhood experiences.

It has undergone one clinical trial comparing it with transference-focused

psychotherapy (Giesen-Bloo et al., 2006), with only minor differences in

outcome and one trial in which it was superior to TAU (Bamelis, Evers,

Spinhoven, & Arntz, 2014). The problem with schema-focused therapy

is that it is designed to last for 3 years, making it even more inaccessible

than DBT.

Standard CBT has been tested in a study conducted in the United

Kingdom (Davidson, Tyrer, Norrie, Palmer, & Tyrer, 2010). After an aver-

age of 26 sessions, BPD patients did better with cognitive therapy than

with TAU. It also seems likely that CBT for BPD is now being conducted

on broader, more flexible principles. When a Cochrane review (Stoffers,

Völlm, et al., 2012) concluded that the data for cognitive therapy were

“promising,” they were not thinking of standard CBT. Linehan had devel-

oped DBT because of her impression that standard CBT was not effective

for BPD. Yet a large RCT (Davidson et al., 2010) found manualized CBT,

modified to target PD symptoms, was superior to TAU for the treatment

of recurrent deliberate self-harm.

It is important to know that therapy lasting for a few months can

be effective. The evidence for this conclusion was recently reviewed by

Davidson and Tran (2014). What was most striking about these findings

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was that the mean length of treatment was 16 sessions. This suggests that

BPD might be treated more rapidly, and less expensively, than by treat-

ments designed to continue for a year or two. Perhaps the most chronic

and severe patients with BPD require several years of therapy, but it makes

no sense to make a long duration the standard of care.

Systems training for emotional predictability and problem solving (STEPPS;

Blum et al., 2008) is a brief and practical program that closely resembles

DBT in its focus on emotion regulation skills. It is designed to supple-

ment TAU, particularly in settings where specialized individual therapies

are not available. STEPPS, based on psychoeducation in groups, has been

supported by clinical trials, with a 1-year follow-up (Blum et al., 2008).

STEPPS is a short-term intervention with psychoeducation conducted

in groups, designed to supplement standard psychotherapy or manage-

ment conducted elsewhere. It is particularly suitable for populations living

in regions where specialized treatment is not available. It is inexpensive

and offers ready accessibility. STEPPS has been subjected to a successful

clinical trial in BPD (Blum et al., 2008), with one replication (Bos, van

der Wel, Appelo, & Verbraak, 2010). It has also undergone one test in

the treatment of antisocial PD (Black, Gunter, Loveless, Allen, & Sieleni,

2010), although one cannot conclude that this makes antisocial PD as

treatable as BPD.


Although these individual approaches each have useful ideas and tech-

niques, they work through common mechanisms (Paris, in press). A vast

literature shows that the effective factors for outcome in any form of psy-

chotherapy are common rather than specific (Wampold, 2001). Nor is it

necessarily true that patients with BPD can only be seen in specialized

clinics; most benefit from what Gunderson and Links (2014) termed good

psychiatric management. The ideas behind effective therapy are spread-

ing to the wider therapeutic community, and interventions (e.g., teaching

emotion regulation) are becoming part of the armamentarium of thera-

pists of all persuasions.

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It is unfortunate that psychotherapy as a field continues to be defined

by competing methods, many of which use a three-letter acronym. It is

even more unfortunate that clinicians define themselves as practitioners

of any single method. Research can help us get beyond these unnecessary


Thus, I agree with Livesley (2012), who suggests that psychotherapy

should be evidence based, not acronym based. Even if some interventions

are partly specific to BPD, we need a single model of therapy to make use

of the best ideas for all sources. To have multiple methods competing for

market share may be good for book sales, but it is not the way to develop

evidence-based practice.

We do not need so many forms of psychotherapy, most of which

resemble each other more in practice than in theory. If therapies based on

so many different ideas and using many different techniques can produce

the same results, they must have a lot in common. One of the main ingre-

dients is structure. Traditional therapies for PD failed because they rely on

unstructured techniques that leave patients adrift. These are not patients

who get better just by being heard and supported. People with BPD also

need specific instruction about emotion regulation, control of impulsiv-

ity, and life skills that can be used to find a job and build a social network.

Although different methods seem to target different aspects of PD, the

failure of comparative trials to find large differences in outcome also sug-

gests that common factors are of crucial importance. Again, consider the

large body of research supporting the view that common factors (also called

nonspecific factors) are the best predictors of results in all forms of psycho-

therapy (Wampold, 2001). By and large, when different forms of therapy are

compared head to head, researchers almost always find equivalent results.

The most important common factors are a strong working alliance, empa-

thy, and a practical problem-solving approach to life problems (Baldwin &

Imel, 2013; Crits-Christoph, Gibbons, & Mukherjee, 2013).

With a complex and challenging disorder like BPD, psychotherapy

needs to maximize these mechanisms and find ways to make them more

specific. The best-validated methods offer a defined structure, focus on

the regulation of emotions, and encourage the solution of interpersonal

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problems through self-observation. Empathy and validation are essential

elements of any therapy but are particularly important for BPD patients,

many of whom are sensitive to the slightest hint of invalidation (Kohut,

1970; Linehan, 1993). In other words, these are patients who can easily feel

that their emotions are being dismissed. They will not listen to anything

else you have to say unless they perceive that their feelings are accepted.

Self-observation is a skill that therapists need to teach all their patients.

When one learns to know feelings better (and not be derailed by them),

one can stand aside from emotional crises or even begin to think about

alternative solutions to problems. Clinicians who provide treatment fol-

lowing these principles do not necessarily need to refer patients to special-

ized programs.


Psychotherapy is the backbone of treatment in BPD, but clinicians in the

past were not trained to apply structure to treatment sessions. That is prob-

ably why open-ended therapies have been associated with large dropout

rates (Skodol, Buckley, & Charles, 1983). Moreover, therapies that focus too

much on the past have a way of encouraging patients to regress.

The key to recovery from a PD is to “get a life.” That usually means

finding a job or going back to school to prepare for a job. Without a social

role, recovery from a PD is less likely (Zanarini et al., 2012). Unfortunately,

some of our patients make the mistake of trying to solve their life prob-

lems through an intimate relationship that gives the illusion, for a time, of

unconditional love. In the absence of work, that strategy only makes them

dependent on another person, seriously impeding self-mastery.

Finally, because PDs usually improve with time, therapy aims to hasten

naturalistic recovery. Because patients can get better on their own, deter-

mining whether change is the result of a specific intervention requires test-

ing through RCTs. Thus far, these trials have provided strong support for a

few psychotherapy methods and tentative support for others.

In summary, even if a well-structured approach works well for most

patients, generalized methods might be enough, and patients with BPD

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have done much better since DBT and other methods specific to the dis-

order were developed. We await the day when effective packages of this

kind can be developed for other PDs.


Because of their prominent mood symptoms, patients with BPD are often

put on medication and can end up being prescribed four or five different

drugs (Zanarini, Frankenburg, Khera, & Bleichmar, 2001). The review in

Chapter 9 showed that these practices are not evidence based. The role of

pharmacology in BPD treatment is limited and is most effective for short-

term management of insomnia. Because most medications in current use

(antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers) are sedating,

they can “take the edge off ” BPD symptoms through nonspecific effects

on impulsivity. However, as shown by the most recent Cochrane report

(Stoffers, Völlm, et al., 2012), none of these agents have specific effects

on BPD itself. Most patients can be managed with minimal medication

or with no medication at all.

Clinical psychologists treating BPD patients should therefore be cau-

tious about obtaining psychopharmacological consults to “cover them-

selves.” I understand why this happens; these are difficult, scary cases.

However, when you ask for a consult with an MD, your patient may be put

on an aggressive drug regime. If you read the literature, with its conserva-

tive conclusions, it will become clear that although drugs are palliative in

the short term, no pharmacological agent produces remission in BPD. If

you need consultation on difficult cases, I suggest you choose clinicians

with expertise in the psychotherapy of BPD.

It must be acknowledged that psychotherapy for these patients has

not always had a good reputation. More than 75 years ago, Stern (1938)

described BPD as treatment-resistant (i.e., it didn’t respond to psycho-

analysis). Ever since, therapists have struggled with the obstacles the

disorder presents. It is not easy to manage people who don’t follow your

advice, don’t always come to appointments, and frequently threaten


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Even so, many problems can also be understood as artifacts of well-

meaning but insufficiently structured therapy. TAU is often the com-

parison point in research studies, but it might be better described as

“the usual mess.” Patients with BPD don’t fit well into normal practice,

in either clinics or offices. They need therapists trained to provide more

specific interventions.

Yet even when therapy is based on a theory, it can still falter. In the

past, patients with BPD were offered regressive psychoanalytic approaches

that were unproductive or counterproductive. In BPD, therapy fails when

too much time is spent talking about the past. Of course, if childhood was

marked by trauma, life histories need to be validated and understood, but

patients need to move on and deal with their current problems in relation-

ships and work.

Standard methods of behavioral therapy and CBT may also run into

difficulties in this population. Linehan (1993) developed DBT because

standard CBT did not seem to be effective for treatment of BPD. For exam-

ple, patients with BPD are not always willing to do the homework that CBT

requires. Linehan’s discovery was that therapy works best when offering

specific strategies for emotion regulation. This was the great breakthrough

that has made BPD a treatable disorder.

Moreover, the “supportive” techniques used in TAU (sessions that

review the week and provide nonspecific encouragement) are not evidence

based. Research on therapy for BPD shows that almost any specific method

is better than TAU, underlining the limitations inherent in the reality of

all these “usual” clinical practices. Yet, as more therapists become aware of

more specific methods, TAU itself may be changing for the better.

Being an effective therapist for these patients may not depend that

much on your theory about BPD. It is more important to understand

people whose communication style can be difficult and problematic, to be

comfortable with knowing that you cannot prevent suicide. If you want to

treat BPD, the first requirement is a thick skin.

Yet psychotherapies designed for BPD have a stronger evidence base

than any form of pharmacotherapy. As noted earlier, medications have

never been shown to lead to the sustained remissions documented for

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psychological treatments. However, not “any old” psychotherapy will do.

In the past, mistaken methods leading to poor results have given therapy

for patients with BPD a difficult reputation.

Although no research has specifically examined TAU, it is not difficult

to see why it doesn’t work. Patients come to their sessions and tell stories

about stressful events that have occurred over the week. Therapists vali-

date feelings, but by itself, that does little for patients who misunderstand

and distort their interpersonal environment. The danger is that patients

will perceive that their therapists agree with them—that other people are

to blame and that they are victims.

Empathy has to be linked to tactful confrontations to help patients

learn new ways of understanding and dealing with problems, what

Bateman and Fonagy (2006) called the capacity to mentalize (similar to the

concept of mindfulness). Thus, using what Linehan (1993) called a dia-

lectical approach, one must validate as one teaches new skills. The absence

of such an approach is why supportive therapy has limited value. The aim

must be to have a strong enough alliance with patients that they are willing

to see their problems in a different light.

These principles help us to understand why classical psychodynamic

therapy was often ineffective for BPD. Patients who cannot mentalize and

who are constantly in the throes of emotion dysregulation cannot make

use of procedures such as free association with a relatively silent therapist

who only intervenes to make “interpretations.” Moreover, when therapy

focuses on the past rather than the present, patients are more likely to be

mired down in their grievances than to move on (this is what Linehan

meant by radical acceptance). People move on more easily when they feel

understood, independent of a therapist’s theories (Strupp, Fox, & Lesser,

1969). Reexperiencing traumatic events from childhood can be par-

ticularly counterproductive. A neuroimaging study helps to show why.

Koenigsberg (2010) found that patients with BPD do not habituate to stress-

ful thoughts but become increasingly activated and disturbed. Thus, thera-

pies that focus on trauma produce regression and increase symptom levels.

In summary, therapies that are present oriented, have a strong cognitive

component, balance acceptance and change, offer a predictable structure,

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and in which therapists are active and engaged are most likely to succeed.

We need to place more importance on the present than the past to help

patients to get a life. In most cases this means getting a job or an education.

It can also mean raising a family. For some people, it may involve hobbies

or volunteer work. In whatever form, one must engage with the world to

get better. Patients also need to be told that they have to work on getting a

life now, not wait for therapy to somehow make doing so easier.


Although evidence-based treatments for BPD have emerged from spe-

cialized treatment programs, these clinics tend to be too expensive or

inaccessible. Yet even though these are not the settings where most ther-

apists work, the same principles can be applied to ordinary practice.

An example is the use of group therapy to teach patients behavioral

and cognitive skills, which is part of the package offered by the methods

that have been most systematically tested. Most clinicians in practice do

not carry out this kind of treatment. This is why the STEPPS program

was developed: to augment individual therapies conducted by therapists

in the community by providing a group setting based on the principles

of psychoeducation. Yet because few communities have access to STEPPS,

therapists should consider doing more group therapy in their own prac-

tices or in group practices. Another example is the use of psychoeducation

to teach life skills and emotion management. CBT has been doing this for

decades. These methods can also be transferred to the setting of individual


Another implication of research on BPD treatment is that therapists

need to move out of the primarily receptive mode they may have been

taught to adopt. There is no contradiction between empathic listening

and therapeutic activity.

Psychotherapy for BPD is being held back by the existence of mul-

tiple competing methods, each with a three-letter acronym. The results

of these methods tend to be overinterpreted by therapists with allegiance

to one or another of them. Yet although all well-structured methods are

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superior to TAU, none is clearly superior. There should be only one kind

of psychotherapy for PD: the one that works. An integrated method would

use the best ideas from everyone and put them together into one package

(Livesley, 2012).

This conclusion, consistent with research on common factors in all

therapies, should be reassuring. Therapists need not be overly concerned

that they haven’t been trained in the latest method or the latest twist on

existing methods. Psychotherapy is placed in a bad light by the endless

competition between approaches. In medicine, there is no such thing as

a school of treatment specific to any drug; therapeutic agents are used

when appropriate and when they complement other interventions. Even

so, treatment of BPD cannot be generic but needs to be more specific. For

some clinical problems, such as severe substance abuse (W. R. Miller &

Rollnick, 2013), new and different methods have been developed. Several

of the therapies developed for BPD offer unique interventions that go

beyond what clinicians do for most of their patients.

Linehan unlocked a crucial door by placing emphasis on skills for

emotion regulation. BPD patients do not recognize their emotions or

know how to deal with them, nor do they know how to self-soothe when

experiencing difficult feelings. They often do not even know they have

had an emotion and move directly to impulsive actions to get rid of a bad

or uncomfortable feeling. That is why reviewing the sequence of events

before a cut or an overdose is so crucial. Also, even though mindfulness

is a difficult technique for most people to learn, even the simplest forms

of self-observation can be useful. STEPPS offers a practical method, with

down-to-earth pictograms of boiling pots to help people rate the inten-

sity of their emotions. MBT also teaches people to recognize what they

feel, but adds an emphasis on the need to recognize what other people

are feeling.

Radical acceptance is another important element that is common to

all effective therapies. Patients are not encouraged to feel like victims but to

come to terms with the past. Most will have had difficult childhoods with

adverse events of various kinds. Yet they need to accept the hand that life has

dealt them and to accept themselves with all their flaws. Radical acceptance

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is similar to the famous motto of Alcoholics Anonymous, which advises

people to accept what they cannot change.

Rather like the proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant, each

of the specific methods developed to treat these patients looks at the prob-

lem of BPD from a different angle, and all have some degree of validity.

One can combine the management of emotion dysregulation emphasized

by DBT, the ability to observe feelings emphasized by MBT, and the focus

on negative thought patterns that characterizes SFT, together with a lim-

ited level of exploration and understanding of life histories. These tools

are all part of a broad therapeutic armamentarium, nested in an empathic

and practical approach, aimed at maximizing the common factors that

produce success.


When specific methods are developed for the other PDs, they will prob-

ably follow many of the same principles described for BPD. What is

needed is to define trait domains that can be modified by psychological

interventions and to develop interventions that can be used to increase

interpersonal skills and reduce negative patterns of behavior. For exam-

ple, a treatment package that had an effective way of modifying gran-

diosity could open the door to effective treatment of narcissistic PD.

Similarly, a package modifying perfectionism would be the key to treat-

ing obsessive–compulsive PD. It is known that CBT programs for treat-

ing social anxiety have some effect on avoidant PD (Ahmed et al., 2012),

but they have not been extensively tested.

In many ways, psychotherapy for PDs is just beginning. BPD, because

of its great clinical burden, will continue to take precedence. However,

other PDs, common in clinical and community settings, need specific

interventions of their own. Inspired by the success of treatment for BPD,

such programs are bound to be developed in the coming decades.

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