Why are personality disorders so difficult to treat?
Well, there’s a complicated question! This post attempts to present an overview response.
A personality disorder, like just about all mental disorder diagnoses, is made based on a checklist of complaints, symptoms, and observations. However, personality disorders are very different from what we normally think of as emotional problems.
Consider, for example, depression. “Depression” is diagnosed when 2 weeks have passed and certain criteria have been met (and there’s no “pass” given for grief or other traumatic events in the new diagnostic manual, although we’re supposed to note it in the records). Most people know when they’re sad, irritable, unhappy, and hopeless. It feels awful and they want to get that bad feeling off of them. Some people might not think of it as “depression.” They might identify it as a “low time,” or it might be grief, or a normal adjustment to a new phase of life such as marriage, an empty nest, or graduating from college. It might be a normal but very painful response to some new curveball life has thrown at them: an illness, a layoff, retirement, etc.
A personality disorder is different because it is pervasive; like the personality of any person, it is part of everything. Your personality impacts how you interpret everything that happens, the way you react to people and events, the emotions you experience. This goes for healthy people as well as those whose patterns are far enough from the big, wide range of normal to merit a “disorder” status. So, when someone seems to have a personality disorder (say, narcissism), they are not experiencing their diagnosis as a messy, icky experience to be stopped. They are rolling along (over other people) and having their life. Everything comes through a lens that assures them that they are special, entitled to preferential treatment and to have their way, and, well, let’s face it, just better than us. Problems are experienced as due to the outside world and their own role in those problems is not apparent.
From a therapist’s perspective, when someone comes in with depression, even if that’s not what they, or we, might call it, they know they are unhappy and they want very much to feel like themselves again. They are hopeful that a counselor can help them push through this difficult time.
When someone who meets criteria for a personality disorder comes to treatment, it’s usually because of some other issue, such as work or relationship problems. Remember that each of us is walking around, seeing the world through our own eyes and interpreting everything we experience, including our own thoughts and feelings, through our unique mental structure. You build that mental structure from the earliest moments of life. Is the world safe? Are my needs met? Are the grownups who tend to me patient, gentle and kind? Babies are already sorting out information and creating a set of basic assumptions about the world that will become essential aspects of their personality. It’s so deep, it’s hard to not take for granted that our way of making sense of things isn’t necessarily the only, or best, way. So when patterns of problems arise with colleagues, bosses or family, it’s hard to believe that the problem is fundamental to our mental structure; it defies logic and could be very insulting. The person may be suffering terribly, every day. This is definitely the case with some of the personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder and Dependent Personality Disorder. Whether these or any of the personality disorder diagnoses, the person did not choose this burden and it isn’t their fault. However, presenting it as an internal problem – to them – can feel like blaming and attacking – which is definitely not the therapist’s intention.
Imagine if something terrible happened to you: a tsunami. Your workplace is destroyed. You lose your house. You lose your stuff. You catch a mosquito-borne illness and suffer long-term ramifications. It’s a series of terrible events and you find yourself traumatized and perpetually anxious. Is that anxiety your fault? Certainly not. Just so, the early life experiences that set people up for the challenges we call personality disorders are not their fault. However, it’s a problem that they can learn to heal, but that can sound like blaming the victim. Thus, if someone meets criteria for a personality disorder, trying to sell them on dealing with the personality disorder is pretty much like saying, “Look, an awful lot about the way you think and respond to things is kind of messed up. But, never fear! Together we can bulldoze your personality and how you think, feel and behave, pour a new slab, and then we’ll rebuilding you from the ground up. You’ll learn new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.”
Even when it’s dressed up in tactful, compassionate psychological language, that, my friend, is a very hard sell indeed.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.