The Trauma Recovery Institute

Borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder: Practical differential diagnosis

The challenge of accurate diagnosis remains at the heart of good psychiatric treatment. In the current state of psychiatry, a confluence of forces has increased this challenge for the clinician. These include practical pressures—such as limited time for diagnostic evaluation, the question of what is reimbursed by insurance, and the issue of directing patients to acute treatments—and also trends in nosology, such as the descriptive focus on signs and symptoms in the current official diagnostic system. The authors offer observations that we hope will help clinicians who have to make difficult diagnostic differentiations often under pressured circumstances. The paper is motivated both by the high frequency of diagnostic errors observed under such conditions and also by the belief that considering sym- ptoms in the context of the patient’s sense of self, quality of interper- sonal relations, and level of functioning over time will help guide the diagnostic process. (Bulletin of the Menninger Glinic, 77[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][1], 1-22)
Dr. Kernberg is Director, Personality Disorders Institute, The New York Presbyterian Hospital, Payne Whitney Westchester; Professor of Psychiatry, Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University; and Training and Supervising Analyst, Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Dr. Yeomans is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University; Director of Training at the Personality Disorders Institute at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Payne Whitney Westchester; and Director of the Personality Studies Institute in New York City.
What follows are clinical observations directed to psychiatrists who have to make difficult diagnostic differentiations, often un- der circumstances of pressured time. These differentiations often involve decisions regarding immediate interventions and treat- ment planning. This article is motivated by the high frequency of diagnostic errors observed under such conditions, an observation that emerges only when the patient is seen under more stable con- ditions, particularly during more extended evaluation. We shall not review systematically the diagnostic criteria for the various conditions to be jointly explored, but only highlight those aspects of mental status examination that facilitate a differential diagno- sis under the conditions mentioned.
We have observed that about 50% of patients who enter the personality disorders unit of our hospital with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder or major depression turn out to present neither, but rather a severe personality disorder organized at the border- line level (Kernberg, 1975, 1984), particularly borderline person- ality disorder (BPD), severe narcissistic personality disorder, or various disorders in which recurrent suicidal ideation, parasui- cidal traits, and/or antisocial behavior are the main symptoms, or where an acute drug dependency or alcoholism dominates the picture. Erroneous diagnostic conclusions have frequently been reached, particularly in the case of patients with strong negativis- tic features, who refuse or are unable to provide adequate infor- mation about themselves, or, occasionally, may wish to exagger- ate certain symptoms in order to obtain hospitalization.
Bipolar disorder
The clinical range of bipolar illness remains a subject of de- bate (Paris, 2009). The diagnosis of a bipolar disorder requires, in DSM-IV-TR, the presence of at least one episode of a major depression and one manic (Bipolar I) or hypomanic (Bipolar II) episode. The accurate assessment of the presence of manic or hy- pomanic episodes is essential. The experience of multiple prior evaluations may predispose patients to give a history that fits a manic or hypomanic episode because of the standard nature of questions asked, and we have frequently observed some patients’ tendency to conform to questions that have a “leading” quality with regard to standard manic or depressive symptoms. It is im- portant to patiently ascertain whether the patient has indeed had one or several periods of at least 3 to 4 days in which an unusu- ally euphoric, angry, or irritated mood predominated, together with a sense of heightened energy, affective dyscontrol, signifi- cantly reduced need to sleep, hyperactivity, and unusual behavior in sharp contrast to the usual personality of the patient. Such behavior may involve inappropriate sexual exposure or behavior, grave mismanagement of money or other properties, socially in- appropriate approaches to others, and possibly increase of sexual drive together with a general expansiveness of mood and behav- ior. Symptoms of a true manic episode often involve loss of real- ity testing as manifested by behavior that does not correspond to socially accepted norms without awareness of the deviation from the norm.
The most frequent mistake, in our experience, consists in con- fusing the chronic emotional instability and affect storms of per- sonality disordered patients with a truly hypomanic or manic be- havior. In the casé of manic behavior, the differentiation is easier; here the clear loss of reality testing, the presence of hallucinations and/or delusions, or inappropriate social behavior usually leads to intervention by others to control the patient, interventions that are typical enough to confirm loss of reality testing and to war- rant the diagnosis of a bipolar disorder. Therefore, the confusion between bipolar illness and BPD is usually reduced to cases of as- sumed hypomanic behavior used as the basis to diagnose bipolar II in patients.
In about 19% of patients with borderline personality disorder, however, a comorbidity with bipolar disorder may be present, and the patient shows both severe, chronic affective instability and clear hypomanic episodes (Gunderson et al., 2006). To as- certain the presence or absence of BPD in these cases, it is help- ful to evaluate the general nature of the patient’s relationships with significant others. Cases of pure bipolar symptomatology do not show severe pathology of object relations during periods of normal functioning, and even chronic bipolar patients, who suffer from both manic episodes and major depressive episodes, maintain the capacity for relationships in depth, stability in their relations with others, and the capacity for assessing themselves and the most significant persons in their life appropriately (Stone, 2006).
In contrast, in severe personality disorders with the syndrome of identity diffusion, there is a marked incapacity to assess oth- ers in depth, a lack of integration of the concept of self, with severe, chronic discrepancies in the assessment of self and others, and chronic interpersonal conflicts, together with the difficulty of maintaining stable commitments to work and profession as well as to intimate relationships.
The combination of absence of affective stability, absence of significant and mature relations with others, and instability in work or profession, in love relations, and in self-assessment con- firms the diagnosis of a severe personality disorder even if, at the same time, bona fide symptomatology of a bipolar I, or bipolar II type is effectively present. In short, the presence of a consistent and marked immaturity of all object relations, and emotional im- maturity in general, outside bona fide episodes of manic, hypo- manic, or depressive symptomatology is characteristic of border- line personality disorder.
The therapeutic implications of this differentiation reside in the essential indications of psychopharmacological treatment with mood stabilizers in the case of bipolar patients and, in gen- eral, in major affective illness, in contrast to the predominant re- quirement for appropriate psychosocial and psychotherapeutic interventions in the case of severe personality disorders (Ameri- can Psychiatric Association, 2001).
Major depressive episode
The differential diagnosis between an episode of major depres- sion and a chronic dysthymic reaction in borderline personality disorder is more difficult, but eminently feasible—if enough time is available to clarify the four major areas of symptoms.
First are the psychic symptoms of a depressive spectrum of ill- ness. In major depressions, there is a significant slow-down of the patient’s thought processes and the patient’s psychomotor behavior, severe depression of mood that varies between pro- found sadness to the total unavailability of any subjective sense of feeling—a sense of total freezing of all emotional experience in the most severe cases. Typically, thought processes are severely self-demeaning and self-accusatory—rather than focused on ac- cusing and blaming others. The patient may present severe guilt feelings that may range from chronic exaggeration of whatever real deficits or faults the patient has detected in himself or her- self to extreme, delusional self-devaluations and self-accusations. This combination of chronic slowing down in behavior, lowering in mood, and self-devaluation over a period of weeks to several months, combined with consistent daily fluctuations of symp- toms—the patient feeling worse in the mornings and mood im- proving gradually every evening, with a relentless repetitiveness of such daily cycles over weeks—characterizes a typical major depressive episode.
“While it may be clear that these symptoms are typical of a major depressive episode, in our experience, many patients tend to respond to the routinized questions on hurried mental status examinations in a way that conveys the impression to the exam- iner that they suffer from this syndrome. The clinicians and/or the patients wish to diagnose an Axis I condition because these conditions fit more readily into acute treatment plans based on pharmacological interventions and also have less stigma than per- sonality disorders. Frequently patients may state that they feel chronically hopeless and helpless, which would reflect a total depressive despondency. However, when one asks patients what they feel hopeless about and in what way do they feel helpless, patients have difficulty conveying a response that is harmonious with a general self-devaluation, and, to the contrary, in the case of severe personality disorders with characterologically based dystbymic reactions, patients may respond with accusations and rage against others with an affect that seems more angry than depressed.
This predominance of rageful reactions while professing total self-devaluating depression is quite characteristic of personality disorders, and should raise questions about the assumed major depression. In the case of major depressions, patients withdraw from social contacts and may feel worse when efforts are made to stimulate them to socialize; premature efforts of encouragement may have the opposite effect and, in fact, increase suicidal tenden- cies in patients with major depression. The depressive reactions in personality disorders are usually less severe and are irregular in their appearance and duration. They may shift abruptly from one day to the next, even from one hour to the next, and are clearly influenced, in positive or negative ways, by the patient’s immediate social environment. Shifts of the symptomatology ac- cording to different social circumstances—for example, if the pa- tient is apparently more deeply depressed during the week but on weekends, in the presence of friends, engages in animated social interactions, only to reverse to a state of depression on the fol- lowing days—are characteristic of a personality disorder with a characterological depression—dysthymic disorder^—and not of a major depression.
In general, the patient’s gross physical neglect of appearance, the incapacity to carry out ordinary activities of daily living, stay- ing in dirty clothes, and indicating an unusual neglect of his or her appearance are more characteristic of a major depression in the context of all the psychic symptoms mentioned. Again, the patient’s rapid shifting in behavior under conditions of desirable social interactions is more characteristic of the symptoms of char- acterological depression in a personality disorder.
A second area of exploration of the differential diagnosis is the evaluation of the personality structure that predated the be- ginning of the depressed episode. Patients with severe narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and masochistic/depressive personality dis- order are prone to severe dysthymic reactions characterized by frequent days with symptoms of depression without reaching the intensity, consistency, and duration of major depressive episodes. In these cases, there is usually a history of chronic minor depres- sive episodes or dysthymic reactions extending over many years, a lack of clear periods of at least months’ duration in which the patient evinced no depression at all, so that dysthymic symptoms have acquired a relative stability in the psychic equilibrium of such patients. There are patients who report that they have been depressed all of their lives, and these patients usually present se- vere personality disorders. But these symptomatic features have to be differentiated from the characterological features of the masochistic/depressive personality. However, a certain percentage of patients with major depression, probably around 30%, may become chronic with refractory depression persisting over many years (McGrath &c Miller, 2008; Rush et al, 2006).
These re- fractory cases may present well-documented symptoms of major depression and a remarkable lack of response to all psychophar- macological and other, physical treatment interventions. With electroconvulsive treatment, some of these patients may signifi- cantly improve for several weeks and then often revert to chronic depression again. It is especially important to make a correct di- agnosis in such cases because some patients with “refractory” depression may have a characterological depression that would benefit from appropriate psychotherapy, and it is important to differentiate these latter features in cases of “double depression.” Gunderson et al. (2004) found that the rate of remission from major depressive disorder was significantly reduced in cases with co-occurring BPD. However, the rate of remission from BPD was not affected by co-occurring major depressive disorder.
A third area of inquiry facilitating the differential diagnosis between major depression and characterologically based dysthy- mic reactions involves the following neurovégétative symptoms that point to major depressions: severe insomnia, particularly consistent early awakening hours before the usual waking time; loss of appetite with severe weight loss; consistent loss of sexual desire; possibly impotence in men and suspension of menstru- al periods in women; chronic, severe constipation (considering, naturally, that this may be secondary to the use of antidepressive medication); a heightened sensitivity to cold temperature and, in severe cases, a typical “mask like” facial expression of severe de- pression. There are patients with atypical major depression for whom the depressed mood is worse in the evenings rather than in the mornings, and who present a tendency to hyperphagia and gaining weight. These cases have to be evaluated very carefully regarding the psychic symptoms of depression mentioned earlier before reaching a definite conclusion. Patients with genetic predisposition to affective disorders may show neurovégétative symptoms even under conditions of relatively lighter depression within the frame of a major depressive illness.
A fourth area of diagnostic relevance for the evaluation of de- pression is the analysis of environmental triggers that may have preceded a depressive episode. Typically, in chronic dysthymic, characterological reactions, environmental conditions may trig- ger depressive reactions, and these environmental conditions are often remarkably minor, while the patient pays a disproportion- ate attention to their symbolic value. Major depressions usually do not show such a direct relationship between environmental triggers and depression, although the combination of strong ge- netic disposition and environmental triggers can occur.
In conclusion, regarding these four areas of inquiry, the more severe the psychic symptoms and the neurovégétative symptoms, the more likely there is a major depression; the more predomi- nant the personality disposition and the environmental triggers, the more likely there is a dysthymic disorder (characterological depression). There are patients, however, who present a “double depression,” that is, an acute episode of a major depression in the context of a chronic characterological depression. These cases require, first, the treatment of the episode of major depression. Only after the resolution of that episode by psychopharmacologi- cal and/or other physical treatments will a complete and accurate diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plan for the characterologi- cally based dysthymic disorder become feasible.
Self-destructive behaviors in major depression and in personality disorders
One major prognostic and therapeutic issue, both in the case of all depressions and in severe personality disorders, is the pres- ence of suicidal tendencies and parasuicidal behavior. In general, acute or chronic parasuicidal behavior, such as repeated cutting or burning—particularly under conditions of intense emotional agitation, temper tantrums, or acute frustrations—is typical of severe personality disorders, particularly borderline personality disorder. Intense suicidality can present in the context of depres- sion, but is not limited to that condition. An example of suicidal- ity in a nondepressed patient is the dangerous, chronic, methodi- cal preparation for a severe suicide attempt that can be seen in patients with no symptoms of depression but with the syndrome of malignant narcissism in which suicide may be experienced as a final triumph over others, which may be motivated by intense envy. Both this type of chronic suicidal tendancy and the acute, re- petitive suicidal attempts under conditions of frustration or anger of borderline patients are typical of severe personality disorders. The latter type can seem “out of the blue” and can correspond to an outburst of temper without the background of symptoms of a major depression. Patients who present chronic suicidal and parasuicidal behavior without depression require highly special- ized psychotherapeutic treatment. Many of these patients may be helped effectively with an integrative cognitive-behavioral treat- ment (Dialectical Behavior Therapy; Linehan, 1993), a psycho- dynamic psychotherapy (Transference Focused Psychotherapy; Clarkin, Yeomans, &c Kernberg, 2006), or Mentalization Based Therapy (Bateman & Fonagy, 2004).
In contrast to this picture in personality disorders, suicide attempts in the context of symptoms of severe depression are typi- cal of major depressive disorders and require a careful diagnostic assessment of the conditions under which suicidal behavior oc- curred. The types of suicidality generally found in patients with personality disorders that we have just discussed can most often be treated with outpatient psychotherapy. However, suicide at- tempts in the context of major depression have severe prognostic implications; require immediate, systematic psychopharmaco- logical treatment; may require hospitalization; and, with patients who do not respond to other treatments, may need electrocon- vulsive treatment. In spite of this overall distinction between the presentation and treatment of patients with characterological de- pression and those with major depression, there are some patients with a severe personality disorder who may present severe depres- sive mood accompanied by suicidal behavior that also requires psychopharmacological treatment of the depression together with starting a psychotherapeutic treatment for the personality disorder. It bas to be kept in mind tbat up to approximately 10% of patients witb borderline personality disorder commit suicide.
Tbe diagnosis of a concrete episode of depression, in terms of wbetber it is a major depressive syndrome or a cbronic dystbymic reaction corresponding to a characterological predisposition in a severe personality disorder, requires more time and is more dif- ficult than the assessment of wbetber tbe patient has or bas not bad an episode of bypomanic or manic bebavior. While tbe dif- ferentiation of a severe personality disorder from a bipolar disor- der requires, in practice, only tbe precise differentiation regarding a hypomanic or manic episode, tbe differentiation of character- ological depression and major depression requires consideration of all tbe criteria. Witb adequate review of these criteria, tbe diagnostic distinction should not remain a major problem. Tbe treatment of all affective disorders is centered on antidepressants and mood stabilizers, witb tbe addition of neuroleptic medication in cases witb extreme anxiety or complications witb hallucina- tory or delusional symptoms. In our experience, the treatment of severe depressive reactions in personality disorders, particularly witb suicidal tendencies, also warrants tbe use of antidepressive medication, but psycbotberapeutic treatment, as mentioned be- fore, is tbe central focus of tbe clinicians’ effort.
Sometimes, sadly, erroneous diagnoses do not reflect clinical criteria, but social pressures, for example, tbe refusal of tbird- party payers to reimburse treatment for personality disorders, limiting tbemselves to payment for affective disorders. Also, still- prevalent biases and fears regarding tbe diagnosis of personality disorder, and a general reluctance on tbe part of patients as well as families to look into tbe psycbological conflicts related to se- vere personality disorders, may foster tbe diagnosis of a major depression or bipolar illness as a “cbemical imbalance,” expe- rienced as a “preferable” diagnostic conclusion. Yet Lequesne and Hersb (2004) found tbat BPD patients do better wben tbe diagnosis is named and described. Insofar as, at tbis time, effec- tive treatment metbods for personality disorders are available, sucb erroneous diagnostic conclusions are definitely damaging. Tbey postpone tbe time of adequate treatment and expose pa- tients witb severe personality disorders to additional, unnecessary risks, such as those involved in some psychopharmacological ap- proaches that provide patients who are unable to be responsible regarding the use of such medications with an additional poten- tial for suicidal and parasuicidal behavior. It may seem trivial to state it once again: An adequate diagnosis is the first step to an effective treatment.
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
One other relatively frequent and often difficult differential diag- nosis is that between a severe personality disorder, particularly a borderline personality disorder or a narcissistic personality disor- der functioning on an overt borderline level with antisocial fea- tures, and an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adolescent or adult patients. The prominence of inattentiveness, the inability to concentrate, the presence of school or work fail- ure, and/or the hyperactivity/impulsivity of ADHD may be con- fused with the breakdown of the capacity to study or to work, the impulsivity and emotional lability of a severe personality dis- order. The two types of disorder occasionally present comorbidly, but in the large majority of cases only one of these diagnoses characterizes the patient, and the risk of misdiagnosis is high.
A diagnosis of ADHD should be confirmed by information from home and school regarding symptoms of inattention and/ or impulsive hyperactivity from early childhood, predating other symptoms that characterize a severe personality disorder. The capacity for a relatively normal adjustment to the social life at school and to a good relationship with the parents within the stress given by the academic difficulties would suggest the diag- nosis of ADHD. The absence of significant antisocial behavior from early childhood, the capacity to establish in-depth friend- ships and loyalties, and the presence of normal identity integra- tion favor the diagnosis of ADHD, even if irritability, depressive reactions, and explosive resentment when faced with the conse- quence of the cognitive disabilities are present. The capacity for deep interpersonal relations, concern over one’s functioning and relationships, and the capacity to establish an honest and reli- able relation with a therapist characterize the simple ADHD patient’s presentation in adulthood, in addition to the therapeutic test given by stimulant medication that usually improves ADHD symptoms significantly and rapidly.
Severe pathology of object relations with marked incapacity to establish friendships from early childhood on, significant dif- ficulties at home with parents and siblings that are present to- gether with severe identity disturbance as evaluated in the clinical interviews, and possible chronic antisocial behavior from early childhood on speak for a personality disorder, particularly if the diagnosis of ADHD has only been suggested in late adolescence or early adulthood, as one more attempt to explain severe school failure, emotional lability, and irresponsibility regarding tasks and human relations.
The differential diagnosis of ADHD from a bipolar disorder is facilitated by the episodic nature of bipolar illness, which has clearly marked periods of normal functioning disrupted by well- documented hypomanic or manic episodes, in addition to the usual differential diagnosis of major depression from chronic dys- thymic disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder should also be considered in cases where there is difficulty learning. In the case of a narcissistic personality functioning on an overt borderline level, the grandiosity, entitlement, inordinate envy, and extreme severity of the lack of intimate in-depth relations differentiate this condition from ADHD. In addition, in the case of narcissistic per- sonality disorder, one sees a characteristic discrepancy between excellent cognitive functioning in areas where the patient consid- ers himself or herself superior and is gifted enough to carry out tasks without any efforts, in contrast to complete failure in other areas where intense learning and the overcoming of difficulties are required, and where the patient responds by devaluing what he or she cannot achieve easily.
Neuropsychological and projective psychodynamic testing may provide additional significant evidence in this clinical assessment. Projective psychodynamic testing would add important informa- tion regarding the nature and severity of the personality disorder, while significant, nonspecific, but diffuse indications of cognitive limitations and a learning disorder would point in the direction of ADHD. It is questionable whether a diagnosis of ADHD, first considered during the adulthood of a patient, can be justified in the absence of confirmatory evidence from neuropsycbological testing.
Posttraumatic stress disorder
Another important differential diagnosis is that between a bor- derline personality disorder and a posttraumatic stress disorder. A movement in the 1990s argued that BPD was not an entity unto itself, but a misunderstood form of PTSD (Herman, 1992). However, a review of the literature finds that only a third of the BPD population has a history of severe and extended abuse and, furthermore, that only 20% of individuals with a history of seri- ous abuse go on to have serious psychopathology as adults (Paris, 2008). Potential confusion between BPD and PTSD derives from the fact that traumatic experience or ongoing, repeated trauma- tization, which can be sexual, physical, or psychological, par- ticularly in early childhood, constitutes an important etiological factor in the development of a severe personality disorder, par- ticularly borderline personality disorder.
The typical symptoms of PTSD arise within the first 6 months after a traumatic event and may last up to 2 or 3 years follow- ing the event. Symptoms include insomnia, irritability, angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, exaggerat- ed startle response, and intensive reliving of the trauma in the form of nightmares, “flashbacks,” and repeated memories of the trauma. The development of further symptoms many years af- ter the actual, real, or assumed trauma, including somatization symptoms, dissociative symptoms, emotional lability, impulsiv- ity, self-destructive behavior, and, particularly, chronic interper- sonal difficulties with manifestations of emotional immaturity are symptoms of a structured personality disorder, which may derive from trauma or a combination of personality disposition and traumatic experiences.
This differentiation is important from a therapeutic stand- point: Treatment of PTSD requires a psychotherapeutic approach that facilitates the controlled reliving and working through of the traumatic experience in the context of a safe and secure psychotherapeutic relationship. In contrast, when traumatic experiences are at the origin of a personality disorder, the unconscious con- flicts triggered by the trauma usually take the form of an uncon- scious identification with the traumatic relationship, that is, an unconscious identification with both victim and perpetrator of the trauma. In the transference focused psychotherapy of these patients, they have to be helped to acquire conscious awareness of this double identification and resolve it in the course of trans- ference analysis. This represents a very different psychotherapeu- tic approach than that required for the treatment of PTSD (Koe- nigsberg et al., 2000).
Narcissistic as compared with borderline personality disorder
One final, important differential diagnosis of borderline person- ality disorder is that with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) functioning on an overt borderline level in terms of the lack of an integrated identity. In contrast to BPD patients who present different aspects of their internal world from one moment to the next, patients with NPD at the borderline level mask the fragmentation and weakness of their identity under a brittle and fragile grandiose self that they present to the world and to themselves (Kernberg, 1992). Patients with a severe nar- cissistic personality disorder may present symptoms strikingly similar to those of borderline patients: general impulsivity, severe chaos in relations with significant others, severe breakdown in their capacity for work and emotional intimacy, and parasuicidal and self-mutilating behavior. In addition, these patients are also prone to antisocial behavior that, therefore, also requires the dif- ferential diagnosis among different types of narcissistic pathology with different levels of antisocial features (see below).
The most important differential features are, first, the NPD pa- tient’s difficulty in accepting any dependent relationship, their se- vere lack of investment in relations with significant others except in exploitative or parasitic relationships, and an aloofness that contrasts with the highly ambivalent, yet clinging and dependent relationships of patients with borderline personality disorder. Second, patients with NPD show rather extreme fluctuations between severe feelings of inferiority and failure, and corresponding depressive reactions, on tbe one band, and, on tbe otber band, an inordinate sense of superiority and grandiosity tbat sbows in tbeir contemptuous and dismissing bebavior toward others, including tbeir tberapist. Borderline patients may alter their relationship between clinging dependency and idealization, on tbe one band, and angry rejection and dismissal, on tbe otber band, but tbey do not sbow tbe cbronically contemptuous and dismissive attitude tbat narcissistic patients present. Third, and as a consequence of these cbaracteristics, tbe most severe narcissistic patients func- tioning on an overt borderline level are usually isolated socially, even if tbey are externally part of an intense social network. Tbey lose tbeir friends and do not maintain relationsbips over an ex- tended period of time, and tbeir objective loneliness contrasts witb tbe complicated, contradictory yet enmeshed relationships of borderline patients.
Antisocial bebavior may also be a complicating symptom of borderline personality disorder, but may be more central in lower levels of narcissistic personality disorder; it is always a negative prognostic factor. Tbis is particularly true for tbe syndrome of malignant narcissism, tbe most most severe form of tbe narcis- sistic personality tbat is cbaracterized by ego-syntonic aggression, paranoia, and antisocial traits, and for tbe antisocial personality disorder proper. Tbese are important differential diagnostic con- siderations wben tbe clinical picture appears to be, at first sigbt, a borderline personality disorder, and tbey need to be considered in tbe differential diagnosis of all patients within tbis spectrum of patbology wbo do present cbronic antisocial bebaviors.
Evaluation of antisocial bebavior and traits
Tbe combination of a history of ADHD, a learning disorder, and significant antisocial bebavior from early cbildbood on is not in- frequent, and raises tbe question as to wbat extent some gen- eral brain dysfunction may operate as an etiological factor for all tbese conditions. For practical purposes, however, one cannot conclude tbat tbe antisocial bebavior is a complication of ADHD or a learning disorder if it continues as a severe disturbance throughout adolescence and into adulthood, characterized by the prevalence of passive/parasitic or aggressive behavior directed against others and property, combined with an absence of the capacity for feelings of guilt and concern, and lack of capacity for empathy with others.
In other words, when antisocial behavior is chronic, perva- sive, and dominates the psychopathology, it usually reflects a severe personality disorder regardless of whether ADHD was diagnosed in early childhood. We can consider the personality disorders in terms of most severe to least severe with regard to an- tisocial characteristics: the antisocial personality disorder proper; the syndrome of malignant narcissism; the narcissistic personal- ity with antisocial features; other severe but nonnarcissistic per- sonality disorders with antisocial features and identity diffusion; antisocial behavior in a neurotic personality organization; and antisocial behavior as a temporary symptom in adjustment disor- ders in adolescents. In addition, the antisocial behavior of young- sters who are members of an antisocial subculture, such as street gangs, has to be evaluated in terms of whether it presents a per- sonality disorder or only an adaptation to a negative subculture, that is, a “dissocial disorder.” Cases where severe, chronic anti- social behavior is the major presenting symptom require detailed, extensive work-up, including information from family and other sources.
The most important differential diagnosis is that of antisocial personality proper, the most severe of the personality disorders, which has a very bad prognosis under any circumstances. In these cases, at times treatment has to be limited to protecting family and society and establishing firm social controls that control an- tisocial behavior and, under optimal conditions, that may eventu- ally permit a tentative psychotherapeutic approach. In practice, it should not be difficult to differentiate the occasional antiso- cial behavior that may be part of bona fide hypomanic or manic episodes or an occasional complication of affect storms in severe personality disorders from the chronic, pervasive antisocial be- havior that requires the complex differential diagnosis referred to before. We define an antisocial personality proper by a total lack of concern for others, in contrast to the DSM-IV diagnosis, which is largely based on behaviors. The essential features are long-term passive-parasitic and/or aggressive antisocial behavior from early childhood on, a lack of any capacity for authentic feelings of guilt or remorse over this behavior, a lack of concern for others that implies callous indifference, insensitivity, or simply occasional outbursts of hatred, if not sadistic pleasure at attacking or sadis- tically treating others.
These more severe characteristics are in addition to all the criteria of a narcissistic personality disorder itself. A chronic parasitic, exploitative lifestyle with irresponsi- bility regarding social obligations and financial reality typically is accompanied by a lack of any concern for or consideration of the future: It is as if the patients were living in an eternal pres- ent with total disregard for the implications of their behavior for their future life.
In antisocial personality disorder, patients show a lack of em- pathy with the moral dimension or ethical values of other people so that, even if they may shrewdly assess others’ motivations and manipulate them, they are not able to include an ethical dimension in their assessment. The indifference toward others is matched with a deep indifference toward their own lives, re- flected in recklessness, and, in our experience when driven into a corner, they present a potential suicidal tendency to escape from external threats.
Malignant narcissism is the most serious level of personality disorder that can respond to treatment. The treatment must in- clude special emphasis on a strong treatment frame to maximally protect patient and therapist from the patient’s capacity for ag- gression, and interpretation of the intense envy that could moti- vate the patient to attack himself or herself or the treatment as a proof of strength and as an attempt to triumph over the therapist.
In contrast to those with malignant narcissism, individuals with “ordinary narcissistic personalities,” in spite of any antiso- cial behavior that may be part of their presentation, have the ca- pacity for experiencing feelings of guilt and concern, for loyalty, and for investment in relationships (Kernberg, 2004).
Still less severe cases present antisocial behavior that is not part of a personality disorder at all, but of an adjustment disorder of adolescence or as a secondary symptom in manic or hypomanic episodes. Finally, one has to consider the presence of anti- social behavior in the members of socially isolated or marginal- ized groups, such as adolescent members of a criminal gang who, separated from the gang, would manifest no further antisocial behavior.
Case illustration of a patient with narcissistic personality disorder misdiagnosed as refractory depression
C, a 31-year-old man, came for consultation after a having been discharged from the hospital where he had received electrocon- vulsive therapy (ECT) for depression. His parents initiated tbe consultation. They had supported C through a series of psycho- therapies and a number of hospitalizations for 14 years and were frustrated with tbe lack of apparent progress. C bad worked 2 years earlier as an assistant to a publisher and left that job when be entered a graduate program in journalism. His graduate stud- ies lasted only a few weeks before be withdrew due to “depres- sion and anxiety,” with a particular anxiety about speaking up in class. After that, be isolated bimself in bis apartment, sometimes being unable to get out of bed and rarely leaving bis apartment except to see bis parents. During tbese visits, C described witb perseveration bis feelings tbat bis life was over and be migbt as well be dead. After 6 montbs in this state, bis parents initiated tbe consultation.
In tbe first consultation meeting, C presented as a good-look- ing, well-dressed, and well-groomed young man. His cbief com- plaint was depression witb suicidal ideation and inability to func- tion. He lived alone in an apartment and bad no source of income except bis parents. He spoke mostly about bis intense wisb to become a journalist and bis feeling tbat life would be worthless and be would ratber be dead if be did not achieve tbis goal. C reported a limited social life witb a few friends. Past bistory included a suicide attempt by overdose at age 16 tbat led to bis first bospitalization and a series of psycbotbera- pies and trials of medication. C estimated tbat he bad bad 10 previous tberapies witb no benefit, and be reported trials of 40 medications—antidepressants, low-dose neuroleptics, and mood stabilizers—also with no benefit. The only treatment that he felt had helped was ECT, but he was reluctant to try it again because of concerns about impairment of his cognitive functioning.
His current goal, which was almost an obsession, was to re- turn to a graduate program in journalism, but he felt paralyzed in his efforts to take the steps to do so. He attributed this to depres- sion and, in spite of his reservations about the organic effects, was almost pleading for another course of ECT. While C described his mood as depressed and anxious. Dr. A was struck by the patient’s angry and confrontative stance as rep- resented in his initial comment: “I’ve been seeing therapists since I was 16 and look at the result! I’m more depressed now than I was then.”
In a review of symptoms, C reported being depressed “all his life” with intermittent difficulty getting out of bed and a chronic inability to interact with others; he felt that everything he said and did was “wrong” and that others found him bizarre. Dr. A carefully assessed the signs of depression. C did not present with motor retardation or unavailability of any feeling. While C reported extreme depression and inability to function, he was quite energetic in his criticisms of therapy and of his parents. His thought processes were severely self-demeaning, but equally harsh on others. His mood did not demonstrate diurnal variation, but changes were noted around other people where he could ap- pear polite and appropriate, if reserved, at family gatherings. This was in contrast to his presentation when just with his parents, which was characterized by angry accusations that they were not providing him enough support. In short, C often seemed more angry than depressed. And while his depressed state was severe and appeared to be his baseline mood, it did demonstrate shifts in response to his social environment.
With regard to neurovégétative symptoms, C reported periodic difficulty falling and staying asleep. His appetite and libido were intact.
In terms of triggers to depression, in addition to his chronic self-castigation for not being a journalist, C showed an exquisite sensitivity to his performance in any setting. For instance, if he met with friends for dinner, the next day he would review and disparage bis participation in tbe conversation. The anticipation of a family gatbering led to despair about how incapable be felt at sustaining a conversation.
Diagnostic impression: Tbe combination of the chronicity of C’s depression and bis attentiveness to bis appearance, reactivity to situations, and level of energy and anger in criticizing self and otbers, along witb a lack of multiple neurovégétative symptoms suggested a characterological depression associated witb a personality disorder. Nevertbeless, his psychiatric bistory was significant for years of treatment for a major depressive disorder. It is possible tbat C suffered from a “double depression”: a baseline characterological depression witb superimposed episodes of major depression tbat justified tbe hospitalizations and ECT. However, there was little evidence of past treatment efforts that addressed his character pathology as such.
After two consultation sessions with tbe patient. Dr. A explained his diagnostic impression and discussed tbe possibility of narcissistic issues involving difficulty with self-esteem regulation and harsh evaluations of self and others. C did not disagree that these were issues but felt tbat Dr. A did not understand tbat the main issue was “a problem with his brain.” Dr. A did not disagree with tbat view but added that tbe most helpful treatment option migbt be an intensive psychotherapy since tbe mind and the brain are intimately linked and psychotberapy bas been sbown to effect changes in tbe brain. After repeating his earlier statement that his years of psychotherapy had been useless, C ambivalently agreed to begin an intensive therapy focusing on characterological depression. Thus, the first phase of tberapy had begun since C proceeded to regularly devalue Dr. A and his tberapy tbroughout the first pbase of treatment. As tberapy proceeded. Dr. A used a combination of attention to the holding environment of therapy to allow for an alliance to build and “therapist-centered” interpretations (Diamond, Yeomans, ÔC Levy, 2011; Steiner, 1993) to explore tbe patient’s internal devalued sense of self as it was projected onto tbe therapist. After a year of treatment, C gave evidence of a small but demonstrable increase in flexibility in bis capacity to deal with the challenges of life and with others. Tbe case is ongoing at this point.
Diagnostic questions around bipolar illness, major depressive episodes, ADHD, and severe personality disorders are extremely important for the clinician to make appropriate treatment recom- mendations. These questions can be resolved by careful evaluation of (1) the depressive symptomatology, (2) the presence and nature of suicidality, (3) the presence or absence of true manic or hypomanic episodes, (4) cognitive functions, (5) the quality of interpersonal relations, (6) characteristics of personality disorders, (7) the role of substance abuse, and (8) the presence or absence and type of antisocial behavior. Adequate diagnosis facilitates optimal treatment.
By Otto F. Kernberg, MD Frank E. Yeomans, MD 

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