Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Borderline Personality Disorder: A Presidential Example
Responding to criticism from my friend and suite mate, Helen-of-Troy, I strive to leave politics and return to psychoanalysis.
Well, I shall try.
Otto Kernberg, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in the New York area, identifies three different types of “personality organizations.” Although I dislike his strictly medical approach to psychoanalysis, his categorizations are clear and lucid. They prove helpful.
Imagine a continuum running from left to right.
On the far left side, the psychotic personality organization exists. These are characterized by, among other things, an absence of a sense of identity, difficulties maintaining contact with reality, and emotional lability.
Towards the center lie the borderline personality organization. Here, a number of different personality disorders are categorized, like borderline personality disorder (BPD) itself, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and histrionic personality disorder (HPD).
The folks with personality structures have a firmer sense of identity. However, they display a general ego weakness. They typically show affective instability, a propensity towards dissociation, and other manifestations of what psychoanalyst Michael Balint calls “the basic fault.”
In a word, these people are unstable. Their moods, relationships, jobs shift quickly. Their lives are often in disarray.
Kernberg sadly named the region to the right the neurotic personality organization. This refers to the rest of us. It is sad because it lacks any identification of the “normal.”
Do we all have to be neurotic?
That seems foolish.
Those of us lucky enough to have personality structures more on the right side of the continuum enjoy stable senses of self or identity, modulate our emotional lives well, see reality clearly, and demonstrate a capacity for agency and self-direction.
Mr. Trump offers rather delicious examples of behaviors consistent with a borderline personality organization. I begin with several just from last ten days:
Trump fired the FBI Director, James Comey, despite his having served only around four of his six year term-of-office. Comey was investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. In other words, the investigated fired the investigator.
Within days, Trump leaked national security information regarding an ISIS threat to Russian officials, apparently boasting about America’s intelligence capabilities. This action places at risk previously-secret intelligence sources.
In that same meeting, Trump disallowed members of the American media from attending. Instead, he invited only a Russian photographer. He impulsively precluded members of the US media because he dislikes their reporting. Instead, he limited the media to a representative from the state-controlled, openly repressive Russian government.
Just yesterday, the Washington Post broke a story that Trump asked his attorney general and other staff members to leave a meeting with Comey in February. Alone with him, Trump asked the FBI director to stop the investigation into the former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. Flynn had extensive contact with, and received generous salaries from, high-ranking Russian officials.
Honoring my dear friend Helen, I abstain from ranting about what these unfolding events mean in terms of abuse of power, obstruction of justice, or incompetent leadership.
Instead, I focus only on the psychological.
Let’s return to the middle zone noted above, namely the borderline personality organization. Most specifically, Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder. Despite risks of ethical violations, many other mental health professionals have publicly made the diagnosis. It appears true. Further, Trump displays the characteristic of the underlying, borderline personality organization.
Starting with the lack of identity, formally called identity diffusion, this personality structure explains many of the behaviors troubling the media and the congress. Trump is not consciously lying. He experiences different self-states (like parts of his personality, if you will) at different times.
When Trump contradicts media reports, or even his own press secretary, Melissa McCarthy, he is not literally lying. He believes what he says. When he boasts to the Russian ambassador about an intelligence report, he shows an underlying, deep emotional insecurity. He brags. He shows off.
(Arguably the best way to understand NPD, by the way, is that it’s a person with BPD who has a stronger if brittle sense of self, like a lousy upgrade. Again, Trump offers an excellent example.)
Other indicators of ego weakness include Trump’s continual references to himself. While the middle east suffers the most civil wars since the year 1000 AD, he offers few comments on foreign affairs.
Instead, he often refers to having won the election, to the size of the crowds at his various events, or at his success at a few alleged achievements. Notice how often he uses “I” instead of “we” or even “my team.”
More ominously, a wide variety of media report “chaos” in the white house. Even Republican congress-persons and senators ask the President to reign-in the disarray. The next day, they awake to headlines revealing still further unravelling.
The term “borderline” originated as the mental health professions identified a realm of mental disorders appearing like psychosis, but not really involving the total instability, delusions, and hallucinations of the psychotic. These borderline phenomena are characterized by chaos, disarray, confusion.
I thank Trump for eliciting political interest, and even political activity, in many Americans.
I thank him for drawing more to read news about politics, to discuss important issues, even to run for office.
I also thank you, Mr. Trump, for providing my readers — friends, students, colleagues — such clear examples of what is meant by a borderline personality organization.
Balint, M. (1992). The basic fault. Chicago: Northwest University Press.
Kernberg, O.F. (1986). Severe personality disorders. New York: Vail-Ballou Press.
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