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Section 5
Psychological Control in Borderline Personality Disorder

Question 5 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed abandonment.  Two types of abandonment regarding BPD clients we explored are general abandonment and sexual abandonment. 

In this section... we will discuss methods of control.  4 methods of control commonly used by BPD clients are manipulation, coercion, autocracy, and disengagement.  Clearly, these methods of control are used commonly in society, but the degree to which they are implemented is generally higher in BPD clients.  As you listen to this track, you might consider the appropriateness of playing this track in an upcoming session to foster open discussion regarding your client’s preferred method of control.

Four Methods of Control

♦ Method #1 - Manipulation
Tanner, age 39, explained manipulation and why he used it as his method of control in relationships. Tanner stated, "If you get your way after demanding it, that’s one thing. But if you can find a way to get what you want without letting the other person know that’s what you’re doing, then the payoff is much more satisfying. I like to have a one up on everyone." By managing people through his shrewd use of influence, Tanner used manipulation to control his interpersonal relationships. 

I have found that a common type of manipulation among BPD clients is supplication or pleading.  Clearly, as a mode of influencing behavior, the BPD client’s use of vulnerability, weakness and suffering is well known and often exploited by them.

Remember Liz from the last track?  Liz’s preferred method of control was supplication. Liz attempted to control her boyfriend Matt by pleading. Liz would beg for Matt’s time, telling him that she was suffering without him. As you have experienced, other ways BPD client’s may use supplication is by acting helpless, inadequate or sick. In extreme cases, if needs aren’t met through supplication, a BPD client may threaten or become suicidal.  Does your client engage in manipulation? If so, perhaps the Looking Glass technique discussed later in this section will be helpful.

♦ Method #2 - Coercion
Second, let’s discuss coercion. As you know, borderline personality disorders are sometimes characterized by narcissistic behavior. A preferred method of control for narcissistic BPD clients may be coercion. I have found that due to the fear of abandonment which we discussed in the last section, BPD clients may attempt to claim actual ownership of another person. 

Nicole described her husband, Rich’s attempts to claim ownership of her when she stated, "He would grab my crotch at parties and tell people  ‘this is where babies come from and it’s mine!  Touch it and die!’ He wasn’t angry when he said it.  He just made a point. It was like he wanted it to be known that it was his!"  Rich, age 31, was treating his wife as an extension of himself.  Do you have a client like Rich who uses coercion? To what extent do you feel his or her psychic or physical bullying is an extension of an unreasonable fear of abandonment?

♦ Method #3 - Autocracy
In addition to manipulation and coercion, the third BPD method of control that we will discuss is autocracy or dictatorship. Like coercion, you may already know that dictatorship is used by BPD clients who believe that they are superior to others. Helen, age 55, commonly asserted her authority through dictatorship

Helen often made comments such as, "I know better than you do" or "It’s to difficult for you to understand." Generally, BPD clients like Helen engage in dictatorship in every area of discussion, rather than in their specific area of expertise. Think of your Helen. Does your BPD client claim the last word on anything and everything? Perhaps the Looking Glass discussed later in this section benefit your client.

♦ Method #4 - Disengagement
The fourth method of control that I have found commonly used by BPD clients is disengagement. Along with supplication, Liz, who was discussed earlier,  used disengagement to punish her boyfriend Matt for failing to give her the attention that she wanted. Liz’s punishment involved withdrawing love and approval. Liz spent time sulking and refusing to talk.

Liz stated, "Sometimes I’ll just sit there staring into space. Matt will ask me what’s wrong. I’ll tell him nothing! Because he should know! After a couple minutes, he’ll ask again. If he really loved me, he wouldn’t have to ask what’s wrong! He should just know!" I explained to Liz that what she was doing was leaving Matt feeling guilty. I asked her how, in that situation, Matt could relieve his guilt or avoid getting stonewalled. Liz responded by saying. "Well, Matt could let me have my way!" 

After several sessions Liz began to see that she was being, as she put it, "Somewhat controlling." Think of your BPD client. Could your Liz begin to think about acknowledging her methods of control by evaluating control situations realistically? Could playing this section help your client understand how borderline personality disorder affects methods of control? If so, the following technique may benefit your client in avoiding trying to exercise control.

♦ Technique: Looking Glass
With my BPD clients I found the "Looking Glass" technique somewhat beneficial. 

--Step 1 - First, in a couples session with Matt and Liz, I asked Liz to look into a mirror for several minutes, focusing on her control issues and then to look at Matt. I asked her to look at Matt for the same length of time she looked at herself in the mirror. I asked Liz to try to imagine how Matt feels about himself and compare it to how he thinks she feels about him. Liz wrote these comparisons down to evaluate with me later. Liz identified her disregard for Matt’s feelings and her emphasis on her desire for continuous reaffirmation regarding the security of the relationship. 

--Step 2 - Second, we discussed the ways in which Matt’s feelings about himself and her projected feelings toward Matt were similar and different. Matt believed that Liz loved and respected him, but put more importance on how much love he gave her.

You may find this technique can also help a client understand how unreasonable certain behavior can be. Liz later stated, "I didn’t know I act so obsessed.  I need to start trusting myself and Matt. I also need to stop being so controlling, but I never really knew I was!"  Think of your Liz. Does your BPD client acknowledge methods of control or problem behavior?  If he or she is starting to acknowledge methods of control, would your client be receptive to the use of a mirror in the session?

In this section... we have discussed methods of control.  Four methods of control commonly used by BPD clients are manipulation, coercion, autocracy, and disengagement. 

In the next section we will discuss depression co-occurring with borderline personality disorder. We will examine primary depression; primary borderline personality disorder; and the combination of both primary depression and BPD. 

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Hope, N. H., & Chapman, A. L. (2019). Difficulties regulating emotions mediates the associations of parental psychological control and emotion invalidation with borderline personality features. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 10(3), 267–274.

Mahan, R. M., Kors, S. B., Simmons, M. L., & Macfie, J. (2018). Maternal psychological control, maternal borderline personality disorder, and adolescent borderline features. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(4), 297–304. 

Powers, A. D., Gleason, M. E. J., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2013). Symptoms of borderline personality disorder predict interpersonal (but not independent) stressful life events in a community sample of older adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 469–474. 

What are 4 methods of control commonly used by BPD clients?
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