Forgetting inconvenient truths: A way to keep thinking.

January 2018 was an interesting month in the world of what textbooks refer to as Personality Disorder. There was the launch of the Personality Disorder Consensus Statement, an article on Personality Disorder on the BBC and the launch of the Power Threat Meaning Framework. While I haven’t read the full version of the PTFM I have read a lot about it, and there has been a lot to read. The responses were many and mixed. Some of the responses have been vitriolic, others merely critical, and others more celebratory as a high profile way of thinking about mental health and mental health problems leaps into being.

Some of the criticisms of the PTMF are articulately laid out here. What I want to do in this blog is lay out a basic version of what the PTMF promotes, why it’s essential that people can take this on board and what might get in the way of making some use of it.

3d doctor
Within traditional psychiatry signs and symptoms that occur together are named as a diagnosis. The PTMF encourages us to shy away from diagnosis and illness and instead explore a person’s difficulties and distress in terms of:
 What happened to you?
 How did it affect you?
 What sense did you make of it?
 What did you have to do to survive?

From the questions above we can then discover a narrative around why someone does what they do. We can see how their behaviour makes perfect sense given their previous experiences. In an ideal world we can then think about what might help and at a minimum consider how to avoid replaying some of the person’s most negative experiences.

For difficulties such as insomnia the framework might not be that helpful. For other areas I suspect clinicians and service users should use it if they both agree it’s useful. For the people who get labelled with Borderline Personality Disorder this kind of thinking is vital.

Why is it vital? There was a time that I didn’t think that it was. I was happy to join in with a roll of the eyes and a “typical PD” comment. I could understand that someone was self-harming because they had a personality disorder. Times when I felt attacked or criticised it was easy to label everything as the product of a disordered personality – this left me as a flawless clinician with merely a faulty patient to contend with.
As the years ticked by my experiences in work got me thinking of people with a diagnosis much more as simply people. My work became about helping staff who thought in the way that I used to, to unpick their ideas and see someone in a more empathic way. What I tended to find was that a list of diagnostic criteria had absolutely no impact in how staff thought about and responded to the people in their care. When we could move away from the descriptive (and fairly judgemental) criteria and think about the experiences that people had lived through that might inform how they behaved, then it felt like some empathy could arise.


Two examples:
1 Looking through someone’s notes I read “Mandy went to her room and was self harming due to her diagnosis”. It frustrated me that someone’s thinking could begin and end with that sentence. There was no sense of what was going on in their head. No indication of or curiosity about what they might be feeling. No indication of how people around them responded (apart from the implication that it was dismissed and pathologised). How can we help people if our sole understanding of their behaviour is that they do it because of a particular label?

2 I was in a group and someone recounted something that they’d done “because of my BPD”. We spent a decent amount of time exploring how their feelings and responses were entirely appropriate, especially given their early traumatic experiences. The description of overwhelming emotion and the desperate urge to feel something different made a lot more sense and contained more potential for change than “because I’ve got BPD”.

It would be easy to say that the above examples are simply people using diagnosis badly. While this is true, there is something that happens in this area of work that means that traumatic histories are forgotten and staff see risky or troubling behaviour purely through the lens of their own experience.

“I feel manipulated” = They were manipulating me
“I don’t know why they did that” = They were doing it for attention
She cut herself after ward round = She’s trying to sabotage her discharge

To an extent this is understandable (understanding does not mean approval). I was very poorly trained to work with people who had lived through trauma and my understanding is that undergraduate training hasn’t changed significantly. With no knowledge base, the students of today tend to learn from those who also had little training so learned on the job. Combine this with people who cope in ways that can be dangerous (the results of which staff might be blamed for) and you have an environment full of confused, anxious clinicians. This seems to lead to a situation where toxic ideas can flourish with little opportunity for people to learn anything different. A new cycle of treating people as if they were manipulators begins, with people reacting to that hostility and then having their reactions explained by their diagnosis.

This doesn’t happen everywhere but it does happen every day. Any tool we can use to stop the thinking shortcuts of “They’re just…” and focus on an empathic understanding of why someone does what they do seems essential for maintaining compassionate care. We can’t validate someone with personality disorder, but we can validate someone whose thoughts feelings and actions make perfect sense given their experience. The PTMF may not be product that means we never use diagnosis again, but let’s not boycott the restaurant because there are a few dishes we don’t like.


Keir provides training, consultancy and therapy via