Integrating Kernberg’s Model of Personality Organization with Gestalt Therapy

Kernberg’s model of personality organization provides us with a helpful visual of how differently experienced psychological symptoms relate with each other. Symptoms of personality disorder are very individual and unique each client. The “severity” of the symptom is phenomena “felt” by other people in the community and the therapist. It is therefore more accurate to base our assessment of the client’s problems on the effect the client’s behavior has on others and therapist, and based on how fixated the client is on this behavioral pattern. It is assumed that the more fixated one is on a mode of behavior, the less one is able to function socially and economically.

Kernberg established 3 main group of personality organization. These are arranged in increasing order of “severity”: 1. the Neurotic Personality Organization (NPO), 2. The Borderline Personality Organization (BPO), and 3. the Psychotic Personality Organization (PPO).

Horizontally, Kernberg also categorizes the symptoms as a spectrum of introvertion and extrovertion. This describes how much the individual with such diagnosis interacts with the other. The more introverted would keep the self in isolation. This would range from shyness to complete fear of being with others (as in severe paranoid PD / schizoid PD). The extrovert range would range from being dependent on the presence of others ( as with the dependent PD) to victimizing others (as in malignant narcissism PD or antisocial PD).

Most severe condition is the psychotic condition.

Kernberg (2008) Model of Personality Organization

When we connect this with Melanie Klien’s (Kernberg is a Kleinian) model, we can see that the BPO represents the condition where an individual is stuck at the paranoid-schizoid phase. The NPO represents the individuals who have developed into the depressive phase. *Note* that the terminology here is very confusing, because “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” used in this context has not much to do with the absolute meaning, but rather serves to describe a phase.  Please refer to this article for clarification on this topic.

When we consider Kernberg’s diagram, we may be able to appreciate how if the individual is fixed to the BPO, he/she may be holding on to maintain an intact sense of self. The consequence of not having the symptoms may lead to breakdown and possibly psychosis. As therapists, we must be very aware of this “ability” of the client to support him/herself in this way, even though his/her behavior is hurtful/harmful/not helping. 

The Contact Cycle in Gestalt Therapy

In Gestalt therapy we talk about contact. Contact is a means of a organism (a person) getting in touch with his/her needs and being able to get his/her needs fulfilled. This is not unlike Marslow’s concept of the hierarchy of needs. Needs not met will end up in the individual being weakened or even harmed as a result of accumulated stress. A very simple example: if a person’s body is lacking in nutrients, the person needs food. If he does not get this food, he suffers. Needs are always present. We have to be able to first realize the needs. In Gestalt therapy, the work of the therapist, for example, is to help the client uncover his needs of the moment, how he denies his needs by numbing himself from the sensation of the need, how he attributes the needs to someone else by projecting the needs and how he is not able to feel satisfied once the need is met.

Below is my sketch of the contact cycle in gestalt therapy. It is complicated, but there are simpler diagrams on the net or in books.

When the need is recognized, acted upon and assimilated, the gestalt is closed. The client is relieved of a stressful condition (that may have pervaded his life).

Shame at the Pre-contact Phase: When we look at the contact cycle, we can see that the hinderance to pre-contact is desensitization. The client does not know about this need. Oftentimes this is attributed to shame: when it is too shameful to even tell oneself that one has this need. Many people do not feel shame also for this reason. They anesthetize themselves from the sensation.

Anxiety at the Action Phase: The next part of the cycle is when one feels a need but acts inappropriately so as not to be able to fulfill the need. This is a miss-action normally caused by projecting what one feels or needs to others. For example when one is completely angry at another, he/she instead thinks that the other is hostile. Oftentimes the projection is brought about by anxiety or a dreaded fear of acting accordingly, but instead act by splitting this action from the self onto the environment.

Guilt at the Assimilation Phase: At the end of the phase, problems arise when the person is not able to assimilate what he/she has felt and done. This is probably the problem with overeating (this a simple example): the person is hungry, eats, but cannot feel nourished. In the realm of personality disorder, it is often the problem of the individual not being able to recognized his deeds, and avoids the feeling by not being able to feel a sensation of satisfaction (lustfulness). There would be continued hunger for whatever the need may be.  In serious cases (perhaps antisocial PD) if one has committed a crime, one is not able to sense guilt or remorse.

Gestalt Therapy and Kernberg’s Personality Model

In the figure below, I try to fit the 2 models together. This is of course, like all models and classifications, a way of conceptualizing, and not fixed truism. One would be well served to look at all graphical representation of psychic phenomena as as spectrum rather than as in discreet boxes and lines.

Personalities “stuck” in the avoidance of guilt end of the contact cycle, for example is caricaturized by the cold-blooded malignant narcissist or sociopath. When we look closely at all other personality fixations we can also see avoidance of guilt. Ultimately, this is all related to context.

Connecting these concepts can be useful to the gestalt therapists who use the contact cycle as means of understanding the mental processes of the client. It also helps us to access what difficult emotions underlie the personality structure of the client. Work with personality disorder is extremely complex because it deals with contact, not only with the environment, but also with the therapist’s personality.

I hope this idea is useful.

Bibliography

Kernberg, O. (2008). Aggressivity, Narcissism, and Self-Destructiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Rela: New Developments in the Psychopathology and Psychotherapy of Severe Personality Disorders. Yale University Press.

Kernberg: Working with the Antisocial and Malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder Spectrum

 

Kernberg (2008) writes that for the treatment of any case in which antisocial features of the personality disorder (PD) are suspect, the following should be evaluated by the therapist. Such evaluation makes it possible to access his/her ability to rely on the patient’s ability to sustain the therapeutic relationship and also to access the safety of the sessions:

  • The presence or absence of pathological narcissism.
  • The extent to which the superego pathology dominates (i.e. which part of the spectrum of the triad).
  • The intensity of egosytonic aggression and whether it is directed against the self in the form of suicidal/self mutilating behavior, or violent behavior against others / sadistic perversion.
  • Severity of paranoid tendency.
  • Stability of the person’s reality testing (ibid. p. 130).

The prognosis for Antisocial PD is not expected to be good in psychotherapy, in particular, if the client has severe aggressive pathologic behavior, and /or if the patient has no social support which the therapist can work with. According to Kernberg, therapists should begin work with client only after gathering the facts surrounding the clients’ coming for therapy, social support, ability to proceed with therapy in safety.

The treatment of malignant narcissistic PD (MNPD) has somewhat better prognosis than APD. A precondition for treatment is also strict control of antisocial behavior, and removal from social environment that facilitates his/her current behavior—e.g. exposure to the street gang.

General Psychotherapeutic Strategies

Kernberg’s suggestions are:

  • Establishment of solid, unbreakable treatment frame.
  • Systematic interpretation of psychopathic transference.
  • Guiding the patient to communicate honestly (if at all possible) about their behavioral problems outside the session.
  • Combining the above narrative with the developed regressive behaviors experienced during the sessions.
  • Gradually making it possible to connect the pathological behaviors interpretively into cognitive and affective experiences in the transference.

Highly deceptive clients make this work almost impossible. In such cases family members or other informants may be of help. The therapist should always make it prioritize urgency of intervention:  1. Danger to self/others, 2. Threats of treatment disruption, 3. Dishonesty in communication, 4. Acting outside and inside sessions, and 5. Trivialization of the communication.

Kernberg also states that it is essential to look for affects through verbal and nonverbal communication, nonverbal behavior, and the transference. The content of what the client says is usually a weaker source of affective information than what goes in these realms (ibid. p.140).

Treating Personality Disorders with Gestalt Therapy

Considering Kernberg’s suggestion, I notice the congruence of his method to Gestalt therapy practice:

Gestalt therapy is focussed on the process of the therapeutic dialogue, i.e. non-verbal interaction / body language. Therapist also encourages the client to enact situations that cannot be talked about. Poor functioning personality disorders prevents the individual from communicating with the therapist on a contactful level. As Kernberg notes, there is a tendency for such a client to deceive / idealize and devalue/ play victim or rescuer or persecutor with the therapist. The awareness of the therapist of this phenomena is essential. He /she is most effective when he/she can contain the clients behavior without getting roped into the game.

For this reason, in gestalt work, we focus of body language / tone of voice together with what is said, and we also focus on our (the therapists) own personal reactions. What the therapist tells the client is not analysis, but a descriptive reflection of what the therapists sees hears and senses.

The client benefits from this kind of honest interaction, because he/she too are not going to be caught up in games. In the beginning, there will of course be discomfort and frustration. If the client sticks to the work, there will be progress made.

Read also

Symptom Relief in Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is about Uncovering the Truth of the Self

Former Patients’ Conception of Psychotherapy 

Bibiliography

Kernberg, O. (2008). Aggressivity, Narcissism, and Self-Destructiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Relationship: New Developments in the Psychopathology and Psychotherapy of Severe Personality Disorders. Yale University Press.

Heinz Kohut: Selfobject

This is an introduction to Psychoanalysis, Self Psychology,  Heinz Kohut 1913-1981.

Kohut introduced selfobject. This is in dealing with Narcissism that is prevalent in the years after 1950s.

There are following therapist-client interaction:

  1. Mirror selfobject: the client uses therapist as someone who praises him, like a mother. The patient is addicted to mirrors due to not having a mother that glows at them.
  2. Ideal selfobject: Idealizing the father. Transference to the therapist that idealizes the therapist. Many therapist cannot tolerate this.
  3. Twin-ship selfobject: Identifying with the therapist. Seeing eye to eye.
  4. Adversarial selfobject: Bump up constantly against each other. Self definition is promoted because there is acceptance.
  5. Abstract selfobject : Belief in God, Posterity, or Past relationship sustain self-esteem.

Kohut also introduces Disintegration of Selfobject –> leads to emptiness, self aggression, addictions, emptiness depression.

Dealing with addictions:


How does Analysis repair disruptive cycle of emptiness…?  What has happened that led you to do this? Going to stripclubs, etc… What set you off this time?Make patients addicted to therapist / therapy.  That is a way to help patient get rid of the addiction.Some people are also addicted to anger. They use anger to hold them together. What is really valuable in psychotherapy (Interpersonal Schools of Psychotherapy):

“Sustained empathic enquiry.”

Decentering: Look at pattern from patient’s perspective. Try to set aside feeling attacked. Sometimes the patient’s perspective is psychotic. But it is still his/her perspective! So we take it for what it is.

Disruption- Repair Cycle

Kohut’s theory of cure: when there is a disruption, try to understand, what happened to the patient. The patient feels ultimately understood. Repairs the disruption.

Transmuting internalization takes place. 

Reestablishment in the disruption. The more he is able to be empathic to himself. He is able to build his own selfobject.

Like Kleinian, Self-Psychology works with the internalized selfobject.

Kernberg is opposed to Kohut. He sees Narcissist is suffering from conflict and not deficit like Kohut.  Narcissism is seen as manic defence. Profound feelings of emptiness, envy… Helping narcissist become depressed… but this can be lead to client to be very very depressed /suicidal.

Summary

How this relates to Gestalt Therapy Theory

The opposing view of Kohut and Kernberg is a reminder that analysis is a way of researching what goes on in the human mind. It is an attitude of seeing, and not a end to understanding “facts”. This makes psychotherapy sciences much more real and dynamic than natural sciences.

In Gestalt therapy, the narcissist is “not able to feel anything”, and thus has found a way to deflect from him/herself any stimuli from the environment. It is a safety mechanism he/she learned as a child. Most oftently the child has good reasons to shield him/herself from perceived or real danger.  This deflection mechanism becomes automatic, and the adult is not aware of his/her own situation, because the not feeling is second nature.

The disadvantage such persons have is that he/she does not enjoy relationships and often feel threatened / miss- trusting  and always aggressive (active or passive) towards others.

Gestalt therapist realize that when a behavior is not in awareness, it is impossible to talk to the client about it, and expect the client to experience a shift in his/her “nature”. Much of the work has to arise from non-verbal communication and feedback from the therapist.

Otto Kernberg: Transference Analysis in Psychotherapy

This is a summary of Otto Kernberg’s lecture on Transference Analysis.  Transference is an important term in psychodynamic therapies, and even dialogic therapies like Gestalt therapy.

Cite this article as: Chew-Helbig, N. (05/2017), Otto Kernberg: Transference Analysis in Psychotherapy, in The Psychotherapist. Date accessed 04/2019, https://nikhelbig.at/otto-kernberg-transference-analysis-in-psychotherapy/.

 

Transference is defined by Kernberg as: the unconscious repetition in the here-and-now of a dominant pathogenic conflict of the past.

In Psychopathology this pathogenic conflict plays out in the individuals’ present style of relating with others. Kernberg explains the origins of this mode of relating to be from the attachment of an individual to his mother at infancy. Early relationships, environment and the psychosocial world affect the neuro-biological make-up of the individual.

The experiences of the past, good and bad, thus get activated in the here-and-now, and affect how the individual perceives current situations and how he/she reacts to this situations. How he/she perceives his/her role is also affected by these early experiences.

Negative affects that do not reflect current reality is seen as pathological. These get reinforced through misunderstandings and reaction to and of the environment. These fixated negative reactions become the character and reflect the personality of the individual.

11:00 Kernberg explains that a combination of past experiences (and these are distorted and play out together in the present, not just one event at a time. Although we all transfer our experience of the past to our present, it becomes noteworthy as a personality disorder when this experience was overwhelming to the person, and becomes distorted.

What is done in psychodynamic treatment?

To resolve the pathological conflicts of the past as they get activated in the present.

14:25 By setting up a “normal” situation in the treatment situation. To sit with the patient face to face, and allowing him/her to say whatever comes to mind without feeling in danger of being judged, and to listen attentively to the patient.

Invite the patient to speak openly, support the patient to feel safe in this interaction.

Therapist exhibits technical neutrality. This interaction activates a transference relationship. The therapist can then help the patient interpret this transference reaction to past experience. This is called transference analysis. The adult mind of the patient can then be supported in integrating his/her past experiences with the present situation, leading to normalization of affect in the present.

Significance to psychotherapy…

Paying attention to transference situation, or what we can understand as the relational events that occur between therapist and client in the therapeutic setting in the here-and-now is very important to working with clients because it works directly with the personality of the patient. This is usually the armor that stands in the way of the psychotherapeutic work.  Kernberg’s lecture featured  here is detailed, and he explains how relationship experiences of an individual in infancy has a role in the wiring of the brain. He also explains how with psychotherapy that works with transference, his/her affect incongruence can be “mentalized”, and integrated within the patient.

Borderline Personality Disorder Case Illustration

46:00 Kernberg cites a case study of a patient with borderline personality disorder.

22 years old female, suicidal attempts, overdose of medications and street drugs, frequent hospitalization. 3 previous therapies, unsuccessful. sexual promiscuity,  antisocial and manipulative behavior, violent affect storms, attacking people emotionally.

Treatment started haltingly due to multiple suicidal attempts. Kernberg describes how he experienced her behavior towards him, which were violent and un-compromising. Kernberg explains how he reacted to her firmly, and in my opinion, authentically. He specified what he could tolerate and what he did not.  He however kept focussed on the transference without trying to fix or analyze or advice.

The behavior towards the therapist in this case is what Kernberg describes as the transference. It is how the patient has learnt to behave towards others in a relationship.

What we can take from this, is that patients who have had severe trauma as children do play out their pathological relationships with the therapist. It is up to the therapist to be aware of this patterns of relation of the patient. Sticking to the focus of the transference, and reacting authentically (if you are angry, say so, if you do not accept the abuse, say so, and set limits while being firm and sympathetic).

Kernberg also says that therapist have to look at the treatment in the long term, and although we may be impatient to see change in the patient, we have to be patient.

Important points to protect the frame of treatment

  • safety of the therapist.
  • * use common sense.
  • * be patient in the long run.  session takes months and years.
  • * analysis of what is going on is essential.
  • * tolerance of transference analysis is variable.

Significance of transference in Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapists do not use the term transference. This is because of the traditional link this word has to traditional psychoanalysis that Kernberg speaks about.  But the concept of using the interaction of the here-and-now is very much Gestalt therapy. Dialogical Gestalt therapist work with what we call the intersubjective or the in-between. This in-between is the transference. Gestalt Therapist who adopt the strict theory of the method, work with the following processes that is also present in transference analysis:

  • * working in here-and-now, 
  • * attention to the dialogue between therapist and client.
  • * non-judgmental (we call this phenomenological) listening to the client, allowing the client to his freedom of speech.
  • * active listening to the client.
  • * reflecting back to the client how his/her behavior or way of interaction affects the therapist.
  • * supporting the client to understand his current way of relating to his/her past (often pathologic) experiences.
  • * allowing the patient to integrate this phenomena of his/her past into the present.

The dawn of Gestalt therapy was initiated by psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Reich’s “Character Analysis and Sándor Ferenczi. The writings of these men, have already addressed the issue of working with transference as a means of working through character.

References

Kernberg, O. (2016). 29 Otto Kernberg. Youtube.com. Accessed on 05/2017. https://youtu.be/-H9qZBIfjHM

Further Reading:

Clarkin, J. F., Yeomans, F. E., & Kernberg, O. F. (2007). Psychotherapy for borderline personality: Focusing on object relations. American Psychiatric Pub.

Doering, S., Hörz, S., Rentrop, M., Fischer-Kern, M., Schuster, P., Benecke, C., … & Buchheim, P. (2010). Transference-focused psychotherapy v. treatment by community psychotherapists for borderline personality disorder: randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 196(5), 389-395.

Yeomans, F. E., Levy, K. N., & Caligor, E. (2013). Transference-focused psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 50(3), 449.