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An Understanding and Approach to Regression in the Borderline Patient

Jesse Viner, MD
Founder and Executive Medical Director


What is regression? Arlow and Brenner4 defined regression as the re-emergence of modes of mental functioning which were characteristic of the psychic activity of the individual during earlier periods of development. Within this definition, there are two different applications of the concept of regression, which it will be helpful to separate. First is the use of regression as a metapsychological concept and second is the concept as used in clinical theory.

Freud5 identified three types of metapsychological regression within his topographic model of the mind:  topographic, temporal, formal.  Anna Freudlater translated these into the terms of the structural theory.  Building upon Anna Freud’s distinction between temporal and formal regression, Gedo and Goldberg7 provide a classification of two types of metapsychological regression.  Structural regression, corresponding to Anna Freud’s temporal regression, occurs among specific phases of psychological organization that can be separated along a developmental continuum.  Phase I is concluded by the acquisition of the capacity to cognitively distinguish the self from object, Phase II by the unification of the self, Phase III by superego formation and Phase IV is concluded and the psychic apparatus fully differentiated by the laying down of a repression barrier.  Functional regression, corresponding to formal regression, is regression within the mode of mental functioning. Gedo and Goldberg7 outline 5 modes which include a hierarchy of the developmental levels of narcissism, anxiety, defenses and the principles of mental functioning.  As psychological development proceeds into succeeding phases, individuals are capable of increasingly more mature modes of functioning not previously existent.  This discussion will focus on Modes I and II.

The borderline patient can be conceptualized as functioning within Gedo and Goldberg's Phase II of psychic organization. This means they have not yet achieved the irreversible unification of the self. Borderline patients have the capacity to function within both Modes I and II. Mode II seems to aptly correspond to the stable, integrated level of functioning for the borderline patient, while Mode I characterizes the regressions. In Mode II functioning, the psychic danger is separation anxiety, omnipotent illusions are perpetuated through magic, and defenses of projections and introjection prevail. Unification is the aim of this mode and the experience of unification is sought and found within the well functioning self object relationship. Disruptions within this relationship reactive Mode I functioning in which the patient may suffer degrees of loss of differentiation of self from object; the danger is over stimulation, unconditional omnipotence is in force, discharge of tension is the defensive style and pacification is the aim.

Next, an examination of regression as a concept in clinical theory is in order.  Freud's concept of clinical regression was inextricably intertwined with the concepts of fixation and the repetition compulsion. Regression served two purposes: (a) as a mechanism of defense and (b) to restore psychic equilibrium by an attempt to master unresolved trauma. In the former the ego seeks security and gratification by returning to a previous form of satisfaction or successful anode of operation when threatened with a new conflict not yet mastered. In the latter, then is a compulsive return to a fundamentally different intrapsychic experience. Regression is to a trauma, an attempt to resolve a conflict that was not solved in the past. Balint8 attempts to expand the concept of regression beyond the repetition compulsion. He writes that regression aims at establishing an object relationship similar in structure to the primary relationship and that this is determined not by the repetition compulsion but by the expression of a developmental need, a quest for what Balint calls "the new beginning." This is similar to Winnicott's9 view.

These clinical concepts of regression have had enormous implications for the therapeutic approach to regressed behavior in patients. Alexander10 to whom Balint acknowledges similarities with his own work, demonstrated how regression within the transference can follow both types described by Freud. As a defense it functions as a resistance. As an attempt to master it runs parallel with therapeutic efforts.

How does one resolve this controversy as it applies towards the approach to acute regression in the borderline patient? First, it must be understood that this controversy fails to recognize the distinction between functional and structural regression. The controversy meaningfully applies only to the complex questions involved in the treatment of structuralized regressions and attempts to change an individual's phase of psychic organization such as in a psychoanalysis. Acute regressions in the borderline are functional regressions. Gedo and Goldberg7 write that acute regressions from a more or less stable adaptive state are functional regressions and usually involve only a resort to functioning within a more archaic mode without a retreat of the entire psychic organization to a previous phase of development. Therefore, the question for the therapeutics of functional regressions is not whether regression should be encouraged or promoted. There is no therapeutic potential in encouraging a functional regression. The question is rather, what is the meaning of functional regression in the borderline and how can patients be restored to the highest mode of functioning of which they are capable.

Valenstein11 writes that these primitive affect states occurring during periods of marked regression appear to be consequent to the propensity of such individuals to relive in later life what they cannot remember, namely the aura of their early experience, especially the sense of the self and its relationship to the self-object. Kohut's12 concept of the self-object has increased our understanding of how in developmental and normal adult functioning another person can at times serve the functions of psychic structure rather than serving only as object for drive gratification. In people whose narcissistic structures have not fully developed, there persists a deficit; parts of psychic structure are lacking so that others are called upon to perform the psychic functions of that structure. To apply the concept of the self-object towards a clinical theory of regression, it can be stated that regressive behaviors may serve an additional aim beyond defense from conflict, attempt to master, and quest for a new beginning. Regressions in patients with structural deficits are attempts to supply or substitute for missing psychic structure and function.

There is a group of non psychotic disorders in which there is no irreversible establishment of self (Tolpin13). This seems to apply to the borderline psychopathology and provides a useful explanation for this patient group’s vulnerability and potential for precipitous regression. This follows Kohut's (1971) description of the borderline person as having no cohesive self and therefore living in constant danger of severe regression when archaic transferences emerge. According to Paul Tolpin,14 the cohesiveness of the self is maintained in the borderline patient but it is a specious and fragile integration because it is sustained through complex defenses rather than underlying psychic structure. Adler15 adds that the establishment but relative inability to sustain self object transference is a primary feature of this patient group.

There seems to be a correspondence with Kohut's (1971) concept of self-object and Edgcumbe’s and Burgner's16 concept of the need satisfying relationship as a stage in the psychological development of object relations. At the need satisfying level of development, the object (self-object) exists only at moments of need and the relationship is to the function, not the object. According to Edgcumbe and Burgner,16 borderline psychopathology occurs within a stage of transition between the need satisfying relationship and object constancy. There is a characteristic attachment to a specific-object while continuing to function in a need satisfying mode. Regression occurs when this specific attachment is threatened and is an attempt to bind the object more firmly. The object provides needed functions, the loss of which threatens the individual with disintegration anxiety. The threat to the attachment stimulates disintegration anxiety as it threatens to expose the psychic deficit. Acute functional regressions, as seen in the borderline, are attempts to stem the tide of disintegration.