Cover Story

People with personality disorders tend to show little behavioral flexibility, says Art Freedman, PhD, a psychologist at the National Training Laboratory Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.

"They won't try new things because, in part, they think: 'This is what I need to do to survive,'" says Freedman. For example, if someone with a personality disorder attempts to make friends and fails, he might decide his well-being depends on avoiding all human contact in the future, Freedman says.

Such inability to bounce back after a setback may shed light on the unremitting character of Axis II disorders, says Freedman. People with personality disorders aren't in the habit of trying new strategies when old ones fail, which then dooms them to repeat maladaptive behavior, he says.

Building resilience--the propensity to weather the slings and arrows of misfortune--in people with personality disorders can help them find a way out of this cycle of defeat. One study, published in the Journal of Adult Development (Vol. 10, No. 4), lends support to this idea. As compared with participants who scored low on aspects of resilience, adults found to be resilient fared better psychologically when they lost their job or their youngest child moved away from home.

Psychologists can help clients build resilience by teaching them to monitor their perceptions and reactions to events, and change them when necessary, says Freedman.

"Helping the individual with personality disorder to develop cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional competencies will assist them to manage day-to-day stressors and events effectively," says Mark Reinecke, PhD, an associate psychology professor and chief of the division of psychology at Northwestern University.

Freedman says he would also like practitioners to imbue those with personality disorders with the habit of trying new approaches when old ones are not working. For example, a therapist might work with a client to brainstorm new ways to meet friends if previous attempts have been rebuffed.

Like the disks that keep the spinal column from being damaged from everyday friction, resilience helps to buffer people from negative experiences, says Freedman. "People with personality disorder have so little resilience, it makes it especially important to deal with [this deficit]," he says.

--S. DINGFELDER