Between Verbalization and Reflection: Referential Activity and Narrative Processes in Borderline Personality Organization

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Abstract

Both empirical and theoretical data would seem to suggest that patients with borderline personality organization (BPO; e.g., O. F. Kernberg, 2004b) show severe problems with emotional regulation that arise due to dysfunctions in intrapsychic representation and emotional–relational processing. The research presented here examines emotional–relational processing from 2 points of view—from that of referential activity (RA) and through the process of narrative processing. A major goal of the 2 presented studies was to explore the referential and narrative processes in BPO. Study 1 compares BPO with a general group of higher personality organization, Study 2 with specified groups (neurotic personality organization [NPO] and integrated personality organization [IPO]). We hypothesized that people with BPO (in their utterances) would show lower emotional–relational processing that might manifest in higher RA processes. The RA indices (concreteness, specificity, and imagery) were significantly higher in the BPO group for narratives about negative emotional–relational situations. No intergroup differences were observed for narratives about positive emotional–relational conditions (Study 1). Moreover, when lexical indices were used, the concreteness index was higher in a statistically significant way for BPO, in comparison with NPO, and the imagery index was significantly higher in BPO than in the IPO group (Study 2). From the experience-processing point of view, results in the BPO group revealed verbal access to emotional experiences but without the reflection stage, where arousal would have connected to meaning. Taking the structure of the representation into account, the disturbance in emotional–relational processing might be explained by a splitting within the intrapsychic representation.

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