I know some people will reject this book because "Psychoanalytic" is in the title. Others will reject this book because "Diagnosis" is in the title. However, this essential text is highly useful to all practitioners of any theoretical orientation if they can get past the negative stereotyping. The term "Diagnosis" as used in this book is in line with the original definition of the word that is derived from Greek- meaning a distinguishing, to perceive, to know thoroughly. The second part of the book title explains that the point of diagnosing is to know how to help. McWilliams clarifies that, "The main object of this book is to enhance practice..." and that is what this book does extremely well.
Nancy McWilliams never looses the person to the diagnosis. "Once I have a good feel for the person, the work is going well, I stop thinking diagnostically and simply immerse myself in the unique relationship that unfolds between me and the client...one can throw away the book and savor individual uniqueness."
Her writing style is much like she describes her therapy sessions. She points out the necessity at times, to judiciously self-disclose. Her personal sharing gives the text a soul and you feel you are with a warm and wise teacher. For example when discussing the value of psychoanalysis, McWilliams discloses, "I share this opinion, having benefited all my adult life from a good early classical analysis."
Let me share with you an example of her eloquent style that pervades this text: "When any label obscures more than illuminates, practitioners are better off discarding it and relying on common sense and human decency, like the lost sailor who throws away the useless navigational chart and prefers to orient by a few familiar stars." It is writing such as this, which makes this text enjoyable, as it is enlightening.
McWilliams' taxonomy is fundamentally based on just two Axes. The first dimension conceptualizes a person's degree of developmental grow or personality organization (neurotic-normal level, borderline level and psychotic level). McWilliams assesses the neurotic, borderline, and psychotic levels of personality structure in terms of favorite defenses, level of identity integration, adequacy of reality testing, the capacity to observe one's pathology, nature or one's primary conflict, and transference and countertransference.
She explains that "borderline" is not a distinct personality disorder as introduced by DSM III, but an over-all level of severity. It is a stable instability between the border of neurotic and psychotic ranges, characterized by a lack of identity integration and reliance on primitive defenses without the overall loss of reality testing that is seen with people at the psychotic level.
The second axis identifies the type of character or personality patterns (psychopathic, narcissistic, paranoid, depressive, schizoid, etc.). She explains that though this two-axis model is oversimplified, it is useful in synthesizing and streamlining diagnostics for newcomers.
McWilliams first looks at how the levels of personality organization are important in the therapeutic process. She states the neurotically organized person is like the boiling pot with the lid on too tight making it the therapist's job to let some steam escape (uncovering-expressive work). However, the psychotically vulnerable individual's pot is boiling over, and it is the therapist's job to turn down the heat and get the lid back on (supportive work).
I strongly recommend this recent edition of Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process as a required text for doctoral and post-doctoral students to help them understand and treat patients.