What is a personality disorder?

Everyone possesses their own unique personality that makes them different from others. Our personality is formed from a combination of genetics and upbringing. While studies vary, many agree that our personality is fully developed between the ages of 5-7. Personality is our own way of behaving, thinking, and feeling. These characteristics make us human. Without a personality, we would basically be robots, simply moving through life without emotion or thought.

Unfortunately, the personality can go awry based on genetics and negative childhood experiences. Personality disorders cause a person to have a distorted view of himself and others, and impact the way he responds to other people and control his emotions. Depending on the severity, these types of disorders can greatly impede a person from living a normal life. Plus, they can affect everything from jobs to financial stability. Without treatment, the person will become used to their negative behaviors and thought patterns, and may even begin to think nothing is wrong.

Personality Disorder Clusters

“A personality disorder is a way of thinking, feeling and behaving that deviates from the expectations of the culture, causes distress or problems functioning, and lasts over time.” – American Psychiatric Association

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes 10 different personality disorders grouped into three categories, or “clusters.” They are as follows:

Cluster A: Odd, Bizarre, Eccentric

  • Paranoid Personality Disorder
  • Schizoid Personality Disorder
  • Schizotypal Personality Disorder

B: Dramatic, Erratic

Cluster C: Anxious, Fearful

  • Avoidant Personality Disorder
  • Dependent Personality Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

Even though psychology differentiates the 10 personality disorders based on behaviors, they often overlap, making a diagnosis difficult. Some psychologists today believe that, instead of specific personality disorders, the maladaptive behaviors that make up the disorders lie on a spectrum, or continuum.  In a new version of an old approach to coping with these illnesses, professionals focus on “style” rather than distinct disorders, University of Minnesota psychologist Sylvia Wilson and colleagues looked at the different interpersonal styles that make up each disorder.

As they note in their research, “Interpersonal style is defined by one’s characteristic approach to interpersonal situations and relationships” (p. 679). This would include everything from how you behave in relationships, to how you view relationships, to how you interpret what happens within your relationships. People with personality disorders typically have very turbulent and unstable relationships due to how they perceive themselves and others in their relationships.

Wilson and her colleagues proposed that all personality traits fall on a spectrum between agency (ranging from domination to submissiveness) and communion (ranging from warmth to coldness). The eight specific traits identified in their research are domineering, vindictive, cold, socially avoidant, nonassertive, exploitable, overly nurturant, and intrusive.

With that said, we will go over these eight traits in further detail and explain which disorders would fall under them.

Here are 8 traits of someone with a personality disorder:

1. Domineering

As you might expect, individuals with antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders scored high on this trait. Antisocial disorder is a pattern of disregarding or violating the rights of others, and people with this disorder may not follow laws or social norms. People with narcissistic personality disorder also don’t have empathy for others, and feel the need to be in the spotlight frequently or show off their achievements. They may take advantage of others due to their sense of entitlement. In addition, people who have histrionic personality disorder scored high on this trait. Excessive displays of emotion and attention-seeking behavior characterize histrionic personality disorder.

2. Vindictive

People with paranoid, schizotypal, antisocial, dependent, narcissistic, and borderline personality disorders scored high on this trait. People with paranoid personality disorder view others’ motives as suspicious and spiteful, and those with schizotypal personality disorder have distorted thinking and extreme discomfort in close relationships. Dependent personality disorder, as you might guess, is a pattern of feeling helpless and needing care. People with this disorder often fear being alone and display clingy behavior. Those with borderline personality disorder have great instability in their self-image, relationships with others, and emotions.

3. Cold

Paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, narcissistic, and avoidant personality disorders are high in this trait. People with schizoid personality disorder detach themselves from relationships and usually don’t display much emotion. They prefer being alone, and may not respond to others’ emotions, especially to praise or criticism. However, those with avoidant personality disorder are very sensitive to criticism and may avoid social activities due to feeling inferior or inadequate. Individuals with this disorder obsess over what others think about them and have poor self-esteem.

4. Socially avoidant

Obviously, people with avoidant or antisocial personality disorder scored high in this trait. People with schizoid personality disorder also scored highly here, as they don’t tend to form close relationships with others.

5. Nonassertive

People with schizoid, schizotypal, and avoidant personality disorders are most likely to be nonassertive. On the opposite end, however, those with narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders score high in assertiveness.

6. Exploitable

Narcissistic, antisocial, and dependent personality disorders scored high in this trait, as all three center around using others for personal gain in some manner.

7. Overly nurturant

People with dependent personality disorders display this trait, as they need to form close bonds with others in order to get them to take care of them.

8. Intrusive

The people that scored highest here are those with narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, dependent, and antisocial personality disorders.

Interestingly, those with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder had fairly stable interpersonal personality traits, as this disorder does not usually affect relationships either positively or negatively.

Final thoughts on Personality Disorders

While people with mental illnesses may struggle with simple tasks in daily life, treatment is available, and many therapists specialize in treating these individuals. So if you or someone you know has a mental illness, please don’t hesitate to seek help. It does not make you weak or less than others; it simply means you’re doing what you need to do to feel better.

While there are no medications that specifically treat personality disorders, many psychiatrists prescribe antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or mood stabilizers to help with the symptoms. The most effective treatment for personality disorders is either cognitive behavioral or dialectical behavioral therapy, as well as self-care and coping strategies.