What is a Personality Disorder?
Personality disorders are long-term patterns of thoughts and behaviours that cause serious problems with relationships and work. People with personality disorders have difficulty dealing with everyday stresses and problems. They often have stormy relationships with other people. The exact cause of personality disorders is unknown. However, genes and childhood experiences may play a role.
Symptoms vary widely depending on the specific type of personality disorder. Treatment usually includes talk therapy and sometimes medicine.
A personality disorder is a type of mental illness in which you have trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people — including yourself. There are many specific types of personality disorders.
In general, having a personality disorder means you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and school.
In some cases, you may not realize that you have a personality disorder because your way of thinking and behaving seems natural to you, and you may blame others for the challenges you face.
General symptoms of a personality disorder
Personality disorder symptoms include:
• Frequent mood swings
• Stormy relationships
• Social isolation
• Angry outbursts
• Suspicion and mistrust of others
• Difficulty making friends
• A need for instant gratification
• Poor impulse control
• Alcohol or substance abuse
Specific types of personality disorders
The specific types of personality disorders are grouped into three clusters based on similar characteristics and symptoms. Many people with one diagnosed personality disorder also have signs and symptoms of at least one additional personality disorder.
Cluster A personality disorders
These are personality disorders characterized by odd, eccentric thinking or behavior and include:
Paranoid personality disorder
• Distrust and suspicion of others
• Believing that others are trying to harm you
• Emotional detachment
Schizoid personality disorder
• Lack of interest in social relationships
• Limited range of emotional expression
• Inability to pick up normal social cues
• Appearing dull or indifferent to others
Schizotypal personality disorder
• Peculiar dress, thinking, beliefs or behavior
• Perceptual alterations, such as those affecting touch
• Discomfort in close relationships
• Flat emotions or inappropriate emotional responses
• Indifference to others
• “Magical thinking” — believing you can influence people and events with your thoughts
• Believing that messages are hidden for you in public speeches or displays
Cluster B personality disorders
These are personality disorders characterized by dramatic, overly emotional thinking or behavior and include:
Antisocial (formerly called sociopathic) personality disorder
• Disregard for others
• Persistent lying or stealing
• Recurring difficulties with the law
• Repeatedly violating the rights of others
• Aggressive, often violent behavior
• Disregard for the safety of self or others
Borderline personality disorder
• Impulsive and risky behavior
• Volatile relationships
• Unstable mood
• Suicidal behavior
• Fear of being alone
Histrionic personality disorder
• Constantly seeking attention
• Excessively emotional
• Extreme sensitivity to others’ approval
• Unstable mood
• Excessive concern with physical appearance
Narcissistic personality disorder
Believing that you’re better than others
• Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness
• Exaggerating your achievements or talents
• Expecting constant praise and admiration
• Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings
Cluster C personality disorders
These are personality disorders characterized by anxious, fearful thinking or behavior and include:
Avoidant personality disorder
• Hypersensitivity to criticism or rejection
• Feeling inadequate
• Social isolation
• Extreme shyness in social situations
Dependent personality disorder
• Excessive dependence on others
• Submissiveness toward others
• A desire to be taken care of
• Tolerance of poor or abusive treatment
• Urgent need to start a new relationship when one has ended
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
• Preoccupation with orderliness and rules
• Extreme perfectionism
• Desire to be in control of situations
• Inability to discard broken or worthless objects
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder isn’t the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder, a type of anxiety disorder.
When to see a doctor
If you have any signs or symptoms of a personality disorder, see your doctor, mental health provider or other health care professional. Untreated, personality disorders can cause significant problems in your life, and they may get worse without treatment.
Helping a loved one
If you have a loved one who you think may have symptoms of a personality disorder, have an open and honest discussion about your concerns. You may not be able to force someone to seek professional care, but you can offer encouragement and support. You can also help your loved one find a qualified doctor or mental health provider and make an appointment. You may even be able to go to an appointment with him or her.
If you have a loved one who has harmed himself or herself, or is seriously considering doing so, take him or her to the hospital or call for emergency help.
Personality is the combination of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that makes you unique. It’s the way you view, understand and relate to the outside world, as well as how you see yourself. Personality forms during childhood, shaped through an interaction of two factors:
• Inherited tendencies, or your genes. These are aspects of your personality passed on to you by your parents, such as shyness or having a happy outlook. This is sometimes called your temperament. It’s the “nature” part of the nature vs. nurture debate.
• Environment, or your life situations. This is the surroundings you grew up in, events that occurred, and relationships with family members and others. It includes such things as the type of parenting you had, whether loving or abusive. This is the “nurture” part of the nature vs. nurture debate.
Personality disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of these genetic and environmental influences. You may have a genetic vulnerability to developing a personality disorder and your life situation may trigger the actual development of a personality disorder.
Although the precise cause of personality disorders isn’t known, certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering personality disorders, including:
• A family history of personality disorders or other mental illness
• Low socioeconomic status
• Verbal, physical or sexual abuse during childhood
• Neglect during childhood
• An unstable or chaotic family life during childhood
• Being diagnosed with childhood conduct disorder
• Loss of parents through death or traumatic divorce during childhood
Personality disorders often begin in childhood and last through adulthood. There’s reluctance to diagnose personality disorders in a child, though, because the patterns of behavior and thinking could simply reflect adolescent experimentation or temporary developmental phases.