Personality Disorders Guides & Articles

Leigh Morgan
Last updated:
Erin George, MFT
Medical Editor

What Is a Personality Disorder?

A personality disorder is a mental health condition that causes a person to think, feel, or act in a way that doesn't match other people's expectations. 1 When a person's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors deviate from what's expected, it causes significant distress. As a result, someone with a personality disorder may have difficulty staying employed or maintaining healthy relationships.

Personality disorders may cause extreme suspicion of others, lack of interest in social relationships, inappropriate emotional responses, and other concerning symptoms 2. Therefore, family members and friends need to be aware of how they communicate with a loved one who has a personality disorder. For example, if the individual is in crisis mode, a parent or spouse may have to take a few minutes to compose themselves.

Some personality disorders also cause increased impulsivity or aggression. Individuals with these symptoms may end up in legal trouble due to their inability to control their behavior. 3 For example, someone who's impulsive may shoplift or operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These legal issues may make it more difficult to obtain a job or cause someone with a personality disorder to be incarcerated.

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Types of Personality Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) lists 10 separate personality disorders. Each disorder has a specific set of symptoms to distinguish it from the others.

  • Avoidant personality disorder: Extreme sensitivity to criticism, feelings of inadequacy, and/or extreme shyness
  • Schizotypal personality disorder: Distorted thinking, odd behavior, excessive social anxiety, discomfort with close relationships
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD): Intense emotions, impulsivity, poor self-image, intense anger, feelings of emptiness, unstable personal relationships
  • Schizoid personality disorder: Lack of emotion, detachment from social relationships
  • Antisocial personality disorder: Impulsivity, excessive lying, failure to conform to social norms, a pattern of violating the rights of others
  • Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): Sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, need for admiration, high sense of self-importance
  • Dependent personality disorder: Clinginess, submissive behavior, intense need to feel cared for
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorderIntense occupation with perfection, order, and control
  • Histrionic personality disorder: Exaggerated or rapidly shifting emotions, attention-seeking behavior, excessive emotion, need to be the center of attention
  • Paranoid personality disorder: Extremely suspicious of others, inability to trust other people, belief that other people are spiteful

Multiple personality disorder (MPD) isn't on this list because it's no longer considered a personality disorder. MPD is also an outdated term, as the condition is now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). 4 People with DID may benefit from some of the same treatments as people with personality disorders, however.

What Causes a Personality Disorder?

Scientists don't know exactly what causes personality disorders, but they believe childhood trauma and genetics both play a role. 5 Children who experience physical or verbal abuse are much more likely to develop personality disorders than children without a history of trauma.

Fortunately, just one positive relationship with a teacher, family member, or another trusted adult may limit the negative effects of trauma, reducing an individual's risk of developing one of these disorders. Researchers have also identified genetic variations that may play a role in the development of NPD, BPD, and other mental health conditions.

How to Treat a Personality Disorder

Medication may help with depression and anxiety, but talk therapy is the most effective personality disorder treatment currently available. 6 Therapists help people with these disorders identify problematic thoughts and emotions, giving them an opportunity to make positive changes. One of the main goals of therapy is to reduce the distress associated with having a personality disorder.

Talk therapy is also helpful for modifying harmful personality traits, making positive behavior changes, and helping the individual understand that other people aren't the cause of their problems. Depending on what type of disorder a person has, their therapist may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy, or another therapeutic approach.

Why Are Personality Disorders Difficult to Treat?

Many people with these disorders see nothing wrong with their behavior, so they're not motivated to seek professional help. They also tend to believe that other people are the cause of their problems, which leads them to cast blame instead of trying to change their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

People with personality disorders also have a hard time getting along with people. Even if they do seek help, they may refuse to accept recommendations from a therapist or other mental health professional. Some people even drop out of treatment. 7

How to Know If You Have a Personality Disorder

To diagnose a personality disorder, a medical professional must perform a physical exam and psychiatric evaluation. 8 The physical exam helps rule out medical problems that can lead to concerning behavioral changes, such as brain tumors and dementia. A psychiatric evaluation is a detailed discussion of the individual's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In some cases, a medical professional uses a questionnaire to help identify the patient's symptoms and narrow down potential causes. Medical professionals also use the DSM-5 to determine if an individual's symptoms fit a specific diagnosis.

How to Deal With a Personality Disorder Diagnosis

It can be difficult to come to terms with a personality disorder diagnosis. One of the best ways to cope is to learn as much as possible about the disorder. Learning about the diagnosis makes it easier to recognize when symptoms are interfering with work, school, or relationships.

Self-care is also essential, as it can help people with these disorders feel more grounded. Meditating, getting massages, and doing yoga are all good ways to relieve frustration and loneliness. These self-care activities are also helpful for relieving anxiety associated with a personality disorder.

How to Help a Loved One With a Personality Disorder

Compassion and respect go a long way when it comes to helping a loved one with a personality disorder. If they have a crisis, it's also important to be patient and listen carefully to their needs. Rather than focusing on the disorder, it's helpful to focus on the individual's positive attributes and let them know when they're making progress. That said, it's also important for loved ones to set firm boundaries. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, so it's important to set limits and refuse to tolerate hurtful behavior.