What is a Personality Disorder?

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Worried about a loved one’s strange behaviours, and starting to think he or she has a personality disorder? Or worried about your own ways of thinking and seeing the world?

The myth about personality disorders

Contrary to what the internet would have you believe, it is unlikely all your exes and bad bosses have personality disorders. Nor is a personality disorder a synonym for monster, or an ‘illness’ you can see under a microscope.

Personality disorders are simply terms made up by mental health professionals to describe groups of people with similar symptoms that place them outside the current ‘norms’ of behaviour.

If you have a personality disorder, the way you perceive the world will have made you different than average people since you were a young adult. Your different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting will affect all areas of your life and provide a source of constant challenge, particularly when it comes to relating to others.

How many people have personality disorders?

It’s uncertain how many people have personality disorders. The UK government currently places it somewhere around 15%, but other statistics are lower.

What is certain is that humans are complicated. We all have many sides to our personality. We can be kind and generous one day, hateful and veangeful the next. We act one way with colleagues, another way entirely with an annoying sibling.

And none of us are at our best when under stress. It’s easy to think, when we are having a stressful time, that we are so different than others we must have a personality disorder.

Why you might not have a disordered personality

Even if stress makes us act our of character, most of us have a baseline we return to.

And if that baseline means you can relate to others, have long-term relationships, and cope with things like a job and finances? Then you probably don’t have a personality disorder.

A personality disorder is consistent, crosses all areas of life, and has been prevalent since the end of adolescence.

If you have a personality disorder, your average way of being, even when not stressed, makes you an outsider who struggles with interaction and society’s rules.

What are the signs of a personality disorder?

Signs and symptoms of personality disorders vary wildly -- there are currently ten main personality disorders.

But what is always true is that, again:

  • a personality disorder means you always think and behave in ways that are markedly different to other people
  • these ways of thinking and behaving affect all areas of your life
  • and they mean you struggle with relationships and daily living
  • you can’t change your challenging behaviours even when you try.

Otherwise, the ten main personality divides into groups of symptoms, or 'clusters'.. These are:

Why personality disorders are controversial

Again, they are not medical illnesses. And they are based around societal norms, which can change across cultures and historical periods.

What was considered normal behaviour in Victorian times, when it was perfectly acceptable to be dramatic and have fainting fits, for example? Would likely qualify as a personality disorder nowadays.

Some mental health professionals feel that diagnosing a client with a personality disorder makes the client feel labeled. They can over-identify with their symptoms, lose their self-esteem, and stop trying to make any sort of progress.

On the other hand, some people feel better after receiving a diagnosis. It helps them feel understood after years of struggle and confusion, and makes them feel hopeful that now they will find proper support.

I think I might have a personality disorder, what do I do?

Here in the UK only a psychiatrist can officially diagnose a personality disorder. They then will refer you on to a psychotherapist for treatment. Psychiatrists are of course expensive, and can have long waiting lists.

If you are not sure if you have a personality disorder, it is an option to have some sessions with a psychotherapist who understands personality disorders first. They can give you their honest opinion and refer you to a psychiatrist if they see fit, and can help you with symptom management.

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