Personality disorders explained

Early childhood and teenage experiences, genetic factors, all play part.

Psychiatrists have identified 10 different personality disorders which are grouped into three categories.

For each type of disorder, a diagnosis will not be made if you have only one or two of the characteristics. You may find you meet the criteria for several different types of personality disorders.

It can also be the case that a wide range of people meet the criteria for the same disorder, despite having very different personalities and different individual experiences.

The three categories are: suspicious, emotional and impulsive and anxious.

  • Paranoid, borderline avoidant.
  • Schizoid, histrionic dependent.
  • Schizotypal, narcissistic, obsessive compulsive, antisocial.

Causes of Personality Disorders

There’s no clear reason why some people develop a personality disorder and others don’t. Most researchers think that a complex mix of factors is involved, such as: the environment we grow up in, early childhood and teenage experiences and genetic factors.

The environment we grow up in and the quality of care we receive can affect the way our personality develops.

You may be more likely to develop personality disorder if you’ve experienced:

  • An unstable or chaotic family life, such as living with a parent who is an alcoholic or who struggles to manage a mental health problem.
  • Little or no support from your caregiver – this may be especially hard if you experienced a traumatic event or situation.
  • A lack of support or bad experiences during your school life, in your peer group or wider community.

If you had a difficult childhood or experiences like these, you might have developed certain beliefs about how people think and how relationships work. You might have developed certain strategies for coping which aren’t helpful in your adult life.

Our experiences growing up can affect our personality in later life. Difficult or traumatic experiences may lead to personality disorder, such as:

  • Neglect. ɳ
  • Losing a parent or sudden bereavement.
  • Verbal, physical or sexual abuse.
  • Being involved in major incidents or accidents.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic situation will develop these problems. The way you and others reacted to it, alongside the support and care you received to help you cope, will have made a lot of difference.

Similarly, not everyone who develops a personality disorder will have had a traumatic experience. Some elements of our personality are inherited. We are born with different temperaments – babies vary in how active they are, their attention span and how they adapt to change.

Some experts believe inheritance may play a part in the development of personality disorder.

The Different Disorders

Paranoid Personality Disorder

  • Finding it hard to confide in people, even your friends.
  • Find it very difficult to trust other people, believing they will use you or take advantage of you.
  • Watch others closely, looking for signs of betrayal or hostility.
  • Read threats and danger – which others don’t see – into everyday situations.

Schizoid Personality Disorder

  • Be uninterested in forming close relationships with other people, including your family.
  • Feel that relationships interfere with your freedom and tend to cause problems.
  • Prefer to be alone with your own thoughts.
  • Choose to live your life without interference from others.
  • Get little pleasure from life. ɳ Have little interest in sex or intimacy.
  • Be emotionally cold towards others.

Schizotypal Personality Disorder

  • Find making close relationships extremely difficult.
  • Think and express yourself in ways that others find “odd”, using unusual words or phrases.
  • Behave in ways that others find eccentric.
  • Believe that you can read minds or that you have special powers such as a “sixth sense”.
  • Feel anxious and tense with others who do not share these beliefs.
  • Feel very anxious and paranoid in social situations.

Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) or Psychopathy

  • Put yourself in dangerous or risky situations, often without considering the consequences for yourself or for other people.
  • Behave dangerously and sometimes illegally.
  • Behave in ways that are unpleasant for others.
  • Feel very easily bored and act on impulse – you may find it difficult to hold down a job for long.
  • Behave aggressively and get into fights easily.
  • Do things – even though they may hurt people – to get what you want, putting your needs above theirs.
  • Have a criminal record.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD is like having no emotional buffer. One can go from nothing to suddenly extremely overwhelming emotions and struggle with expressing them healthily.

  • Feel very worried about people abandoning you, and would do anything to stop that happening.
  • Have very intense emotions that last from a few hours to a few days and can change quickly (for example, from feeling very happy and confident in the morning to feeling low and sad in the afternoon).
  • Not have a strong sense of who you are, and it can change depending on who you’re with.
  • Find it very hard to make and keep stable relationships.
  • Act impulsively and do things that could harm you (such as binge eating, using drugs or driving dangerously).
  • Have suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviour.
  • Feel empty and lonely a lot of the time.
  • Get very angry, and struggle to control your anger.

When very stressed, sometimes you might:

  • Feel paranoid.
  • Have psychotic experiences, such as seeing or hearing things that other people don’t.
  • Feel numb or “checked out” and not remember things properly after they’ve happened.

Histrionic Personality Disorder

  • Feel very uncomfortable if you are not the centre of attention.
  • Feel much more at ease as the “life and soul of the party”.
  • Feel that you have to entertain people.
  • Flirt or behave provocatively to ensure you remain the centre of attention.
  • Get a reputation for being dramatic and overemotional.
  • Feel dependent on the approval of others.
  • Be easily influenced by others.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

  • Believe that there are special reasons that make you different, better or more deserving than others.
  • Have fragile self-esteem, so that you rely on others to recognise your worth and your needs.
  • Feel upset if others ignore you and don’t give you what you feel you deserve.
  • Resent other people’s successes.
  • Put your own needs above other people’s, and demand they do too.
  • Be seen as selfish and above yourself.
  • Take advantage of other people.

Avoidant (or Anxious) Personality Disorder

  • Avoid work or social activities that mean you must be with others.
  • Expect disapproval and criticism and be very sensitive to it.
  • Worry constantly about being found out and rejected.
  • Worry about being ridiculed or shamed by others.
  • Avoid relationships, friendships and intimacy, fearing rejection.
  • Feel lonely and isolated, and inferior to others.
  • Are reluctant to try new activities in case you embarrass yourself.

Dependent Personality Disorder

  • Feel needy, weak and unable to make decisions or function properly without help or support.
  • Allow others to assume responsibility for many areas of your life.
  • Agree to things you feel are wrong or you dislike to avoid being alone or losing someone’s support.
  • Be afraid of fending for yourself.
  • Have low self-confidence.
  • See other people as being much more capable than you are.
  • Be seen by others as much too submissive and passive.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

  • Need to keep everything in order and under control.
  •  Set unrealistically high standards for yourself and others.
  • Think yours is the best way of making things happen.
  • Worry when you or others might make mistakes.
  • Expect catastrophes if things aren’t perfect.
  • Be reluctant to spend money on yourself or others.
  • Have a tendency to hang onto items with no obvious value.




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