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Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are deeply ingrained, rigid ways of thinking and behaving that result in impaired relationships with others and often cause distress for the individual who experiences them. Many mental health professionals formally recognize 10 disorders that fall into three clusters, although there is known to be much overlap between the categories.

Cluster A disorders are characterized by odd or eccentric patterns of thinking, such as extreme social detachment, distrust, or unusual beliefs.

Cluster B disorders feature unstable emotional states and erratic behavior, which can involve aggression toward or manipulation of others.

Cluster C disorders involve anxious or fearful patterns of thinking and relating to others.

Understanding Personality Disorders

Signs of a personality disorder usually appear by late adolescence or early adulthood. Although the disorders grouped within each cluster have similar symptoms and traits, one person may not have the exact same symptoms as another person with the same diagnosis, nor exhibit symptoms to the same degree. People who exhibit symptoms of a personality disorder may be unaware that they do so because they perceive their own distorted thought processes, emotional responses, and behaviors as normal.

What is a personality disorder?

A personality disorder is a long-term set of tendencies in one’s thinking and behavior that impair the person’s functioning in the world. While personality disorders are commonly described in terms of distinct categories, research suggests that, for the most part, they reflect various combinations of multiple underlying personality traits, including extreme levels of traits that all people have. 

How can you tell if someone has a personality disorder?

While the signs of a personality disorder—characteristics like lack of empathy and remorse, or consistently chaotic relationships with others—may be evident to many people in someone’s life, only a clinical professional, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, can make an official determination that the person meets the criteria for a personality disorder.

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Managing and Treating Personality Disorders

Personality disorders present unique treatment challenges. Most personality disorders are ego-syntonic, meaning they are compatible with a person's self-concept. As such, there may initially be little or no motivation to change. Nevertheless, mental health professionals have developed and applied different therapeutic techniques to help those with these conditions learn more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving, and research suggests that positive change is possible for many.

Can personality disorders be cured?

While the tendencies that comprise a personality disorder may never go away entirely, research indicates that a person can show decreased symptoms over time. Therapy can also be helpful for certain conditions. A number of approaches have been used in the treatment of borderline personality disorder, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and psychodynamic psychotherapy. In some cases, psychotropic drugs—such as antidepressants or antipsychotics—may be used as part of the treatment of personality disorder symptoms.

What can you do if you think someone has a personality disorder?

While it may be very difficult to convince someone who may have a personality disorder to see a therapist, therapy may offer the most promising route to long-term reduction in dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. In the meantime, there are some precautions that could be helpful in dealing with someone who has a personality disorder, including limiting time together and avoiding topics that lead to friction or conflict.

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