Do You Have a Personality Disorder?
Two simple questions can help you become more self-aware.
Posted Jun 21, 2020
The mental health term personality disorder is getting used more frequently in general conversations these days. Many people wonder if they have one, and some people may have been told they have one—which may or may not be accurate.
A personality disorder is defined by the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals as fundamentally an “enduring pattern of inner experience or behavior” that “leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”1 There’s more to it than that, but having an “enduring pattern” usually means that these problems will repeat and repeat for the person without significant change over the person’s lifetime, unless the person works hard at changing this enduring pattern.
A Lack of Self-Reflection
However, those with a personality disorder do not tend to reflect on themselves to see the need and ability to change their behavior. That’s why they’re stuck. They feel helpless, vulnerable, weak and like a victim-in-life, as if the universe was out to personally give them a hard time. Many people with personality disorders appear to have high conflict personalities, which means they have specific targets of blame, who they mistakenly hold responsible for all their problems, such as their spouses, children, parents, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, employees, etc.
By totally blaming others and truly lacking the ability to look at themselves, they continue their own behavior without changing. Therefore, their problems and conflicts continue or increase. All of their potential reflective energy goes into attacking their targets, who are often the people closest to them, and defending their own behavior against all criticism or even helpful suggestions. They may go from one relationship to another, one job to another, or can’t even work because of such a debilitating disorder. They often have few friends, but don’t understand why. They don’t try to change anything about themselves, which is the fundamental nature of a personality disorder.
These two simple questions will help you consider whether or not you have such a disorder:
Question #1: What’s my part in this problem?
If you can seriously ask yourself this question, it is a very good sign. This means that you are willing to take a hard look at what your part might be in a conflict with someone else, or simply in blocking your own progress toward a personal goal. People with personality disorders tend to be unable to seriously look at themselves and their part in any problem.
This doesn’t mean that you are primarily responsible for a problem, but that you realize that you may have a part in it. For example, in a divorce from someone who is abusive you may realize that their behavior was the primary cause of the relationship problems. However, you also might find that your choice of partner was your part. By realizing this, you can examine what attracted you to this person in the first place and take responsibility for considering ways to pick a better partner in the future.
In another situation, you may have loaned a friend money and they disappeared with it. Were there warning signs you missed? Should you have gotten some collateral to hold onto before lending the money? Maybe you shouldn’t lend money at all. Even though you’re not responsible for their behavior, you may find that there was a part you played in the overall situation, however small.
Likewise at work, in advancing your career, in communicating with co-workers, it helps to regularly ask yourself this question: What’s my part in this problem?
Question #2: What can I do different next time?
This follows directly from the first question. Once you recognize that you had control over some aspect of a problem, however small, you can plan how to avoid or manage it in the future. Changing your own behavior is often key to improving a situation you’re in.
This is what people with personality disorders rarely do. They put all of their energy into feeling helpless, or trying to get others to change, rather than trying something different themselves. They may go into a rage, avoid the situation, take a passive-aggressive approach, or try distraction. But its always something or someone else’s fault, so they don’t put any energy into changing their own “enduring pattern.”
Some people have traits of a personality disorder but still have some ability to self-reflect and some ability to change. They can benefit from asking themselves these two questions on a more regular basis.
If you can ask yourself: What’s my part in this problem? What can I do different next time? And then act on those questions to make a change, you are much less likely to have a personality disorder. And if you do have a personality disorder, you can start asking yourself these two questions, as well as seeking the assistance of a knowledgeable therapist. It is possible that with appropriate therapy, you can emerge from this diagnosis and begin to have a more productive and satisfying life.
1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.