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Personality disorders: A brief primer

A personality disorder is a mental disorder characterized by rigid and unhealthy thought patterns that negatively impact a person’s social encounters and behavior. People with personality disorders may have difficulties at work, school or home. They may also have trouble maintaining healthy relationships.

Clinicians have divided personality disorders into three clusters.

Cluster A personality disorders include paranoid personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder and schizotypal personality disorder. These disorders are all characterized by odd or eccentric thoughts and behavior.

Cluster B personality disorders include antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. These disorders all share dramatic, unpredictable or overly emotional thought patterns and behavior.

Cluster C personality disorders include avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Cluster C personality disorders are characterized by anxiety or fearful thoughts and behavior.

What are the symptoms of a personality disorder?

Personality disorders are a broad category of illnesses with many different symptoms and manifestations. A person with narcissistic personality disorder would act nothing like a person with schizotypal personality disorder.

Here is a brief summary of the symptoms associated with each personality disorder.

  • Individuals with paranoid personality disorder tend to perceive innocent remarks as personal attacks. They are frequently suspicious of other individuals and may even think people are trying to harm them.
  • Individuals with schizoid personality disorder often lack interest in personal relationships. They have a limited range of emotional expression and may appear to be cold or indifferent to the people around them.
  • Individuals with schizotypal personality disorder may experience hallucinations or believe that they can see hidden messages in the newspaper or television. They may also shun close personal relationships and feel unwarranted suspicion toward other people.
  • Individuals with antisocial personality disorder frequently demonstrate violent or aggressive behavior. They may lack empathy or violate the law.
  • Individuals with borderline personality disorder often engage in impulsive or risky behavior. Their relationships tend to be unstable and intense. They may also engage in self-harm or suicidal behavior.
  • Individuals with histrionic personality disorder crave attention and will act excessively emotional or dramatic to receive it. Their opinions also tend to be easily swayed by other people.
  • Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they are more important or “worthy” than other people. They often have an inflated view of their own achievements and may fantasize about success and power.
  • Individuals with avoidant personality disorder frequently feel inadequate and may be highly sensitive to criticism or rejection. They’re often socially anxious and may avoid new activities or making friends.
  • Individuals with dependent personality disorder demonstrate excessive reliance on other people to take care of them. They may lack self-confidence and require constant encouragement for even the smallest of decisions.
  • Individuals with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder tend to struggle with extreme perfectionism. They may be unable to delegate tasks for fear that another person won’t complete them “correctly.” They tend to be rigid, stubborn and preoccupied with details.

How are personality disorders different from mental illness?

They aren’t. A study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry found that the line between mental illness and personality disorder is more blurred than scientists previously thought. In the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), or the bible of the mental health profession, personality disorders are now grouped with psychiatric illnesses rather than remaining in their own category.

That being said, a number of mental illnesses are regularly confused with personality disorders. For instance, bipolar disorder is frequently mistaken for borderline personality disorder (and vice-versa) because both disorders involve impulsive behavior and periods of depression. The two conditions, however, are very distinct. Unlike people with borderline personality disorder, people with bipolar disorder experience extreme highs. People with borderline personality disorder also tend to experience more difficulties with interpersonal relationships.

Are personality disorders treatable?

Personality disorders can be treated. Psychotherapy and medication may be able to reduce some of the symptoms and allow the patient to lead a healthier life.

Convincing people with personality disorders to seek treatment can be difficult, because they often do not see issues with their behavior and believe that other people are at fault. The most important thing for people with personality disorders is to recognize that their thoughts are not normal and that they can get help.

The Sovereign Health Group provides patients with treatment programs designed to address mental illness by treating it at its source — the brain. From the moment our patients contact us, we work with them to be sure that we know what they need and can provide a solution. For more information, please contact us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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