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Mental Disorders

Introduction to Personality Disorders

Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., Corinne E. Zupanick, Psy.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

What is a Personality Disorder?

man deep in thoughtThe term "Personality Disorder" implies there is something not-quite-right about someone's personality. However, the term "personality disorder" simply refers to a diagnostic category of psychiatric disorders characterized by a chronic, inflexible, and maladaptive pattern of relating to the world. This maladaptive pattern is evident in the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The most noticeable and significant feature of these disorders is their negative effect on interpersonal relationships. A person with an untreated personality disorder is rarely able to enjoy sustained, meaningful, and rewarding relationships with others, and any relationships they do form are often fraught with problems and difficulties.

To be diagnosed with a "personality disorder" does not mean that someone's personality is fatally flawed or that they represent some freak of nature. In fact, these disorders are not that uncommon and are deeply troubling and painful to those who are diagnosed with these disorders. Studies on the prevalence of personality disorders performed in different countries and amongst different populations suggest that roughly 10% of adults can be diagnosed with a personality disorder (Torgersen, 2005).

Many types of disorders are evidenced by a complete and total deviation from normal and healthy functioning (e.g., epilepsy). However, personality disorders cannot be understood independently from healthy personalities.  Since everyone has a personality (but not everyone has epileptic seizures), personality disorders reflect a variant form of normal, healthy personality. Thus, a personality disorder exists as a special case of a normal, healthy personality in much the same way as a square is a special case of the more general construct of a rectangle.   Therefore, it is useful for us to begin our discussion of personality disorders by first discussing the broader, more general construct of personality.