What is a personality disorder? The American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) classifies ten distinct personality disorders. This manual is the primary guide mental health professionals use to identify various mental health conditions. The DSM-IV-TR defines personality disorders as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress and impairment.” In other words, personality disorders are a set of interpersonal habits and behaviors that develop by adulthood and are strikingly different from cultural norms.
Not all characteristics of personality disorders are problematic. Extremely shy people might have some tendencies of an avoidant personality. Graduate students who meticulously study for exams might be somewhat obsessive-compulsive. Most of us have a couple of traits of one of the identified personality disorders. Some of these characteristics help to make us uniquely ourselves. The critical factor in determining if the personality disorder tendency is problematic is whether these characteristics negatively impact our quality of life. For example, does our spontaneous nature result in unwanted credit card debt? Do we find it difficult to listen to others and to care about their concerns? Do we find ourselves easily fearful and are unable to try new things or visit new places? When our lifestyle and interpersonal relationships are affected, then our personality quirks are no longer cute, but have become a problem.
Over the next nine months I would like to spend some time on the topic of personality disorders. I hope these articles will be helpful in identifying general characteristics of the most troublesome personality disorders. I also want to provide suggestions on how to deal with mildly to moderately dysfunctional individuals. Should we risk having a relationship with someone who is struggling with a personality disorder? What do we do when this impaired person is our parent, sibling, spouse, or boss? Hopefully at the end of these articles we will have a better sense of how to protect ourselves while we continue to support our struggling loved ones.
In the next article we will begin to explore the dynamics and characteristics of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.