Personality disorders

Someone with a personality disorder will have difficulties with how they think, feel, behave and relate to others.

*Last updated: 26 July 2021

Our personality is the ways we think, feel and behave that make us who we are. For most of us, this remains fairly consistent.

People with a personality disorder, however, have significant difficulties in how they think and feel about themselves and others. These difficulties affect their well-being, mental health and relationships with others.

Around one in 20 people in the UK has a personality disorder. They can be hard to define and diagnose so often go unrecognised for a long time.

What are the symptoms of a personality disorder?

A personality disorder affects how you cope with life, manage emotions and connect with other people. You may find that your beliefs and attitudes are different from most people who may find your behaviour unusual, unexpected or upsetting at times.

You may have difficulties with:

  • making or maintaining relationships
  • connecting with other people, including friends, family or work colleagues
  • managing and controlling your emotions
  • coping with life and difficult feelings 
  • controlling your behaviours and impulses.

These symptoms often get worse with stress.

As a result, you may feel isolated and alone. You may try to cope through self-harm, drug or alcohol use or suicide attempts. You may also experience other mental health conditions such as depression.

Different types of personality disorder

There are ten types of personality disorder. They are organised into three groups based on similar symptoms.

We all experience these symptoms from time to time. However if you have a personality disorder, you’ll find these symptoms are making your life difficult. Mind has more information about the symptoms.

Your symptoms may not fit exactly into one group. You may see aspects of yourself in more than one category. This isn’t unusual: it can be hard to make a clear diagnosis of a particular personality disorder.

The three groups of personality disorders are described as A, B and C.

A: Feeling suspicious of other people

You may have difficulty forming relationships with other people, and think or behave very differently to others.

An example is paranoid personality disorder where you may feel suspicious of others for no reason and believe people are being nasty to you. You might hold a grudge or feel easily rejected.

B: Finding it hard to manage your feelings or behaviour

You may find it hard to manage your emotions and swing between positive and negative views of other people. You may behave in a way others describe as dramatic, disturbing or unpredictable.

An example is borderline personality disorder (also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder). You might have intense emotions that change quickly, worry about being abandoned, act impulsively and struggle to trust other people. You may not have a strong sense of who you are or what you want. You may self-harm or have suicidal thoughts.

C: Feeling very anxious or afraid

You may have feelings of fear or anxiety that are so overwhelming they affect your daily life or relationships.

An example is avoidant personality disorder, where you may fear being judged negatively and feel uncomfortable in social situations. You may worry a lot and have low self-esteem. You might feel lonely but avoid relationships because you fear rejection.

Why is there a stigma around personality disorders?

There can be a stigma around personality disorders.

Some people feel that the term ‘personality disorder’ is judgemental as it can sound like there is something wrong with who you are. This can be upsetting and feel insulting. Other people feel there should be more focus on why they feel or act in a certain way rather than having a label placed on their personality.

The term can also have negative associations with violent or anti-social behaviour. However, most people with a personality disorder are far more likely to harm themselves than someone else.

Our page on stigma has ways you can challenge these beliefs in others, if you feel able to.

What causes personality disorders?

Personality disorders are complex and what causes them isn’t fully known. Most researchers believe a combination of factors can increase the risk of developing one, including:

  • trauma in early childhood such as abuse, neglect or violence
  • a parent or caregiver who gave you little or no support, especially if you experienced a traumatic event
  • genetics.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop a personality disorder. And not everyone with a personality disorder will have had a traumatic experience. There may be no clear reason why you’ve developed the feelings and symptoms you have.

Getting support    

The first step to getting support is to speak to your GP. They will probably refer you to a specialist who can do an in-depth assessment and diagnose you.

With help, it is possible for things to change and improve for you. It may take time, but life can become more fulfilling and less difficult.

The right treatment for you will depend on the type of difficulties you have, what’s available locally and what your preferences are. You may be offered talking therapy, medication or a stay in a therapeutic community.

Talking therapy

NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – suggests the following talking therapies may be useful for personality disorders:

  • dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) – uses individual and group sessions to help you understand and manage your difficult feelings, learn coping skills and make positive changes in your life
  • mentalisation-based therapy (MBT) – helps you understand and reflect on your thoughts and feelings and those of other people. This can help you control your impulses and behaviours and improve your relationships.

Other therapies that can help include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – helps you understand how your thoughts and actions affect how you feel
  • cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) – combines CBT with building a trusting relationship with your therapist. This can help you reflect on your situation and figure out ways to make positive changes.

Medication

There isn’t currently a specific medication for treating personality disorders. However, NICE guidance suggests medication can be used to treat other mental health problems you may experience such as depression, anxiety or psychosis.

Therapeutic communities

Therapeutic communities are places you can visit or stay for several weeks or months. They offer a form of group therapy where you can explore what it’s like to have a personality disorder. You learn from spending time with other people in the group and supporting each other’s recovery.