6 Ways To Distinguish Between A Personality Trait And A Personality Disorder

by Eva Taylor Grant
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Mental illnesses are not adjectives, nor are they insults. But people with personality disorders tend to particularly feel the burden of how our semantics stigmatize the mentally ill. People are quick to hurl terms like "schizo," and "narcissist," but there's a knowledge gap when it comes to really understanding the symptoms of personality disorders (PDs).

First off, it's important to know that there is, in fact, a big difference between personality traits and personality disorders. It may be difficult to understand or distinguish someone acting "narcissistic" from someone who lives with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And yes, some people like to stay at home, but Antisocial Personality Disorder is deeply misunderstood (and doesn't usually include shyness as a symptom).

Dr. Robin Hornstein, Ph.D., Psychologist, Clinical Director and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, tells Bustle that personality disorders are exceedingly complicated. "As a 35 year veteran psychologist, I can tell you that the use of these 'disorders' and traits has been historically very harmful to some clients as well as helpful to others," she says.

If you feel that you or a loved one has traits that extend beyond personality and move towards the realm of a PD, make sure you're understanding the complexities and receiving proper care. "When you pull apart the disorders you can find racist and misogynistic flavors in a few of them and the history of that is quite clear in the rate of diagnoses in some groups. For instance, more women have been typically diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder," Hornstein says.

But personality disorders are entirely real, and entirely separate from personality traits. "The major difference between personality traits and personality disorder really has to do with the severity, or the disruption to a person's life and/or relationships." Erin Parisi, LMHC, CAP, tells Bustle.

So what really makes disordered thinking stand out? Here are six things that differentiate personality disorders from personality traits, according to experts.


Possessing Flexible Traits Vs. Rigid Traits

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The symptoms of personality disorders are less flexible than personality traits. "The definition of a personality disorder is 'a pervasive view of the world'," Nicole Richardson, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) tells Bustle.

While some may speak to the contrary, personality traits can, to some degree, be changed. "Personality traits like being outgoing for example are a little more plastic, meaning that a person could be aware that they are outgoing and that is unlikely but could change over time," Richardson says. But personality disorders, on the other hand, are more established. "[Personality disorders are] rigid and pervasive ways of behaving, thinking, and being that are deeply ingrained as they develop early in life," Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist, tells Bustle. "People with personality disorders often come into conflict with others around them."

Doctors and psychologists want to be especially careful when diagnosing a patient with a personality disorder. "[In a diagnosis] we are looking for consistent, pervasive symptoms that do not serve the person in interpersonal/familial/career relationships," Hornstein says. Instead, personality disorders are more likely to cause rifts, or disconnection, Martinez says.


Having Empathy Vs. A Self-Centered Point Of View

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Stepping into another person's shoes is pretty difficult for people living with PDs. "People with personality disorders basically cannot see the world from other people’s perspectives," Richardson says.

This can be confusing for people struggling with these disorders. "[They] don’t understand why people don’t see the world as they do and are often unaware that their view is limited or problematic," says Richardson.

When it comes to conflict, then, Martinez says that people with personality disorders tend to deflect blame. The disorder itself makes self-awareness difficult. "Individuals with a personality disorder find it difficult to reflect and acknowledge the role they played in a conflict. Their default tends to be, 'it's them, not me,'" she says. This can make it quite hard for people with PDs to seek help.


Having One Isolated Trait Vs. A Group Of Traits

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You may have one or two common traits that share diagnostic criteria with a PD, but Martinez says that's not enough to indicate a disorder. "[Personality Disorders include a] specific sets of traits that show up together in someone's personality," Martinez says.

To make sure that PDs are properly diagnosed, Hornstein says, professionals look for these sets of traits and how they show up in social situations. "We look for the clusters of traits that are pervasive and harmful to successfully maneuvering interpersonal situations, work stressors and family crises," says Hornstein.

It's one thing to share a feeling of superiority, and another to have a cluster of traits that make handling social interactions next-to-impossible.


Understanding Other's Behaviors Vs. Never Understanding Them At All

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The way that PDs present themselves is often due to the nature of what caused them in the first place. "Underlying the PD's we usually find trauma (cultural, interpersonal, violence, sexual and physical abuse, family trauma, anxiety, and depression)," says Hornstein. "[When someone has been through this pain], the person living with a PD is often scared, lonely and unsure why some of their behaviors get the opposite reaction they may be seeking." After a while, it becomes difficult for the person to understand how others behave.

"[People with PDs] just don't get the difference between generally normative reactions and behaviors and their behaviors." Hornstein says.

This is another big gap between people with personality traits, and people living with a disorder. "One can also see traits of narcissism in most of us, while the person living with Narcissistic PD will be unable to turn that off and see it's harm to others," Hornstein says. This makes social interactions quite cloudy and confusing for a person who's developed a PD.


Having Coping Skills Vs. Avoiding Pain At All Costs

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Hornstein says people with a PD tend to constantly change their behavior in an attempt to avoid pain.

Even for people without a diagnosis, protecting yourself to avoid pain is common. "We all overreact at times and hurt ourselves, maybe in smaller ways," Hornstein says. "The difference is the ability to use coping skills and to accept one's quirks and reactions while figuring out what to do in each situation presented."

While you may be able to bounce back from an uncomfortable situation, a person with a PD might not have that luxury.


Keeping Relationships Vs. Losing Relationships

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Due to this gap between their inner world and the world around them, people with PDs tend to miss out on interpersonal relationships.

Parisi says living with a PD can be a major disruptor to all relationships, not just romantic ones. This disruption can manifest in conflict, infidelity, moving quickly from one relationship to another, rushing into relationships, avoiding relationships, or cheating, says Parisi.


How To Seek Help

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For people with PDs, they have to put in extra work to find healing. Since symptoms of PDs are so ingrained, it takes effort for someone with a disorder to find treatment and care. "I think a lot of people who are given a personality disorder diagnosis can get really discouraged because the prognosis is often poor. However, if someone is really committed to working on learning new skills, there are some really good treatments available," Richardson says.

"A myth I would like to see dispelled is that women with Borderline PD or features are 'crazy' and to be avoided," Hornstein says. "When you dig into the fears and traumas underneath, you find a lot of pain and very loving people. While the impulsive parts can be scary or harmful to intimate relationships, that does not mean that these are bad people, they are not. And, they can be helped."

There's a variety of therapies and treatments that are proven to help people with a PD. "[Things like Dialectical Behavior Therapy] DBT and mindfulness, neuro-biofeedback, art therapy, [and] yoga" help, says Hornstein. Also, Hornstein says, people with a PD can avoid stressful or traumatizing situations by learning coping skills that teach them how not to react in harmful or isolating ways.

While personality traits are more flexible and disorders are more rigid, it's not true that people with PDs won't change, says Parisi. "Yes, the symptoms are pretty ingrained, it's the lens through which they see the world, but someone who wants change can absolutely change," Parisi says.

So, if you or someone you know seems to be experiencing these symptoms, feel comforted that it's not a lost cause, and that seeking help from a professional or loved one can assist with treating underlying pain and forming successful, healthy relationships.