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06 November 2017

What is a personality disorder?

A person with a personality disorder thinks, feels, behaves or relates to others very differently from person to person. Someone with a personality disorder may also have other mental health challenges, such as depression or drug/alcohol addictions. It is important to realise that although you may have a personality disorder, your personality disorder is not all that you are, you are still a member of society like everyone else, you just have a mental health challenge and our mental health challenges do no define who we are as people.

There are several different types of personality disorder; and not any two people will have the same symptoms, emotions and challenges.

In mental health, the word ‘personality’ refers to the collection of characteristics or traits that we have developed as we have grown up and which make each of us an individual. These include the ways that we:

  • Think
  • Feel
  • Behave

By our late teens, or early 20s, most of us have developed our own personality. We have our own ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. These stay pretty much the same for the rest of our life. Usually, our personality allows us to get on reasonably well with other people.

For some of us, this doesn't happen. For whatever reason, parts of your personality can develop in ways that make it difficult for you to live with yourself and/or with other people. You may not be able to learn from the things that happen to you. You find that you can't change the bits of your personality (traits) that cause the issues. These traits, although they are part of who you are, just go on making life difficult for you - and often for other people as well. 

Other people may have noticed these traits from your childhood and early teens. For example, you may find it difficult to:

  • Make or keep close relationships
  • Get on with people at work
  • Get on with friends and family
  • Keep out of trouble
  • Control your feelings or behaviour
  • Listen to other people

If this makes you unhappy or distressed and/or often upset or harm other people, then you may have a personality disorder.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of personality disorder. You may also find that you have some symptoms of a personality disorder depending on what is happening within your life, for example if you've experienced a trauma or loss; and some of these symptoms are natural reactions to what has happened to you and will usually subside with some time. However, if you usually have these symptoms day to day and you are struggling to find a reason then you may want to consider that you could have a personality disorder.

Research suggests that personality disorders tend to fall into three groups according to the different emotional traits, these are as follows:

Cluster A - 'Odd or Eccentric' :

  • Paranoid - suspicious, feel that other people are being nasty to you (when evidence shows this isn't true), feeling easily rejected and tends to hold grudges.
  • Schizoid - emotionally cold, don't like contact with other people, prefer your own company and have a rich fantasy world.
  • Schizotypal - eccentric behavior, odd ideas, difficulties with thinking, lack of emotion or inappropriate emotional reactions, see or hear strange things and sometimes related to schizophrenia the mental health challenge.

Cluster B - 'Dramatic, Emotional or Erratic' :

  • Antisocial, dissocial – don’t care much about the feelings of others, easily get frustrated, tend to be aggressive, commit crimes, find it difficult to make close relationships, impulsive (do things on the spur of the moment without thinking about them), don’t feel guilty about htings you’ve done and don’t learn from unpleasant experiences.
  • Borderline, or Emotionally Unstable – impulsive, find it hard to control your emotions, feel bad about yourself, often self-harm, feel empty, make relationships quickly – but easily lose them, can feel paranoid or depressed and when stressed, may hear voices.
  • Histrionic – over-dramatrise events, self-centred, have strong emotions which change quickly and don’t last long, can be suggestible, worry a lot about your appearance, crave new things and excitement and can be seductive.
  • Narcissistic –have a strong sense of your own self-importance, dream of unlimited success, power and intellectual brilliance, crave attention from other people, but show few warm feelings in return, take advantage of other people and ask for favours that you do not then return.

Cluster C - 'Anxious and Fearful' :

  • Obsessive-Compulsive (aka Anankastic) – worry and doubt a lot, perfectionist (always check things), rigid in what you do, stick to routines, cautious, preoccupied with detail, worry about doing the wrong thing, find it hard to adapt to new situations, often have high moral standards, judgemental, sensitive to criticism and can have obsessional thoughts and images (although these are not as bad as those in obsessive-compulsive disorder).
  • Avoidant (aka Anxious/Avoidant) – very anxious and tense, worry a lot, feel insecure and inferior, have to be liked and accepted and extremely sensitive to criticism.
  • Dependent – passive, rely on others to make decisions for you, do what other people want you to do, find it hard to cope with daily chores, feel hopeless and incompetent and easily feel abandoned by others.

The symptoms and difficulties you can experience may not fit exactly into any one of these categories. You may see aspects of yourself in more than one category.

If you or someone you know may be suffering with a personality disorder then there are services available for you to get help. Your GP is a good place to start and they may be able to refer you to services to get help.

Services available to help you:

  • Springbank Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS - Springbank is a 12-bed inpatient recovery unit for women with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) who are struggling to cope with the demands of life outside of hospital, despite the input from community psychiatric services. Funded by CPFT.
  • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Community Team – Offer assessment and treatment advise, support, care plans and specialist interventions. Funded by CPFT.
  • Rethink - Offer loads of helpful links to services and information/advice.
  • Time to Change - Offers helpful advice on where you can get help and you can see other peoples stories.
  • ELEFriends - Elefriends is a friendly, supportive online community for anyone experiencing a mental health challenge.
  • MIND – Mind is a mental health charity that offers lots of helpful advice and services.


Mental health challenges are common but help is available and with the right support many people recover completely. Check out our Who Can Help Page for lots of services who are local and national!

*Some information gathered from www.nhs.uk and the services listed.