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Personality traits vs. disorders: know the difference!
by Narrative. December 1st 2012, 08:32 PM

Personality traits vs. disorders: know the difference!
By Robin (PSY)

We all know someone who’s narcissistic – they’re full of themselves, they put other people down, and they’re generally not fun to be around! Could it be that the person you’re thinking of is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder? How about someone who’s “clingy” with their significant other – are they suffering from Dependent Personality Disorder? Let’s not forget the friend who “hates” people and never wants to socialize – do they suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder?

There is a difference between having a personality TRAIT and having a personality DISORDER. This may seem obvious to us at first, but think about it for a moment. How can we tell when someone’s just prideful or egotistical, and when someone is suffering from a personality disorder? Where do we draw the line? When is someone too prideful, or so egotistical that it warrants further examination by a psychological professional? The criteria for personality disorders are similar to those of other mental disorders. Three of the criteria I will discuss in this article are as follows: the behavior and thoughts must be markedly “abnormal” in comparison to other individuals; the behavior and thoughts must cause significant distress or impairment in a person’s life; the behavior and thoughts must be "fixed" and affect many personal and social situations. So what does this mean, exactly? Let's briefly break it down.

Markedly "abnormal" behavior and thoughts

Most people would agree that it's "normal" to be a bit prideful from time to time. For example, when we've done a good job at school or work, we're entitled to feel good about ourselves and talk about our accomplishments. When someone takes it to an extreme level, though, we may be looking at a personality DISORDER vs. a personality TRAIT. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined by having a grandiose sense of self-importance (meaning that a person not only thinks highly of themselves, but they exaggerate their abilities and accomplishments). There is a difference between being confident and taking pride in your abilities/accomplishments, and thinking you can do anything (and do it better than everyone else)!

Significant distress or impairment

There may be certain personality traits we possess that we don't like or want to change. We may not like that we are so shy, and we may want to change that by becoming more outgoing. Clearly, this is easier said than done, but many people can work around their shy tendencies and develop friendships, attend parties,and so on. When someone is unable to do a number of things, though, or they feel distressed more often than not, we may be looking at a personality DISORDER vs. a personality TRAIT. Avoidant Personality Disorder is defined by the ability to only become involved with other individuals if it is certain that the person will be liked. Shy individuals will still work up the courage to talk to other people or attend fun events, but someone with Avoidant Personality Disorder may refuse to do anything along those lines unless they are absolutely certain that they will be liked. This is not a realistic expectation, but someone with this personality disorder may never deviate from this mindset, whereas someone with a shy personality may learn to think about their situations in different ways and ultimately benefit from taking risks.

You may be asking, "isn't Avoidant Personality Disorder the same thing as having an anxiety disorder, like Social Phobia?" This is a great example of how the amount of significant distress or impairment in a person's life can determine whether we're looking at a personality TRAIT, vs. an ANXIETY DISORDER, vs. a personality DISORDER. While there is still a great deal of debate among psychological professionals regarding whether these should be two distinct disorders, one could think of Avoidant Personality Disorder as a more severe and pervasive form of Social Phobia.

Affecting many personal and social situations

Have you ever suspected that your friends may not like you as much as they lead you to believe? This is a commonly held false belief, as we may experience some insecurities during middle and high school. We desperately want to be accepted by our peers, and when they behave "strangely," we may become a little bit paranoid, wondering if it is because of something we said or did. While a bit of paranoia is common, most people manage to either talk themselves out of it, or confront their friends and clear the air. What happens when someone holds on to this paranoia, though, even when there is no clear evidence to show their friends are two-timing liars? Even worse, what if those friends try to reassure the person, but they remain suspicious? What if the person is paranoid about ALL of their relationships, believing that their teachers, partner, and even their parents are "out to get them"? When someone's mentality remains "fixed" in this way, regardless of what others say and do (or don't say and don't do), we may be looking at a personality DISORDER vs. a personality TRAIT.

Unfortunately, personality disorders are very complex, and like other mental disorders (such as depression and anxiety), we cannot differentiate between TRAITS and DISORDERS based on a simple list of criteria. Psychological professionals are generally hesitant and slow to diagnose someone with a personality disorder, because it can be difficult to determine when someone is merely egotistical vs. narcissistic (in the clinically relevant sense of the word). It can also be difficult for psychological professionals to differentiate between personality disorders and other mental illnesses (as illustrated in the example of Avoidant Personality Disorder vs. Social Phobia). If you suspect someone may have a disorder that requires treatment, think about the criteria listed above. Ask yourself if these behaviors and thoughts are markedly "abnormal," causing this person significant problems in multiple areas of their life, and preventing the person from changing or growing due to their rigid way of functioning. Remember to avoid the dangers of self-diagnosis and encourage the person to seek professional help.

Last edited by Rob; December 4th 2012 at 08:53 PM.
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Cool Re: Personality traits vs. disorders: know the difference! - June 28th 2017, 01:41 PM

[FONT=""][COLOR=""][SIZE=""]Thank you for the information. However, I thought you were going to break down the differences between Narc. Personality vs. Narc. Traits[/size][/color][/font]
   
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