Have you ever found yourself in a difficult relationship and wondered if you or your partner might have a personality disorder?
What are personality disorders and what are the signs you should be aware of?
Can people with personality disorders heal and create warm, happy relationships with others?
In this post, you’ll get the basics of personality disorders: what they are, where they come from and why they make relationships so difficult.
For over twelve years, I’ve been a Licensed Professional Counselor and relationship expert in private practice and my practice is grounded in the science of what makes relationships work.
Today, you’ll discover four defining features of personality disorders. Discover how to tell the difference between the kinds of behaviors you should be concerned about in a partner and what you can simply take in stride and not worry too much about.
What is a Personality Disorder?
A personality disorder is a fundamental distortion in a person’s sense of self and their sense of the other person. The word distortion means bending or twisting things out of their original, real state and into something that they’re not.
In the case of personality disorders, this bending of reality gets started very early in life. Of course, we all have ways that we distort reality. For instance, maybe you really want a piece of chocolate, but you vowed that you’re not going to eat too much chocolate because you know that it makes you put on weight. But you tell yourself that it’s okay to have a little more chocolate because there’s nothing to be concerned about. You’re not going to put on weight, you think to yourself.
The truth is that you’re lying to yourself. It’s the kind of thing that we all do a lot of the time. But with personality disorders, we’re talking about a much deeper level of distortion than just telling yourself you’re not going to put on weight if you eat more chocolate. We’re talking about a distortion that affects the way a person fundamentally sees themselves and the world around them.
Very importantly, these distortions have a big impact on how a person relates to others, most especially their intimate partner. For instance, a person with narcissistic personality disorder might think of themselves as being a living god that other people can’t possibly compare to. They might act as though they’re superior to everyone around them as a result.
Or people with borderline personality disorder might believe that you’re going to abandon them at any moment. When you’re just walking into the other room to get a snack, they think you’re ending the relationship! This misperception could really enrage them when all you were doing was going to get some chocolate!
Defining Characteristics of Personality Disorders
Here are four defining characteristics of all personality disorders:
1. Inability to Deal with Reality
The first one is an inability to deal with reality. We can look to childhood to understand more about what this means. Children are naturally driven by pleasure. They want what they want. Babies want to nurse or they want to go to the playground or they want to be held.
Whatever it is that feels good is what they’re going to go for. And they want it now! You could say that early in life, pleasure is really the orienting drive for all human beings.
We all want to move toward pleasure and away from pain. But that’s supposed to change as we go through the ordinary course of human development. As we grow from being a baby, to a child, to a teenager, to a young adult, we start to encounter reality more and more directly. We start to realize that actually, we can’t have what we want all the time.
Maturity means realizing that there are objective limitations in the world that we have to deal with. There are other people’s feelings, other people’s wants and desires, and we have to contend with those. We come to terms with the limitations of the world around us which is a part of natural, healthy development. What’s supposed to happen is that we move from having that pleasure-driven orientation to being reality-driven.
We still like what we like, but we’re not going to kill, rape or pillage in order to get what we want. What happens with personality disorders is that there is so much frustration that occurs in the life of the very young child that they never really graduate out of that pleasure-driven period.
Here’s an example of being driven by reality: Let’s say you want to get a car. That means you have to get a job, then you have to save up money, as well as apply for a loan. Then, you can imagine yourself driving a really nice car a few years from now.
But when you’re driven by pleasure, you might say, well, I want this car now. I’m just going to withdraw everything I have in my bank account, and get that car. Two hours later, you’re driving down the street in your new car because you want everybody to see you. And you have no idea how you’re going to make next month’s payment.
What Does It Take To Confront Reality?
Needless to say, there’s a lot involved in being able to stay on the side of reality. You have to be able to delay gratification, control your impulses, and deal with the feelings of other people. A child needs to develop those capacities early in life with a parent who is there by their side, helping the child to modulate their frustration, and making sure they don’t get overwhelmed by all of the incredible stimulation in their environment.
In normal development, a parent is there to say to the child, “You can’t just steal all of your sister’s toys just because you want them. You need to share.” The parent is also there cheering the child on when they try to crawl or walk for the first time. All of these parental functions are what protect the child from the overwhelm they would naturally experience without a parent to protect them. Gradually, the parent helps the child develop their own ability to self-soothe, to get themselves going, to tolerate frustration.
This high level of parental affection and support, combined with firm boundaries are what serve children in good stead once they become adults and they need to work for several years to buy that car. When a child experiences quality interactions with a parent over time, the child begins to adjust their sense of reality to include not just what they want, but also other people in their environment. The child starts to care about other people, who they are and what they want.
With personality disorders, we know these types of quality interactions don’t happen between parent and child. There’s a rupture in the parent-child relationship. The child is left to fend for themselves too much of the time. They have to take care of themselves far earlier than would be considered developmentally-appropriate. Alternately, the child may be made to feel that they can do no wrong and the parent is unable to set any boundaries with them at all. In either scenario, the child suffers as they are forced to continue to live in a fantasy of their own grandiosity, driven by pleasure and unable to confront reality.
2. Reliance on a False Sense of Self
The second defining feature of all personality disorders is the reliance on a false sense of self. We all form a sense of self, which is basically a collection of self-images and also images of other people.
Those internal images are based on experiences that we have in relation to other people. For example, you’re a baby and you’re crying. Your mother comes and picks you up and feeds you. You have an experience of being held and nurtured. You’re looking up at your mother and she looks so sweet. You have an experience of goodness in yourself and you also feel that your mother is good.
The feeling that connects you is one of love and nurturance. If you have enough of those kinds of experiences repeatedly over time, they get solidified as a positive sense of self. Because you have a parent who’s helping you navigate reality, manage your energy and your emotions, you start to develop a sense of self-esteem because you are gradually able to deal more directly with reality.
You develop a real self that can engage in self-expression. You can express who you are and what you want and go after things in the world. You have a direct relationship with your environment. You can’t just go steal toys from your sister. You learn that you have to negotiate with her, otherwise she won’t want to play with you. You discover how to work things out with other people in a way that feels fair to both of you.
The real self is what deals directly with the reality of your situation. But what about the false self? Instead of being grounded in reality, the false self is grounded in fantasy. That means maintaining a sense of self-esteem by defending yourself against painful feelings.
In contrast to the real self, the false self is not grounded in direct interactions with other people. It’s the bull in the China shop that just does its own thing, protecting itself from pain and going toward pleasure.
It’s based on a fantasy because the world doesn’t really work that way. You can’t just put the blinders on and go after what you want, not thinking about anybody else. Because people with personality disorders didn’t have a grown-up who was protecting them from getting overwhelmed by the world when they were children, they learned to function alone in their own mind, in their own world, without input from other people.
They’re driven by their emotional impulses rather than creating a feedback loop with the people around them so that they can adjust their behavior and work together.
3. A Split Sense of Self and Other
The third hallmark of all personality disorders is that your self-image and the image that you have of other people are each fundamentally split. You view both yourself and others as being separated into good and bad parts. This split produces a false sense of self and a false sense of those around you.
Let’s back up for a second and talk about what a real self looks like. We often talk about a real self as being whole. What wholeness really means is that you experience your self as a continuity across time: Even though sometimes you’re in a good mood and sometimes you’re in a bad mood, you know you’re the same person having both experiences. The real self recognizes that you are not your moods!
Similarly, the real self recognizes that other people are also made up of both positive and negative states and experiences. For instance, a small child might think to themselves, “Sometimes, my mom is really nice. But sometimes she’s kind of in a bad mood. But I know she always loves me no matter what.” That kind of thinking indicates that the child sees their mother as a continuity with “good” and “bad” parts.
With personality disorders, a false self develops in which there is no continuity of self or other people. If you’re having a bad day, then you believe that everything is terrible all the time! If you’re having a good day, then everything is perfect and wonderful.
In the case of the false self, all of the good experiences you have had form your good sense of self. All of the bad experiences you have had—when you were frustrated, overwhelmed, and felt attacked, devalued or just horrible—all of that becomes your bad sense of self. You end up with a good self and a bad self, and they’re split.
Scary and Dangerous Childhood Experiences Can Split the Self
The child develops a false self when their parent acts in ways that are scary and dangerous. The child simply cannot reconcile this horrible version of their parent with the parent who is sometimes loving or affectionate. These two aspect of the parent get split in the child’s mind. Instead of having a continuous sense of another person, the child actually experiences them as fundamentally split. The child vacillates between seeing their parent as all good, or the child absolutely hates the parent.
Fast forward to adulthood and that child, now grown, tend to see people as either all good or all bad. They’re either relating from their “good” side, in which case, they and the other person are just basking in this wonderful glow. Or they’re relating from their “bad” side, in which case they just want to annihilate the other person or at the very least, never see them again.
You can imagine the havoc that this split wreaks in intimate relationships! One minute, the person with a personality disorder madly in love, and the next minute, they hate their partner’s guts and they’re out the door.
The thing about this split is that neither one of these parts is real. Both of them are extreme, unrealistic, and one-sided. The false self is just unable to see itself or other people realistically—which means having both “good” and “bad” parts.
Unfortunately, a person with this split ends up misperceiving both the emotions and the intentions of other people. If you’re always thinking how wonderful the other person is, it’s hard to see how they may actually be mistreating you. On the other hand, if you’re always devaluing the other person, then it’s hard to see what it is that they bring to your life that’s valuable. You can understand how hard this would be on intimate relationships.
4. Sacrifice of the Real Self
The fourth and last defining feature of personality disorders is the sacrifice of the real self. It’s easy to get angry about personality disorders and blame people who have them. But there’s something very tragic about people with personality disorders: They are trapped in a false self that developed very early in life, and they’re still trying to satisfy its needs even into adulthood.
What drives people who suffer from personality disorders? It’s pain, a profound injury that they experienced as children. Instead of being driven by the realization of their individual gifts, they are driven by the avoidance of pain. It’s especially devastating when they reach adulthood because they need to comply with the needs of the false self in order to avoid the feelings of pain, shame, humiliation, and worthlessness that they experienced as children.
They’re unable to get into interpersonal relationships because of a lack of empathy for other people. People suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, for instance, will do anything to avoid the feelings of shame and humiliation that they have deep down inside, including destroying and annihilating other people so they don’t have to feel those powerful emotions.
With borderline personality disorder (BPD), people will punish themselves because they feel so guilty for not living up to what they think other people want from them. They may self-harm or try to commit suicide. In relationships, people with borderline personality disorder might do things to sabotage the relationship because they’re so afraid of their partner getting too close. People with BPD will often do things that actually precipitate a breakup in order to avoid going back to that horrible early experience.
All of these destructive behaviors, whether directed toward the self or toward others are designed to avoid pain. The person with a personality disorder is unable to express their uniqueness and develop their full potential due to a powerful internal need to serve the needs of the false self—at the real self’s expense.
Hopefully, this post has given you a general orientation to the world of personality disorders and helped you understand how people with personality disorders differ from those who do not suffer from these debilitating conditions. It’s also important to mention that people can demonstrate certain traits of a particular personality disorder without necessarily having the full-blown disorder.
In future posts, we’ll take each of the personality disorders in turn and do a deep dive into their unique characteristics. For now, I’d like to ask you to reflect on a few things and sound off in the comments below. Please share your thoughts about whether you’ve seen any of the four hallmarks that I discussed in those closest to you.
Here are the four hallmarks one more time for your reference:
- Inability to deal with reality
- Reliance on a false sense of self
- Split sense of self and other
- Sacrifice of the real self
Leave me your comments below, I look forward to reading them and exploring personality disorders more with you in future posts!