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Personality problems: disorders of the self

None of us has a perfect personality. There are always things about us which annoy others, and we all have days when we just can’t stand being in our own heads. This is perfectly normal and (probably) just as it should be in terms of our evolutionary history and daily stresses and strains. Personality, like mental health, exists along a continuum, with clusters of traits at either end and a broad, colourful array of interesting characteristics in between.

But if you, or someone you know, has been diagnosed as having a personality disorder, you might be feeling confused or upset. After all, the word ‘disorder’ could conjure associations of illness, dysfunction, or even wrongness or fault. For some, this could feel distressing or even perhaps stigmatising, an issue which probably hasn’t been helped by the pathologising, medically derived terminology which has dominated the field of psychiatry and psychological therapy for many years. For some people, however, receiving this diagnosis might feel like a blessed relief, a way of putting a name to the way one has been feeling inside, often unhappily, for many years.

Sometimes people ask how they know if they ‘have’ a personality disorder. After all, if you look down the list of traits of common disorders, it’s very easy to pick out a number of them which could apply to you, or to me, or in fact to anyone. The answer lies in how real personality problems tend to leave distinctive, tell-tale signs in day-to-day life which mean that the way that person thinks, feels, or acts usually creates regular, enduring, and significant problems for that person, for others, or both.

Everyone struggles sometimes with relationships, but if you feel you’ve always had more trouble than most in making or keeping friendships, are regularly engaged in harmful relationships, or are often manipulating, hiding from, or hurting others, this could indicate a deeper problem with your personality, or as I prefer to think of it, your sense of self. These problems don’t mean there is something wrong with who you are as a person, nor that you necessarily ‘need’ treatment. Nevertheless if everyday life and relationships feel like an uphill struggle or you're constantly feeling on the ‘outside’ of things, then talking to a psychologist or psychotherapist can help. Many so-called personality disorders often stem from certain childhood difficulties, some of which might not be specifically memorable, but were nevertheless laid down neurologically, emotionally, and behaviourally through patterns of caregiving which may have been inadequate for the child’s needs. Over time, ways of relating to oneself and to others can build into disturbances and create real problems. Evidence of this might be apparent in signs like always feeling a need to be dependent on others, or overly controlling, or distrustful, angry, indifferent, or even perhaps more ‘special’ or deserving.

It’s important that whoever you choose to talk to is able to relate to you and the problems you’re facing in a non-judgemental, empathic, and individually-focussed level. In my experience, it can be very beneficial is to engage in a helping relationship in which those elements which were missing or distorted earlier in life can be discussed and even ‘repaired’ through feeling listened to, respected, valued, and safe. Over time, traits and features of personality disorders can shift and become noticeably less ‘noisy’, meaning those affected can eventually feel more comfortable in their own skins and in relating to others.

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