by Margaret Stoll, Ph.D.

Everyone’s personality has characteristics that fall into different types or styles.  For instance, some people are more intellectual while others are more emotional.  Or, some are careful planners while others live spontaneous.  There are people who are gregarious and others who fear or avoid social interaction.

People with personality disorders also exhibit characteristic ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.  However, the rigidity or inability to deviate from their characteristic style is what discriminates the disordered personality from the non-disordered one.  The disordered personality generally feels compelled to behave in characteristic ways and feels too much anxiety or emotional distress if they deviate.  They also cannot seem to alter their behavior to fit different situations.  Additionally, the person with a personality disorder also experiences distress or impairment in some aspect of their life, as a result of their disorder.  This can occur in their relationships, career or even feelings about themselves.  Often they have chronic interpersonal discomfort or conflict.  They frequently get into recurring patterns with people at work or in their personal lives that while problematic they have not been able to change.  Many feel a deep, chronic sense of dissatisfaction or longing but cannot explain why.  These personality styles or interpersonal characteristics are typical of the person throughout their lives, often beginning in adolescence.

One feature that distinguishes the personality-disordered person from those with other emotional problems is that they tend to view the difficulties that they have in life with others as external to them and generally independent of their behavior or impact.  This is because the personality disorder is ego syntonic, meaning that it feels natural and normal to the individual.  One person described the feeling, “This is just who I am.”  Often they do not feel distress in relation to their symptoms.  In fact, they may feel victimized by others for doing what feels normal or even necessary to them.  They often have little insight about how they became the way they are, how they contribute to their own problems, or how to change.  It may be the other people in their lives, family, friends, or employers, who recognize their self-defeating patterns or who have reached their personal limits in attempting to cope with these challenging people.  Even those with personality disorders who recognize that their personal styles are central to their unhappiness and failure in life, are unlikely to have the knowledge or skills to change without professional help.

The ten specific personality disorders can be grouped into three categories, each defined by similar characteristics. One category includes individuals whose personality disorders result in eccentric or odd appearing behavior. Examples include people who isolate, feeling little need or desire for contact with others, or even those who distrust people in general. A second category includes personality disorders in individuals who exhibit highly emotional, dramatic and impulsive behavior. Examples include the person who is overly sensitive to slight or rejection or someone who needs to always be admired and at the center of attention. Individuals with a pattern of unstable or volatile interpersonal relationships also fall into this category. The third group of personality disorders is characterized by individuals whose behavior has been developed to avoid anxious or fearful emotion and to achieve a sense of safety over some feared situation. A well-known example of this is the person with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder who, fearing making any errors is compelled to over control all aspects of his or her life, and often of those around them as well.  Another example is the person who is overly compliant and dependent on others. This behavior originates in his or her fear of being alone and belief that they are incapable of coping on their own.

It is worth restating that all of these various personality characteristics fall on a continuum of mild to extreme and that all individuals stand somewhere along that continuum.  But, when the behaviors or beliefs become excessive or unyielding or when they result in distress to the person or cause problems in their life, it is more likely that the individual has a personality disorder.  Even when the full criterion for a diagnosis of personality disorder is not met, such symptoms may warrant the need or desire for professional help.  While these are enduring, deeply ingrained aspects of the person, psychotherapy can be of significant benefit.  Through this, the person can gain greater awareness of their characteristic beliefs, feelings and behaviors, and how they influence their relationships, work, and self-concept in ways that are and are not successful for them.  Simultaneously, particularly through the psychotherapy relationship, as one learns that these traits are not their fault, they can develop greater compassion for themselves.  Finally, the therapy has the potential to increase the persons’ flexibility of thought and behavior, to experience and manage emotion more effectively, and to have improved relationships with self and others.

Dr. Stoll is a Clinical Psychology with offices in Redondo Beach and Glendale.  She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.  Dr. Stoll can be reached at (310) 375-3607 or at