Personality disorders

Last updated: March 22, 2022

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Personality disorders are characterized by deeply rooted, egosyntonic behavioral traits that differ significantly from the expected and accepted norms of an individual's culture. Consequently, regional and cultural characteristics should always be considered before diagnosing a patient with a personality disorder. Personality disorders usually arise during adolescence and are difficult to treat. A key feature of personality disorders is that they must cause impairment in social and/or occupational functioning. Personality disorders are associated with a higher risk of developing other psychiatric disorders, especially in times of stress.


  • Personality trait: a stable, repetitive pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors characteristics of a particular individual as expressed in a wide range of social and personal contexts
  • The Big Five dimensions of personality [1]
    • The most widely recognized personality model that maps personality according to five distinct dimensions, namely the degree of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion expressed by an individual.
    • The dimensions are equally determined by genetic and environmental factors and remain stable throughout adulthood.
    • Each dimension is the sum of several factors or characteristics and should not be assessed in binary categories of presence and absence but rather as traits on a spectrum.
The Big Five dimensions of personality [1]
Acronym Dimension Components
  • Openness to experience
  • Curiosity, fantasy, preferences towards abstract thoughts, aesthetics, and ideas
  • Conscientiousness
  • Sense of duty, order, self-discipline, competence
  • Extraversion
  • Activity, sociability, excitement seeking, assertiveness
  • Agreeableness
  • Friendliness, trust, modesty, altruism, degrees of cooperation
  • Neuroticism
  • Resilience, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, anxiety, hostility, depression

Think OCEAN to remember the Big Five personality traits: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

Personality disorders

  • Definition: pervasive, inflexible, and maladaptive personality patterns that lead to significant distress and/or functional impairment
  • Epidemiology
    • Age of onset: late childhood or adolescence
    • Antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders are more commonly diagnosed in male individuals.
    • Histrionic and borderline personality disorders are more commonly diagnosed in female individuals.
  • Etiology
    • Multifactorial
    • Caused by a combination of hereditary (e.g., personality disorders in parents) and psychosocial factors (e.g., child neglect, abuse)
  • Classification: : The DSM-5 divides personality disorders into three clusters (A, B, and C).
Classification of personality disorders according to the DSM-5 [2]
Cluster Prevalence Characteristic behavior Personality disorders Commonly associated conditions
Cluster A
  • Odd
  • Eccentric
  • Unable to form close interpersonal relationships
  • Typically: no psychosis
Cluster B
  • ∼ 2%
  • Dramatic
  • Emotional
  • Erratic
Cluster C
  • ∼ 5%
  • Fearful
  • Avoidant
  • Anxious

Personality disorders are associated with a high risk of psychiatric comorbidities, especially during times of stress.

For the general character of each cluster, remember WWW: Weird (A), Wild (B), Worried (C)


Paranoid personality disorder [2]

Schizoid personality disorder [2]

  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • At least 4 of the following criteria have to be met:
      • Voluntary detachment from social relationships (e.g., family)
      • Enjoys few activities
      • Prefers solitary activities
      • No or little interest in sexual relationships
      • Lacks people to trust or close friends
      • Indifferent to praise or criticism
      • Restricted emotional expression, flattened affect
  • Other features: comfortable with social isolation (unlike in avoidant personality disorder)
  • Differential diagnoses

Schizotypal personality disorder (a schizophrenia spectrum disorder) [2]

People with schizO-TYPE-al personality disorder are Odd TYPEs.

Cluster A: paranoid people are Accusatory, schizoid people are Aloof, and schizotypal people are Awkward


Antisocial personality disorder [2]

  • Epidemiology: : more common in men
  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • The patient is at least 18 years of age.
    • Three or more of the following symptoms of conduct disorder are present from at least 15 years of age.
      • Deceitfulness, manipulation
      • A history of hostility and repeated aggression
      • Repeatedly engaging in criminal activity
      • Impulsivity/failure to plan ahead
      • A reckless disregard for one's own safety and/or the safety of others
      • A failure to fulfill work-related or financial obligations
      • A lack of remorse and/or emotional indifference to the plight of others
    • Antisocial behavior that is not only due to manifestations of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
  • Differential diagnoses
  • Treatment: : extremely difficult to treat
    • The aim of treatment is usually to prevent existing symptoms from progressing.
    • Older individuals with antisocial personality disorder are typically incarcerated.

People with antiSOCIal personality disorders are SOCIopaths.

Borderline personality disorder [2]

Histrionic personality disorder [2]

  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • At least 5 of the following criteria have to be met:
      • Attention-seeking: drawing attention to oneself by way of physical appearance
      • Uses dramatic speech
      • Exaggerated emotional expression
      • Not being the center of attention causes discomfort
      • Feelings are often shallow and unstable.
      • Exhibiting inappropriate, sexually provocative, and/or seductive behavior during interactions with others
      • Easily influenced by others or circumstances
      • Overestimating the degree of intimacy in relationships
  • Differential diagnoses

Narcissistic personality disorder [2]

  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • At least 5 of the following criteria have to be met:
      • Excessive sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements)
      • Fantasizes disproportionately about success, power, etc.
      • Believe in being special and a feeling of superiority
      • Great need for admiration
      • Expecting favorable treatment from others
      • Exploitation of others to achieve their own goals
      • Lack of empathy
      • Often envious of others
      • Often behaves arrogant and/or snobbish
    • Important to distinguish from manic or hypomanic episodes in bipolar disorder
  • Other features: : difficulty dealing with criticism (e.g., reacts with anger and/or defensiveness), fragile self-esteem
  • Classification: 3 subtypes
    • Grandiose, overt
    • High-functioning
    • Vulnerable/covert
  • Differential diagnoses

“Travel to CONey (CONduct disorder) island before age 15 and you will be sent to ANTarctica (ANTisocial personality disorder) after age 18

Cluster B: antisocial people are Bad, some people are Borderline, histrionic people are flamBoyant, and narcissistic people must be the Best.


Avoidant personality disorder [2]

  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • At least 4 of the following criteria have to be met:
      • Avoidance of interpersonal contact due to fear of criticism or rejection
      • Only interacts with people if certain of being liked by them
      • Restrained in intimate relationships due to fear of being shamed
      • Preoccupation with and hypersensitivity to criticism
      • Feelings of inadequacy resulting in involuntary social withdrawal
      • Low self-esteem (sees themself as socially awkward, unappealing, or inferior to others)
      • Avoids taking risks and seldomly engages in new activities
    • Strong desire for social relationships (unlike schizoid personalities), but limited by extreme shyness and social anxiety
  • Differential diagnoses

Dependent personality disorder [2]

  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • At least 5 of the following criteria have to be met:
      • Disproportionate need for support
      • Difficulty making everyday decisions (often requiring others to assume responsibility)
      • Avoids disagreeing with others due to fear of losing their support
      • Difficulty initiating projects (e.g., applying for jobs) because of a lack of self-confidence
      • Makes extreme efforts to obtain support from others even if these efforts are unpleasant
      • Feelings of helplessness when alone
      • Urgently seeking new relationships when one fails
      • Both afraid of being abandoned and afraid to abandon their partner
  • Other features
    • Often stuck in abusive relationships
    • Associated with an increased risk of suicide
  • Differential diagnoses

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder [2]

  • Diagnostics: according to the DSM-5
    • At least 4 of the following criteria have to be met:
      • Excessive preoccupation with rules, lists, details, etc.
      • Obsession with work and productivity that often occurs at the expense of occupational success (e.g., missing deadlines), social relationships (e.g., excluding social activities to complete tasks), and pleasurable activities (e.g., not taking a vacation)
      • Perfectionism that often interferes with task completion
      • Unwillingness to delegate work or to collaborate with other people
      • Great conscientiousness and fastidiousness, inflexible about matters of morality or ethics
      • Cling to worn-out/worthless items (even if they have no sentimental value)
      • Often show miserliness (e.g., obsessed with saving money for future disasters)
      • Rigid routines
    • In contrast to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors are not present.
  • Other features: Perfectionism and obsession with control are often egosyntonic.
  • Differential diagnoses

Cluster C: avoidant people act Cowardly, some people are obsessive-Compulsive, and dependent people are Clingy.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Publishing ; 2013 : p. 947
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). undefined. 2013 . doi: 10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  3. Matthews G, Deary IJ, Whiteman MC. Personality Traits (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press ; 2003
  4. Kaplan Medical. USMLE Step 2 CK Lecture Notes 2017: Psychiatry, Epidemiology, Ethics, Patient Safety. Simon and Schuster ; 2016

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