Under Review Feb 2018
About this leaflet
This leaflet is for anyone who has been given
a diagnosis of personality disorder and for their family and friends.
It's not easy to pin down exactly what we mean by the word
‘personality’. It seems obvious, but it can be hard to put into
words. This can be because the words we use to describe people tend
to have wide meanings – and these meanings often overlap. These
words can also cover more than one kind of experience. For
example, ‘shyness’ describes the feeling of awkwardness with other
people, but also how we behave by being rather quiet in
It is also difficult because the way we behave - and appear to
other people - can be very different in different situations. You
can know a person well at work, but find that they behave
quite differently in their private life.
In mental health, the word ‘personality’
refers to the collection of characteristics or traits that we
have developed as we have grown up and which make each of us an
individual. These include the ways that we:
By our late teens, or early 20s, most of us
have developed our own personality. We have our own ways of
thinking, feeling and behaving. These stay pretty much the same for
the rest of our life. Usually, our personality allows us to get on
reasonably well with other people.
For some of us, this doesn't
happen. For whatever reason, parts of your personality can develop
in ways that make it difficult for you to live with yourself and/or
with other people. You don't seem to be able to learn from the
things that happen to you. You find that you can't change the
bits of your personality (traits) that cause the problems.
These traits, although they are part of who you are, just go on
making life difficult for you - and often for other people as
Other people will often have
noticed these traits from your childhood and early teens. For
example, you may find it difficult to:
- make or keep close relationships
- get on with people at work
- get on with friends and family
- keep out of trouble
- control your feelings or behaviour
- listen to other people
If this makes you
- often upset or harm other people
then you may have a
personality disorder (see below for descriptions of the different
Life is more difficult if
you have a personality disorder, so you are more likely to have
other mental health problems such as depression or drug and
How common are personality disorders?
There have been difficulties in clearly defining
personality disorders. Previous research studies have suggested
that up to 1 in 5 people might have a personality disorder.
However, a larger and more rigorous UK study in 2006 suggested
that, at any given time, about 1 in 20 people will have a
Personality disorder – treatable or
People with a diagnosis
of personality disorder have not, in the past, had enough help from
mental health services. These services have been more focussed on
mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and
depression. There have been arguments about whether mental health
services can offer anything useful to people with
personality disorders. Recent research makes it clear that
mental health services can, and should help people with personality
Do personality disorders change with time?
Yes. There is evidence that they tend to improve slowly with
age. Antisocial behaviour and impulsiveness, in particular, seem to
reduce in your 30s and 40s.
It can, however, sometimes work in the opposite direction. For
example, schizotypal personality disorder can develop into the
mental illness 'schizophrenia'.
Different kinds of personality disorders
There are different ways to describe mental
disorders, and to put them into categories. The first step is
to see if there are patterns, or collections of personality traits
that are shared by a number of people. Once these patterns
have been identified, we can start to find effective ways of
Research suggests that personality disorders
tend to fall into three groups, according to their emotional
Cluster A: 'Odd or
Cluster B: 'Dramatic, Emotional, or
Cluster C: 'Anxious and
As you read through the descriptions of each
type, you may well recognise some aspects of your own personality.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you have a personality disorder.
Some of these characteristics may even be helpful in some areas of
your life. If you do have a personality disorder, some of these
traits will be spoiling your life - and often the lives of those
A person can have the characteristics of more
than one personality disorder.
Cluster A: 'Odd
- feel that other people are being nasty to you (even when
evidence shows this isn’t true)
- feel easily rejected
- tend to hold grudges
- emotionally 'cold'
- don't like contact with other people, prefer your own
- have a rich fantasy world
- eccentric behaviour
- odd ideas
- difficulties with thinking
- lack of emotion, or inappropriate emotional reactions
- see or hear strange things
- sometimes related to schizophrenia, the mental illness
'Dramatic, Emotional and Erratic'
Antisocial, or Dissocial
- don't care much about the feelings of others
- easily get frustrated
- tend to be aggressive
- commit crimes
- find it difficult to make close relationships
- impulsive - do things on the spur of the moment without
thinking about them
- don’t feel guilty about things you've done
- don’t learn from unpleasant experiences
Borderline, or Emotionally
- impulsive - do things on the spur of the moment
- find it hard to control your emotions
- feel bad about yourself
- often self-harm, e.g. cutting yourself or making suicide
- feel 'empty’
- make relationships quickly, but easily lose them
- can feel paranoid or depressed
- when stressed, may hear noises or voices
- over-dramatise events
- have strong emotions which change quickly and don't last
- can be suggestible
- worry a lot about your appearance
- crave new things and excitement
- can be seductive
- have a strong sense of your own self-importance
- dream of unlimited success, power and intellectual
- crave attention from other people, but show few warm feelings
- take advantage of other people
- ask for favours that you do not then return
'Anxious and Fearful'
- worry and doubt a lot
- perfectionist - always check things
- rigid in what you do, stick to routines
- cautious, preoccupied with detail
- worry about doing the wrong thing
- find it hard to adapt to new situations
- often have high moral standards
- sensitive to criticism
- can have obsessional thoughts and images (although these are
not as bad as those in obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- very anxious and tense
- worry a lot
- feel insecure and inferior
- have to be liked and accepted
- extremely sensitive to criticism
- rely on others to make decisions for you
- do what other people want you to do
- find it hard to cope with daily chores
- feel hopeless and incompetent
- easily feel abandoned by others
But I don't fit any of these ...
The symptoms and difficulties may not fit exactly into any one
of these categories. You may see aspects of yourself in more than
one category. Professionals, too, may find it hard to give you a
single diagnosis. This is not unusual. It is pretty hard to
describe any personality clearly, and so it can
be difficult to make a clear diagnosis of personality
disorder. It may be more helpful to think of these diagnoses, not
as clear categories, but as exaggerations of normal, overlapping
What causes personality disorder?
The answer is not clear, but it seems that
like other mental disorders, upbringing, brain problems and genes
can play a part.
Sometimes, but not always, people with
personality disorder have experienced
- physical or sexual abuse in childhood
- violence in the family
- parents who drink too much
If children are taken out of this sort of
difficult environment, they are less likely to develop a
Severe aggression, disobedience, and repeated
temper tantrums in childhood.
Some people with antisocial personality
disorder have very slight differences in the structure of their
brains, and in the way some chemicals work in their brains.
However, there is no brain scan or blood test that can
diagnose a personality disorder.
using a lot of drugs or alcohol
problems getting on with your family or
anxiety, depression or other mental health
loss, such as death of a loved one
With help, many people with personality
disorder can start to lead a normal and fulfilling life. Most can,
at least, cope more effectively with their difficulties.
Treatment for people with personality
disorders can be psychological (talking therapies) and/or physical
The type of therapy or treatments offered depends on:
- what you want or prefer
- the type of difficulties you have
- what is available locally
1. Psychological: talking treatments
A number of psychotherapies seem to work well,
particularly for cluster B personality disorders ('Dramatic,
Emotional and Erratic'). They all have a clear structure and idea
of how they work which must be explained to the patient.
Longer-term therapy can last for years, and may have to be more
than once a week. They all involve different ways of talking with a
therapist, but are all different from each other. Some have a clear
structure to them, others are more flexible. They include:
- Mentalisation Based Therapy (MBT) -
combines group and individual therapy. It aims to help you
better understand yourself and others by being more aware
of what’s going on in your own head and in the minds of
others. It is helpful in borderline
- Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) –
this uses a combination of
cognitive and behavioural therapies, with some techniques from
Zen Buddhism. It involves individual therapy and group therapy, and
is helpful in borderline personality disorder.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
(CBT) - a way to change unhelpful patterns of
- Schema Focused Therapy - a cognitive therapy
that explores and changes collections of deep unhelpful beliefs.
Again, it seems to be effective in borderline personality
- Transference Focused Therapy - a structured
treatment in which the therapist explores and changes unconscious
processes. It seems to be effective in borderline personality
- Dynamic Psychotherapy - looks at how past
experiences affect present behaviour. It is similar to Transference
Focused Therapy, but less structured.
- Cognitive Analytical Therapy - a way to
recognise and change unhelpful patterns in relationships and
- Treatment in a therapeutic community – this is
a place where people with long-standing emotional problems can go
to (or sometimes stay) for several weeks or months. Most of the
work is done in groups. People learn from getting on – or not
getting on - with other people in the treatment group. It differs
from 'real life' in that any disagreements or upsets happen in a
safe place. People in treatment often have a lot of say over how
the community runs. In the UK, it is more common now for this
intensive treatment to be offered as a day programme, 5 days a
2. Physical: medication
People with personality disorders are more
likely to have another mental health difficulties, like depression and anxiety. Medication is often prescribed to
people with personality disorders to treat these difficulties, for
which it can be very effective.
There has not been much research into whether medication can
help with the symptoms of personality disorder themselves.
Prescribing medication for this purpose is not advised by the
National Institute for Care and Health Excellence (NICE - the
leading medical guidance-producing organisation) and medication
cannot 'cure' a personality disorder. However, many psychiatrists
do prescribe medications to try to reduce individual symptoms.
Antipsychotic drugs (usually at a low dose)
- Can reduce the suspiciousness of the three cluster A
personality disorders (paranoid, schizoid and schizotypal).
- Can help with borderline personality disorder if people feel
paranoid, or are hearing noises or voices.
- Can help with the mood and emotional difficulties that people
with cluster B personality disorders (antisocial or dissocial,
borderline or emotionally unstable, histrionic, and narcissistic)
- Some of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor
antidepressants (SSRIs) can help people to be less impulsive and
aggressive in borderline and antisocial personality disorders.
- Can reduce anxiety in cluster C personality disorders
(obsessive-compulsive, avoidant and dependent).
- Can help with unstable mood and impulsivity
that people with borderline personality disorder may
- The short-term use of sedative medication as
part of a larger care plan can be useful during a crisis.
Many people with personality disorder can lead
full lives with support. This can be emotional - somebody to talk
to - or practical - help with sorting bills out or arranging
things. The support can be given by friends and families, self-help
groups and networks, as well as your GP or
mental health team.
You might need such support occasionally, when things get
particularly difficult, or you may need it regularly.
If you have a personality disorder, you may
not need treatment at all - but you might find medication or
talking treatments helpful, and sometimes both.
Admission to hospital usually happens only as
a last resort (e.g. when a person with borderline personality
disorder is harming themselves badly) and for a short time. A lot
of help that was once only offered on hospital wards is now
available in day centres and clinics.
Living with personality disorder
People with a personality disorder, just like
anyone who has mental health difficulties, can be stigmatised
because of their diagnosis. They can attract fear, anger and
disapproval rather than compassion, support and understanding. This
is both unfair and unhelpful. Personality disorder is a real
problem that demands real help. We can all help by being friendly,
supportive and understanding, rather than being judgemental.
- Try to unwind when stressed - have a hot bath or go for a walk.
You may find yoga, massage or aromatherapy useful.
- Make sure you get a good night’s sleep - but don’t get too
upset if you can’t sleep.
- Look after your physical health and what you eat. You'll feel
better on a balanced diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol or using street drugs.
- Take some regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be extreme.
Even getting off the bus one stop early, and walking the rest of
the way can make a difference.
- Give yourself a treat (although not drugs or alcohol!) when
things are difficult or you have coped at a stressful time.
- Take up an interest or hobby. This is a good way to meet others
and take your mind off the day-to-day stresses that we all
- Talk to someone about how you are feeling. This could be a
friend or relative or, if preferred, a therapist or counsellor. If
you don’t have access to a counsellor or therapist, then try your
- The internet is a good resource of information.
- If things get really tough, try phoning the Samaritans (see
Living with someone who has a personality disorder
You may worry about the effects the
personality disorder is having on them, and perhaps on your life
too. How would they react if you talked to them about it?
If he or she is happy to talk about it, get
some more information. Even if they don’t see a problem at the
present time, they may do in the future.
Day-to-day living with someone who has a
personality disorder can be difficult - but it isn’t always
difficult. Giving people their own space, listening to and
acknowledging their concerns, and involving others (friends,
relatives and, at times, mental health professionals – nurses,
therapists or doctors) can all be useful. It is also important to
look after your own physical and mental health.
Emergence is a service user-led organisation supporting all
people affected by a diagnosis of personality disorder, whether you
are a service user, carer (which is a family member or friend of a
service user) or a professional in the field.
Mind is a leading mental health charity in England and
Wales and has extensive information on personality and personality
Personality disorder: no
longer a diagnosis of exclusion
This provides information, resources and learning
opportunities for those with a personality disorder and their
Contains information about the network set up
by the Mental Health division, and provides information about the
services available for those with personality disorders in
Helpline: 08457 90 90 90, R.O.I: 1850 60 90 90; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Samaritans is available 24 hours a day to
provide confidential emotional support for people who are
experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which
may lead to suicide. The website has helpful information about
stress and self-harm.
Rethink is a leading national mental health
membership charity and works to help everyone affected by severe
mental illness recover a better quality of life. Has information on
personality and personality disorder.
Assists and supports those suffering from depression (which can
occur in those diagnosed with a personality disorder) and their
families in Ireland. A helpline is available as well as support
groups, lectures, and current research on depression.
- National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence: 2009:
Borderline personality disorder: treatment and management (CG78)
and Antisocial Personality Disorder (CG77).
Department of Health (2009): Recognising complexity: commissioning
guidance for Personality Disorder.
- Bateman, A. and Tyrer, P. (2004)
Psychological treatment for personality disorders. Advances in
Psychiatric Treatment, 10 (5), 378-388.
- Bateman, A. and Tyrer, P. (2004) Services for
personality disorder: organisation for inclusion. Advances in
Psychiatric Treatment, 10 (6): 425-433.
- Coid, J. et al. (2006) Prevalence and
correlates of personality disorder in Great Britain. British
Journal of Psychiatry, 188, 423-431.
- Evershed S. (2011) Treatment of personality disorder:
skills-based therapies. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment,
- Kendell, R. (2002) The distinction between
personality disorder and mental illness. British Journal of
Psychiatry, 180, 110-115.
- NICE guidelines: Personality Disorder programme
- Tyrer, P. (ed.) (2002) Personality Disorders,
Psychiatry, Volume 1:1 March 2002, The Medicine Publishing Company
- Tyrer, P. and Bateman, A. (2004) Drug
treatment for personality disorders. Advances in Psychiatric
Treatment, 10 (5): 389-398.
- Tyrer, P. et al. (2007) Critical developments
in the assessment of personality disorder. British Journal of
Psychiatry, 190 (suppl. 49), s51-s59.
by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Public Education Editorial
- Series Editor: Dr Phillip Timms
- Original Author: Dr James Stoddart
- Expert Review: Dr Stephen Miller, Dr Alex
Langford, Dr Zainab Imam
- User and Carer Input: members of the RCPsych
Service User Forum
© Illustration by Lo Cole. www.locole.co.uk/
This leaflet reflects the best available evidence available at
the time of writing.
Under Review Feb 2018
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