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Personality Disorder Symptoms, Diagnosis

Learn about personality disorder symptoms and how physicians use signs and symptoms of a personality disorder to make a diagnosis.

Personality disorder symptoms make it difficult for those suffering from one of these disorders to cope with the challenges of everyday life. Sure, everyone has trouble getting along with others and coping with difficult situations at some point in life, but it's different for people with personality disorders. (Read about famous people with personality disorders.)

Personality disorder symptoms involve behavior patterns that make it consistently difficult for sufferers to maintain relationships and get along with others, regardless of the situation. There are four key symptoms of a personality disorder that mental health professionals look for when evaluating a client:

  • Relationship (interpersonal) problems
  • Poor impulse control
  • Inappropriate emotional responses
  • Distorted thinking

These four personality disorder traits combine in different ways to create the 10 different personality disorders listed in DSM-5 (APA, 2013). Each disorder has a list of observable symptoms associated with that condition.

Recognizing Personality Disorder Symptoms

You can read about them here and learn about them directly from the DSM-5, but actually recognizing personality disorder symptoms could be difficult. Remember, the individual must exhibit the signs consistently, over time, regardless of the situation.

Interpersonal problems

For instance, a person who constantly changes their close friends and romantic interests, may have the interpersonal problems associated with personality disorders. Imagine a coworker (we'll call her Susan) who tells you about a "great" guy she met recently. Perhaps they've only been on a couple of dates, but she's already talking about a future wedding. Certainly, some people do meet, fall in love very quickly, and have successful marriages, on occasion. But your friend, Susan, shows up the very next week saying very negative things about the man she spoke so highly of just days before. You observe this happening again-and-again over time. You notice that she never has any long-term close friends either – hanging out with one person for a couple of weeks and then dumping her and moving on to another "best friend" rapidly.

Poor impulse control

Regardless of which of the 10 disorders a person has, he or she will exhibit poor impulse control. These problems with control can show up in the form of over- or under-controlled impulses. Imagine someone you know (we'll call him Tom) who is always stiff and constricted. Tom feels the need to carefully consider every action he takes. He thinks deeply about whether any action he takes may result in ridicule or embarrassment, causing him to miss out on many of life's spontaneous, yet fulfilling experiences. A person like this may have Avoidant Personality Disorder.

On the other hand, another individual may exhibit almost a total lack of impulse control – failing to think ahead about possible consequences of his actions. He may engage in overspending, promiscuous sexual encounters, aggressive behaviors, drug abuse, or excessive risk taking. Two examples of personality disorders where sufferers lack impulse control are Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder.

Inappropriate emotional responses

One of the most easily observable personality disorders symptoms involves the inappropriate emotional responses exhibited by sufferers. Each of the ten disorders has a specific emotional response pattern associated with it. For some of the disorders, sufferers have an overblown sensitivity and experience exceptionally intense emotions, such is the case with Histrionic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and others. People with other personality disorders, like Schizoid Personality Disorder, show little to no emotional response to any event, regardless of circumstance. People with healthy personalities typically understand when to express a particular emotion, and at what magnitude to express it, and when it's best to refrain from showing emotion.

In the 1987 movie, Fatal Attraction, actress Glenn Close plays a woman with an inappropriate emotional response pattern exhibited by people with Borderline Personality Disorder.


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Last Updated: 20 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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