Can learning about personality disorders help us better understand ourselves? Can it help us grow?

PsychCentral’s resource page on personality disorders explains that they: “…form a class of mental disorders that are characterized by long-lasting, rigid patterns of thought and behavior. Because of the inflexibility and pervasiveness of these patterns, they can cause serious problems and issues in a person’s life if they are diagnosed with a personality disorder.

“Personality disorders are seen by professionals and researchers as an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the culture of the individual who exhibits it. These patterns are inflexible and pervasive across many situations.”

Now, we all exhibit traits that may be listed as a symptom or sign of one or more personality disorders. However, it is not only the number of symptoms, but their pervasive nature–the frequency and the intensity of them–that leads to a diagnosis of a personality disorder.

For example, at times, perhaps when you’re overtired, annoyed, or distracted, you might lack empathy. Or, you might know someone who is a bit caught up in themselves, and has a very low level of empathy for others. These are expressions of personality traits (or character, to use a more old-school term) that might indicate flaws (and who isn’t flawed?), but do not, on their own, indicate pathology.

But if the lack of empathy is ongoing and continues in most situations, and if the person tends to be “callous, cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others,” then when identified with other feelings and behaviors such as inflated self-regard, superficial charm, frequent lying and deceitfulness, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of remorse and so on, then they may indicate anti-social personality disorder.

In order to be diagnosed as having a personality disorder, the symptoms must adversely affect the individual’s life, and of course, a group of symptom such as the ones described above, would do harm to a person’s personal and professional life.

One point of view is that all expressions of mind and emotions exist on a spectrum and the way we diagnosis mental illness, especially personality disorders, offers us important clues about ourselves and our own mental, emotional and spiritual development.

What can we learn about ourselves through learning about personality disorders?

Many people go through life with little time or inclination for reflection on their character. One of the reasons I find great satisfaction in working in both addictions and mental health is that most successful addiction treatment deals very much with issues of personality that can benefit people with mental illness, including but not limited to, personality disorders. Addiction treatment is rarely shy about plunging in to questions of character that mental health treatments such as therapy sometimes skirt around, and often don’t openly address at all.

C.R. coaches individuals. She says, “What’s interesting to me, is that when I coach people who come to me to help them deal with various problems in their lives, I find that often they need guidance in identifying what is the actual problem. They might feel the problem is outside themselves, such as another person (in a relationship), a lack of a specific qualifications preventing them from reaching a goal, or even a “negative” personality trait such as lack of commitment. But very often what they don’t realize is that the so-called problem is really only a symptom of a deeper character issue, for example, a lack of truthfulness with self or others.

“What I also find, in nearly everyone, is that they are unable to see their true self-worth, to the point that even those who sound “narcissistic” have no idea what their true good points are, the deep stuff, the soul points.”

An honest person might take a look at the personality traits associated with personality disorders, and find a little bit of themselves in many of them. But, if there were a list of signs of an ordered personality, we could take a look at them and learn to identify or cultivate these traits in ourselves. Here’s a list to get you started:

10 Signs of an Ordered Personality

  1. Rarely irritable or angry, and able to be aware of and manage irritability and anger when they occur
  2. Cares about and eager to help others much of the time
  3. Tells the truth (might only lie on very rare occasions, for example, in order to protect the feelings of others)
  4. Never insults and occasionally compliments others (without fawning or flattering)
  5. Honest in business and other dealings (doesn’t cheat or “take advantage” of undercharges, for example)
  6. Likes self and can identify good personal qualities but is able to be realistic about personal flaws and failings without beating one’s self up
  7. Believes in the goodness of self and others and gives people the benefit of the doubt much of the time (unless clearly inappropriate or harmful)
  8. Feels positive about one’s life most of the time, but when sad or grieving, is generally able to work through these feelings in a gentle, supportive, honest manner, and recover in a reasonable amount of time
  9. Takes good care of one’s personal spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual needs, but without rigidity
  10. Has at least one strong, loving interpersonal relationship as well as other healthy relationships