By We Level Up FL Treatment Center | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: April 13, 2023
Personality Trait vs Personality Disorder
The main difference between a personality trait vs personality disorder is one of severity and consistency. Personality traits reflect people’s characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In addition, personality traits imply consistency and stability—someone who scores high on a specific trait like “Extraversion” is expected to be sociable in different situations and over time.
A personality disorder is a way of seeing the world that deviates from the norm and means you have certain behaviors that negatively affect all of your life, all of the time, since early adulthood.
Someone with narcissistic traits might be cold and ruthless at work but kind to his children and friends. Perhaps they only became so brutal after a big promotion.
Someone who has narcissistic personality disorder would be unable to empathize with anyone in any area of life. They would have been this way since late adolescence.
Mental illnesses are not adjectives, nor are they insults. But people with personality disorders tend to particularly feel the burden of how our semantics stigmatize the mentally ill. People are quick to hurl terms like “schizo” and “narcissist,” but there’s a knowledge gap when it comes to an understanding of the symptoms of personality disorders (PDs).
First off, it’s essential to know that there is, in fact, a big difference between personality traits and personality disorders. So, for example, it may be difficult to understand or distinguish someone acting “narcissistic” from someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And yes, some people like to stay at home, but Antisocial Personality Disorder is deeply misunderstood (and doesn’t usually include shyness as a symptom).
Six Things that Differentiate Personality Disorders from Personality Traits
- Possessing Flexible Traits Vs. Rigid Traits
The symptoms of personality disorders are less flexible than personality traits.
While some may speak to the contrary, personality traits can, to some degree, be changed. For example, personality traits like being outgoing are a little more plastic, meaning that a person could be aware that they are outgoing, which is unlikely but could change over time. But personality disorders, on the other hand, are more established.
- Having Empathy Vs. A Self-Centered Point Of View
Stepping into another person’s shoes is tricky for people with PDs. People with personality disorders cannot see the world from other people’s perspectives. This can be confusing for people struggling with these disorders.
- Having One Isolated Trait Vs. A Group Of Traits
You may have one or two familiar traits that share diagnostic criteria with a PD, but that’s not enough to indicate a disorder. Personality Disorders include a specific set of characteristics that show up together in someone’s personality. To ensure that PDs are correctly diagnosed, professionals look for these traits and how they appear in social situations. They will look for the clusters of characteristics that are pervasive and harmful to successfully maneuvering interpersonal problems, work stressors, and family crises. For example, it’s one thing to share a feeling of superiority and another to have a cluster of traits that make handling social interactions impossible.
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The way that PDs present themselves is often due to what caused them in the first place. Underlying the PD’s professionals usually find trauma (cultural, interpersonal, violence, sexual and physical abuse, family trauma, anxiety, and depression). [When someone has been through this pain], the person living with a PD is often scared, lonely, and unsure why some behaviors get the opposite reaction they may be seeking. After a while, it becomes difficult for the person to understand how others behave.
- Having Coping Skills Vs. Avoiding Pain At All Costs
People with PD tend to change their behavior to avoid pain constantly. Protecting yourself to avoid pain is common, even for people without a diagnosis. We all overreact at times and hurt ourselves, maybe in smaller ways. The difference is the ability to use coping skills and accept one’s quirks and reactions while figuring out what to do in each situation. While you can bounce back from an uncomfortable situation, a person with a PD might not have that luxury.
- Keeping Relationships Vs. Losing Relationships
Due to this gap between their inner world and the world around them, people with PDs tend to miss out on interpersonal relationships.  Living with a PD can significantly disrupt all relationships, not just romantic ones. This disruption can manifest in conflict, infidelity, moving quickly from one relationship to another, rushing into relationships, avoiding relationships, or cheating.
Borderline Personality Disorder Statistics
BPD is best managed with an interprofessional team, including psychiatrists, psychologists, pharmacists, mental health nurses, and social workers. In the United States, recent research has shown that 1.6% of the population has BPD. That number may seem small, but when you consider just how large the United States is, you may realize that 1.6% represents quite a large number of people. A borderline personality disorder is one of the most challenging mental health disorders to manage. 
It’s estimated that 1.4% of the adult U.S. population experiences BPD.
Nearly 75% of people diagnosed with BPD are women.
Surveys have estimated the prevalence of borderline personality disorder to be 20% in the inpatient psychiatric population.
The Big Five Personality Traits
Today, many researchers believe that there are five core personality traits .
Evidence of this theory has been growing for many years, beginning with the research of D. W. Fiske (1949) and later expanded upon by other researchers, including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987). The “big five” are broad categories of personality traits. While a significant body of literature supports this five-factor model of personality, researchers don’t always agree on the exact labels for each dimension.
This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight. People who are high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests. They are curious about the world and others and eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences. People who are high in this trait tend to be more adventurous and creative. People low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking.
- Very creative.
- Open to trying new things.
- Focused on tackling new challenges.
- Happy to think about abstract concepts.
- Dislikes change.
- Does not enjoy new things.
- Resists new ideas.
- Not very imaginative.
- Opposes abstract or theoretical concepts.
Standard features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, reasonable impulse control, and goal-directed behaviors. Highly conscientious people tend to be organized and mindful of details. They plan, consider how their behavior affects others, and know deadlines.
- Spends time preparing.
- Finishes essential tasks right away.
- Pays attention to detail.
- Enjoys having a set schedule.
- Dislikes structure and schedules.
- Makes messes and doesn’t take care of things.
- Fails to return things or put them back where they belong.
- Procrastinates important tasks.
- Fails to complete necessary or assigned tasks.
Extraversion (or extroversion) is characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high emotional expressiveness. People with high extroversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. Being around other people helps them feel energized and excited. People who are low in extraversion (or introverted) tend to be more reserved and have less energy to expend in social settings. Social events can feel draining, and introverts often require a period of solitude and quiet to “recharge.”
- Enjoys being the center of attention.
- Likes to start conversations.
- Enjoys meeting new people.
- Has a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances.
- It finds it easy to make new friends.
- Feels energized when around other people.
- Say things before thinking about them.
- Prefers solitude.
- Feels exhausted when having to socialize a lot.
- Finds it difficult to start conversations.
- He dislikes making small talk.
- Carefully thinks things through before speaking.
- Dislikes being the center of attention.
This personality dimension includes trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors. For example, people with agreeableness tend to be more cooperative, while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and sometimes even manipulative.
- Has a great deal of interest in other people.
- Cares about others.
- Feels Neuroticism is a trait characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Individuals high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and despair. Conversely, those low in this trait are more stable and emotionally resilient and concern for other people.
- Enjoys helping and contributing to the happiness of other people.
- Assists others who need help.
- Takes little interest in others.
- They don’t care about how other people feel.
- Has little interest in other people’s problems.
- Insults and belittles others.
- Manipulates others to get what they want.
Neuroticism is characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Individuals high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and despair. Conversely, those low in this trait are more stable and emotionally resilient.
- Experiences a lot of stress.
- Worries about many different things.
- Gets upset easily.
- Experiences dramatic shifts in mood.
- Feels anxious.
- Struggles to bounce back after stressful events.
- Emotionally stable.
- Deals well with stress.
- Rarely feels sad or depressed.
- Doesn’t worry much.
- Is very relaxed.
Studies have shown that maturation may have an impact on the five traits. For example, as people age, they become less extroverted, less neurotic, and less open to the experience. Agreeableness and conscientiousness, on the other hand, tend to increase as people grow older.
Types of Personality Disorders
DSM-5 groups the ten personality disorders into 3 clusters (A, B, and C) based on similar characteristics. However, the clinical usefulness of these clusters has yet to be established.
Cluster A is characterized by appearing odd or eccentric. It includes the following personality disorders with their distinguishing features:
- Paranoid: Mistrust and suspicion.
- Schizoid: Disinterest in others.
- Schizotypal: Eccentric ideas and behavior.
Cluster B is characterized by appearing dramatic, emotional, or erratic. It includes the following personality disorders with their distinguishing features:
- Antisocial: Social irresponsibility, disregard for others, deceitfulness, and manipulation of others for personal gain.
- Borderline: Inner emptiness, unstable relationships, and emotional dysregulation.
- Histrionic: Attention seeking and excessive emotionality.
- Narcissistic: Self-grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.
Cluster C is characterized by appearing anxious or fearful. It includes the following personality disorders with their distinguishing features:
- Avoidant: Avoidance of interpersonal contact due to rejection sensitivity.
- Dependent: Submissiveness and a need to be taken care of.
- Obsessive-compulsive: Perfectionism, rigidity, and obstinacy.
Symptoms and Signs of Personality Disorders
According to DSM-5, personality disorders are primarily problems with:
- Self-identity problems may manifest as an unstable self-image (e.g., people fluctuate between seeing themselves as kind or cruel) or as inconsistencies in values, goals, and appearance (e.g., people are deeply religious while in church but profane and disrespectful elsewhere).
- Interpersonal functioning problems typically manifest as failing to develop or sustain close relationships and being insensitive to others (e.g., unable to empathize). People with personality disorders often seem inconsistent, confusing, and frustrating to people around them (including clinicians).
These people may have difficulty knowing the boundaries between themselves and others. Their self-esteem may be inappropriately high or low. They may have inconsistent, detached, overemotional, abusive, or irresponsible parenting styles, leading to physical and mental problems in their spouse and children. People with personality disorders may not recognize that they have issues.
Treatment of Personality Disorders
The gold standard of treatment for personality disorders is psychotherapy. Both individual and group psychotherapy are effective for many of these disorders if the patient seeks treatment and is motivated to change. Typically, personality disorders are not very responsive to drugs, although some medications can effectively target specific symptoms (e.g., depression and anxiety).
Disorders that often coexist with personality disorders (e.g., depressive disorders, anxiety, substance-related disorders, somatic symptom disorders, and eating disorders) can make treatment challenging, lengthening time to remission, increasing the risk of relapse, and decreasing response to otherwise effective treatment. For treatment recommendations for each disorder, see the table.
General Principles of Treatment
In general, the treatment of personality disorders aims to:
- Reducing subjective distress (e.g., anxiety, depression) is the first goal. These symptoms often respond to increased psychosocial support, including moving the patient out of highly stressful situations or relationships. Drug therapy may also help relieve stress. Reduced stress makes treating the underlying personality disorder easier.
- It should enable patients to see that their problems are internal early. Patients need to understand that their problems with work or relationships are caused by their problematic ways of relating to the world (e.g., tasks, authority, or intimate relationships). Achieving such understanding requires a substantial amount of time, patience, and commitment from a clinician. Clinicians also need a basic knowledge of the patient’s emotional sensitivity and usual coping methods. Family members and friends can help identify problems of which patients and clinicians would otherwise be unaware.
- Maladaptive and undesirable behaviors (e.g., recklessness, social isolation, lack of assertiveness, temper outbursts) should be dealt with quickly to minimize ongoing damage to jobs and relationships. Behavioral change is most important for patients with the following personality disorders:
Behavior can typically be improved within months by group therapy and behavior modification; limits on behavior must often be established and enforced. Sometimes patients are treated in a day hospital or residential setting. Self-help groups or family therapy can also help change socially undesirable behaviors. Because family members and friends can act in ways that either reinforce or diminish the patient’s problematic behavior or thoughts, their involvement is helpful; they can be allies in treatment with coaching.
- Modifying problematic personality traits (e.g., dependency, distrust, arrogance, manipulativeness) takes a long time—typically > one year.
2. Individual Psychotherapy
During therapy, clinicians try to identify interpersonal problems as they occur in the patient’s life. Clinicians then help patients understand how these problems are related to their personality traits and provide skills training to develop new, better ways of interacting. Clinicians must repeatedly point out undesirable behaviors and their consequences before patients become aware of them. This strategy can help patients change their maladaptive behaviors and mistaken beliefs. However, although clinicians should act sensitively, they should be mindful that kindness and sensible advice do not change personality disorders.
Personality Trait vs Personality Disorder Video
Discover the fine line between personality traits and personality disorders. Learn how traits like “Extraversion” can manifest consistently, while disorders drastically impact every aspect of life since early adulthood.
How To Seek Help, We Level Up Center Florida
People with PDs, have to put in extra work to find healing. Since symptoms of PDs are so ingrained, it takes effort for someone with a disorder to find treatment and care. Many people with a personality disorder diagnosis can get discouraged because the prognosis is often poor. However, if someone is committed to learning new skills, some excellent treatments are available.
So, suppose you or someone you know are experiencing these symptoms. In that case, feel comforted that it’s not a lost cause and that seeking help from a professional or loved one can assist with treating underlying pain and forming successful, healthy relationships.
At We Level Up Florida Treatment Center, we provide world-class care with round-the-clock medical professionals available to help you cope. In addition, we work as an integrated team providing information about the difference between personality disorder vs personality traits and other aspects of treatment. Make this your opportunity to reclaim your life. Call today to speak with one of our treatment specialists. Our specialists know what you are going through and will answer any of your questions.
Your call is private and confidential, and there is never any obligation.
How to Improve Mental Health? 8 Steps & Tips for Maintaining Your Mental Wellbeing For Your Personality Disorder Video
8 Steps for Mental Wellbeing & How To Improve Mental Health In The Workplace
- Staying Positive
- Practicing Gratitude
- Taking Care of Your Physical Health
- Connecting With Others
- Developing a Sense of Meaning and Purpose in Life
- Developing Coping Skills
- Relaxation Techniques
Search We Level Up FL Personality Trait vs Personality Disorder Topics & Resources
 Skodol AE, Bender DS, Oldham JM: Personality pathology and personality disorders. In American Psychiatric Association Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 7th Edition, edited by LW Roberts, Washington, DC, 2019, pp. 711-748.
 Power RA, Pluess M. Heritability estimates of the Big Five personality traits based on common genetic variants. Transl Psychiatry. 2015;5:e604.
 Medlineplus.gov – https://medlineplus.gov/personalitydisorders.html
 Ripoll LH. Psychopharmacologic treatment of borderline personality disorder. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2013 Jun;15(2):213-24. DOI: 10.31887/DCNS.2013.15.2/lripoll. PMID: 24174895; PMCID: PMC3811092.
 NIMH – https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness
 ‘Anxiety Disorders’ – National Institute Of Mental Health (Nimh.nih.gov)
 National Institute of Mental Health – ‘Depression’ (www.nimh.nih.gov)
 Caring for Your Mental Health – NIMH/National Institute of Mental Health/ List of Mood and Personality Disorders
 Carpenter JK, Andrews LA, Witcraft SM, Powers MB, Smits JAJ, Hofmann SG. Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials. Depress Anxiety. 2018 Jun;35(6):502-514. DOI: 10.1002/da.22728. Epub 2018 Feb 16. PMID: 29451967; PMCID: PMC5992015.