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 very cold and ruthless at work but kind to his children and friends. Perhaps they only became so brutal since 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 who lives 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. Personality traits like being outgoing for example are a little more plastic, meaning that a person could be aware that they are outgoing and that 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 pretty tricky for people living with PDs. People with personality disorders basically 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 traits that show up together in someone’s personality. To make sure that PDs are correctly diagnosed, professionals look for these traits and how they show up in social situations. They will look for the clusters of traits that are pervasive and harmful to successfully maneuvering interpersonal situations, 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 next to impossible.
- Understanding Other’s Behaviors Vs. Never Understanding Them At All
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 of their 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 in an attempt to avoid pain constantly. Even for people without a diagnosis, protecting yourself to avoid pain is common. We all overreact at times and hurt ourselves, maybe in smaller ways. The difference is the ability to use coping skills and to accept one’s quirks and reactions while figuring out what to do in each situation presented. While you may be able to 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.
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 there is a significant body of literature supporting 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 other people 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, think about how their behavior affects others, and are aware of 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 amounts of emotional expressiveness. People who are high in extraversion 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 tend to be 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 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 tend to be 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 tend to 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 not been 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, 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 table.
General Principles of Treatment
In general, 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 make an effort to 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 on the part of 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. Typically, clinicians must repeatedly point out the 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 with sensitivity, they should be mindful that kindness and sensible advice by themselves do not change personality disorders.
How To Seek Help, We Level Up Center Florida
For people with PDs, they 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 who are given a personality disorder diagnosis can get discouraged because the prognosis is often poor. However, if someone is committed to learning new skills, there are some excellent treatments available.
So, suppose you or someone you know seems to be 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.
 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