What is a personality disorder?

A personality disorder is a type of mental illness that affects the way people think, feel, and behave. This can make it hard to handle emotions and interact with others.

This type of disorder also involves long-term patterns of behavior that don’t change much over time. For many, these patterns can lead to emotional distress and get in the way of functioning at work, school, or home.

There are 10 types of personality disorders. They’re broken down into three main categories:

Read on to learn more about cluster C personality disorders, including how they’re diagnosed and treated.

Intense anxiety and fear mark cluster C personality disorders. Disorders in this cluster include:

  • avoidant personality disorder
  • dependent personality disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

Avoidant personality disorder

People with avoidant personality disorders experience shyness and unjustified fears of rejection. They often feel lonely but avoid forming relationships outside of their immediate family.

Other avoidant personality disorder traits include:

  • being overly sensitive to criticism and rejection
  • regularly feeling inferior or inadequate
  • avoiding social activities or jobs that require working around other people
  • holding back from personal relationships

Dependent personality disorder

Dependent personality disorder causes people to rely too much on others to meet their physical and emotional needs. This often stems from not trusting themselves to make the right decision.

Other dependent personality disorder traits include:

  • lacking the confidence to take care of yourself or make small decisions
  • feeling the need to be taken care of
  • having frequent fears of being alone
  • being submissive to others
  • having trouble disagreeing with others
  • tolerating unhealthy relationships or abusive treatment
  • feeling overly upset when relationships end or desperate to start a new relationship right away

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

People with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder are overly focused on maintaining order and control.

They display some of the same behaviors as people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, they don’t experience unwanted or obtrusive thoughts, which are common symptoms of OCD.

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder traits include:

  • being overly preoccupied with schedules, rules, or details
  • working too much, often to the exclusion of other activities
  • setting extremely strict and high standards for yourself that are often impossible to meet
  • being unable to throw things away, even when they’re broken or have little value
  • having a hard time delegating tasks to others
  • neglecting relationships because of work or projects
  • being inflexible about morality, ethics, or values
  • lacking flexibility, generosity, and affection
  • tightly controlling money or budget

Personality disorders are often harder to diagnose than other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Everyone has a unique personality that shapes the way they think about and interact with the world.

If you think you or someone close to you may have a personality disorder, it’s important to start with an evaluation by a mental health professional. This is usually done by either a psychiatrist or psychologist.

To diagnose personality disorders, doctors often start by asking a series of questions about:

  • the way you perceive yourself, others, and events
  • the appropriateness of your emotional responses
  • how you deal with other people, especially in close relationships
  • how you control your impulses

They might ask you these questions in a conversation or have you fill out a questionnaire. Depending on your symptoms, they may also ask for permission to talk to someone who knows you well, such as a close family member or spouse.

This is completely optional, but allowing your doctor to speak to someone close to you can be very helpful for making an accurate diagnosis in some cases.

Once your doctor gathers enough information, they’ll likely refer to the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s published by the American Psychiatric Association. The manual lists diagnostic criteria, including symptom duration and severity, for each of the 10 personality disorders.

Keep in mind that the symptoms of different personality disorders often overlap, especially across disorders within the same cluster.

There are a variety of treatments available for personality disorders. For many people, a combination of treatments works best.

When recommending a treatment plan, your doctor will take into account the type of personality disorder you have and how severely in interferes with your daily life.

You might need to try a few different treatments before you find what works best for you. This can be a very frustrating process, but try to keep the end result — more control over your thoughts, feelings, and behavior — in the front of your mind.

Online therapy options

Read our review of the best online therapy options to find the right fit for you.

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Psychotherapy refers to talk therapy. It involves meeting with a therapist to discuss your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. There are many types of psychotherapy that take place in a variety of settings.

Talk therapy can take place on an individual, family, or group level. Individual sessions involve working one-on-one with a therapist. During a family session, your therapist will have a close friend or family member who’s been impacted by your condition join the session.

Group therapy involves a therapist leading a conversation among a group of people with similar conditions and symptoms. This can be a great way to connect with others going through similar issues and talk about what has or hasn’t worked for them.

Other types of therapy that might help include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a type of talk therapy that focuses on making you more aware of your thought patterns, allowing you to better control them.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy. This type of therapy is closely related to cognitive behavioral therapy. It often involves a combination of individual talk therapy and group sessions to learn skills for how to manage your symptoms.
  • Psychoanalytic therapy. This is a type of talk therapy that focuses on uncovering and resolving unconscious or buried emotions and memories.
  • Psychoeducation. This type of therapy focuses on helping you better understand your condition and what it involves.


There are no medications specifically approved to treat personality disorders. There are, however, certain medications that your prescriber may use “off label” to help you with certain problematic symptoms.

Additionally, some people with personality disorders may have another mental health disorder which can be the focus of clinical attention. The best medications for you will depend on individual circumstances, such as the severity of your symptoms and the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders.

Medications include:

  • Antidepressants. Antidepressants help treat symptoms of depression, but they can also reduce impulsive behavior or feelings of anger and frustration.
  • Anti-anxiety medications. Medications for anxiety can help manage symptoms of dread or perfectionism.
  • Mood stabilizers. Mood stabilizers help prevent mood swings and reduce irritability and aggression.
  • Antipsychotics. These medications treat psychosis. They can be helpful for people who easily lose touch with reality or see and hear things that aren’t there.

Make sure to tell your doctor about any medications you’ve tried in the past. This can help them better determine how you’ll respond to different options.

If you try a new medication, let your doctor know if you experience uncomfortable side effects. They can either adjust your dosage or give you tips for managing side effects.

Keep in mind that medication side effects often subside once your body gets used to the mediation.

If someone close to you may have a personality disorder, there are a few things you can do to help them feel comfortable. This is important, because people with personality disorders might be unaware of their condition or think they don’t need treatment.

If they haven’t received a diagnosis, consider encouraging them to see their primary care doctor, who can refer them to a psychiatrist. People are sometimes more willing to follow advice from a doctor than from a family member or friend.

If they’ve received a diagnosis of a personality disorder, here are a few tips to help them through the treatment process:

  • Be patient. Sometimes people need to take a few steps back before they can move forward. Try to allow space for them to do this. Avoid taking their behavior personally.
  • Be practical. Offer practical support, such as scheduling therapy appointments and making sure they have a reliable way to get there.
  • Be available. Let them know if you’d be open to joining them in a therapy session if it would help.
  • Be vocal. Tell them how much you appreciate their efforts to get better.
  • Be mindful of your language. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, rather than saying “You scared me when…,” try saying “I felt scared when you…”
  • Be kind to yourself. Make time to care for yourself and your needs. It’s hard to offer support when you’re burned out or stressed.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, consider starting with the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ guide to finding support. You’ll find information about finding a therapist, getting financial help, understanding your insurance plan, and more.

You can also create a free account to participate on their online discussion groups.

Suicide prevention

  1. If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
  2. • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  3. • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  4. • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  5. • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
  6. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
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