Experiential avoidance (EA) has been broadly defined as attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences – even when doing so creates harm in the long run.
The process of EA is thought to be maintained through negative reinforcement – that is, short-term relief of discomfort is achieved through avoidance, thereby increasing the likelihood that the avoidance behaviour will persist. Importantly, the current conceptualisation of EA suggests that it is not negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are problematic, but how one responds to them that can cause difficulties. In particular, a habitual and persistent unwillingness to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (and the associated avoidance and inhibition of these experiences) is thought to be linked to a wide range of problems.
EA has been popularised by recent third-wave cognitive-behavioural theories such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). However, the general concept has roots in many other theories of psychopathology and intervention.
Defence mechanisms were originally conceptualised as ways to avoid unpleasant affect and discomfort that resulted from conflicting motivations. These processes were thought to contribute to the expression of various types of psychopathology. Gradual removal of these defensive processes are thought to be a key aspect of treatment and eventually return to psychological health.
Process-experiential therapy merges client-centred, existential, and Gestalt approaches. Gestalt theory outlines the benefits of being fully aware of and open to one’s entire experience. One job of the psychotherapist is to “explore and become fully aware of [the patient’s] grounds for avoidance” and to “[lead] the patient back to that which he wishes to avoid”. Similar ideas are expressed by early humanistic theory:
“Whether the stimulus was the impact of a configuration of form, color, or sound in the environment on the sensory nerves, or a memory trace from the past, or a visceral sensation of fear or pleasure or disgust, the person would be ‘living’ it, would have it completely available to awareness…he is more open to his feelings of fear and discouragement and pain…he is more able fully to live the experiences of his organism rather than shutting them out of awareness.”
Traditional behaviour therapy utilises exposure to habituate the patient to various types of fears and anxieties, eventually resulting in a marked reduction in psychopathology. In this way, exposure can be thought of as “counter-acting” avoidance, in that it involves individuals repeatedly encountering and remaining in contact with that which causes distress and discomfort.
In cognitive theory, avoidance interferes with reappraisals of negative thought patterns and schema, thereby perpetuating distorted beliefs. These distorted beliefs are thought to contribute and maintain many types of psychopathology.
Distress is an inextricable part of life; therefore, avoidance is often only a temporary solution.
Avoidance reinforces the notion that discomfort, distress and anxiety are bad, or dangerous.
Sustaining avoidance often requires effort and energy.
Avoidance limits one’s focus at the expense of fully experiencing what is going on in the present.
Avoidance may get in the way of other important, valued aspects of life.
Laboratory-based thought suppression studies suggest avoidance is paradoxical, in that concerted attempts at suppression of a particular thought often leads to an increase of that thought.
Studies examining emotional suppression and pain suppression suggest that avoidance is ineffective in the long-run. Conversely, expressing the unpleasant emotions can lead to improvements in the long term, even though it increases negative reactions in the short term.
Exposure-based therapy techniques have been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of psychiatric disorders.
Numerous self-report studies have linked EA and related constructs (avoidance coping, thought suppression) to psychopathology and other forms of dysfunction.
Relevance to Psychopathology
Seemingly disparate forms of pathological behaviour can be understood by their common function (i.e., attempts to avoid distress). Some examples include:
Perhaps the most significant impact of EA is its potential to disrupt and interfere with important, valued aspects of an individual’s life. That is, EA is seen as particularly problematic when it occurs at the expense of a person’s deeply held values. Some examples include:
Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes.
Not taking advantage of an important opportunity due to attempts to avoid worries of failure or disappointment.
Not engaging in physical activity/exercise, meaningful hobbies, or other recreational activities due to the effort they demand.
Avoiding social gatherings or interactions with others because of the anxiety and negative thoughts they evoke.
Not being a full participant in social gatherings due to attempts to regulate anxiety relating to how others are perceiving you.
Being unable to fully engage in meaningful conversations with others because one is scanning for signs of danger in the environment (attempting to avoid feeling “unsafe”).
Inability to “connect” and sustain a close relationship because of attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
Staying in a “bad” relationship to try to avoid discomfort, guilt, and potential feelings of loneliness a break-up might entail.
Losing a marriage or contact with children due to an unwillingness to experience uncomfortable feelings (e.g. achieved through drug or alcohol abuse) or symptoms of withdrawal.
Not attending an important graduation, wedding, funeral, or other family event to try to avoid anxiety or symptoms of panic.
Engaging in self-destructive behaviours in an attempt to avoid feelings of boredom, emptiness, worthlessness.
Not functioning or taking care of basic responsibilities (e.g. personal hygiene, waking up, showing up to work, shopping for food) because of the effort they demand and/or distress they evoke.
Spending so much time attempting to avoid discomfort that one has little time for anyone or anything else in life.
The Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ) was the first self-report measure explicitly designed to measure EA, but has since been re-conceptualised as a measure of “psychological flexibility”. The 62-item Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (MEAQ) was developed to measure different aspects of EA. The Brief Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (BEAQ) is a 15-item measure developed using MEAQ items, which has become the most widely used measure of experiential avoidance.
What is Psychological Flexibility?
Flexibility is a personality trait that describes the extent to which a person can cope with changes in circumstances and think about problems and tasks in novel, creative ways. This trait is used when stressors or unexpected events occur, requiring a person to change their stance, outlook, or commitment. Flexible personality should not be confused with cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch between two concepts, as well as simultaneously think about multiple concepts. Researchers of cognitive flexibility describe it as the ability to switch one’s thinking and attention between tasks. Flexibility, or psychological flexibility, as it is sometimes referred to, is the ability to adapt to situational demands, balance life demands, and commit to behaviours.
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Personality disorders (PD) are a class of mental disorders characterised by enduring maladaptive patterns of behaviour, cognition, and inner experience, exhibited across many contexts and deviating from those accepted by the individual’s culture.
Personality, defined psychologically, is the set of enduring behavioural and mental traits that distinguish individual humans. Hence, PDs are defined by experiences and behaviours that deviate from social norms and expectations. Those diagnosed with a PD may experience difficulties in cognition, emotiveness, interpersonal functioning, or impulse control. In general, PDs are diagnosed in 40-60% of psychiatric patients, making them the most frequent of psychiatric diagnoses.
PDs are characterised by an enduring collection of behavioural patterns often associated with considerable personal, social, and occupational disruption. PDs are also inflexible and pervasive across many situations, largely due to the fact that such behaviour may be ego-syntonic (i.e. the patterns are consistent with the ego integrity of the individual) and are therefore perceived to be appropriate by that individual. In addition, people with personality disorders often lack insight into their condition and so refrain from seeking treatment. This behaviour can result in maladaptive coping skills and may lead to personal problems that induce extreme anxiety, distress, or depression and result in impaired psychosocial functioning. These behaviour patterns are typically recognised by adolescence, the beginning of adulthood or sometimes even childhood and often have a pervasive negative impact on the quality of life.
While emerging treatments, such as dialectical behaviour therapy, have demonstrated efficacy in treating PDs, such as borderline personality disorder, PDs are associated with considerable stigma in popular and clinical discourse alike. Despite various methodological schemas designed to categorise PDs, many issues occur with classifying a personality disorder because the theory and diagnosis of such disorders occur within prevailing cultural expectations; thus, their validity is contested by some experts on the basis of inevitable subjectivity. They argue that the theory and diagnosis of PDs are based strictly on social, or even sociopolitical and economic considerations.
Personality disorder is a term with a distinctly modern meaning, owing in part to its clinical usage and the institutional character of modern psychiatry. The currently accepted meaning must be understood in the context of historical changing classification systems such as DSM-IV and its predecessors. Although highly anachronistic, and ignoring radical differences in the character of subjectivity and social relations, some have suggested similarities to other concepts going back to at least the ancient Greeks. For example, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus described 29 ‘character’ types that he saw as deviations from the norm, and similar views have been found in Asian, Arabic and Celtic cultures. A long-standing influence in the Western world was Galen’s concept of personality types, which he linked to the four humours proposed by Hippocrates.
Such views lasted into the eighteenth century, when experiments began to question the supposed biologically based humours and ‘temperaments’. Psychological concepts of character and ‘self’ became widespread. In the nineteenth century, ‘personality’ referred to a person’s conscious awareness of their behaviour, a disorder of which could be linked to altered states such as dissociation. This sense of the term has been compared to the use of the term ‘multiple personality disorder’ in the first versions of the DSM.
Physicians in the early nineteenth century started to diagnose forms of insanity involving disturbed emotions and behaviours but seemingly without significant intellectual impairment or delusions or hallucinations. Philippe Pinel referred to this as ‘ manie sans délire ‘ – mania without delusions – and described a number of cases mainly involving excessive or inexplicable anger or rage. James Cowles Prichard advanced a similar concept he called moral insanity, which would be used to diagnose patients for some decades. ‘Moral’ in this sense referred to affect (emotion or mood) rather than ethics, but it was arguably based in part on religious, social and moral beliefs, with a pessimism about medical intervention so social control should take precedence. These categories were much different and broader than later definitions of personality disorder, while also being developed by some into a more specific meaning of moral degeneracy akin to later ideas about ‘psychopaths’. Separately, Richard von Krafft-Ebing popularised the terms sadism and masochism, as well as homosexuality, as psychiatric issues.
The German psychiatrist Koch sought to make the moral insanity concept more scientific, and in 1891 suggested the phrase ‘psychopathic inferiority’, theorised to be a congenital disorder. This referred to continual and rigid patterns of misconduct or dysfunction in the absence of apparent mental retardation or illness, supposedly without a moral judgement. Described as deeply rooted in his Christian faith, his work established the concept of personality disorder as used today.
In the early 20th century, another German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, included a chapter on psychopathic inferiority in his influential work on clinical psychiatry for students and physicians. He suggested six types:
The categories were essentially defined by the most disordered criminal offenders observed, distinguished between criminals by impulse, professional criminals, and morbid vagabonds who wandered through life. Kraepelin also described three paranoid (meaning then delusional) disorders, resembling later concepts of schizophrenia, delusional disorder and paranoid personality disorder. A diagnostic term for the latter concept would be included in the DSM from 1952, and from 1980 the DSM would also include schizoid, schizotypal; interpretations of earlier (1921) theories of Ernst Kretschmer led to a distinction between these and another type later included in the DSM, avoidant personality disorder.
In 1933 Russian psychiatrist Pyotr Borisovich Gannushkin published his book Manifestations of Psychopathies: Statics, Dynamics, Systematic Aspects, which was one of the first attempts to develop a detailed typology of psychopathies. Regarding maladaptation, ubiquity, and stability as the three main symptoms of behavioural pathology, he distinguished nine clusters of psychopaths: cycloids (including constitutionally depressive, constitutionally excitable, cyclothymics, and emotionally labile), asthenics (including psychasthenics), schizoids (including dreamers), paranoiacs (including fanatics), epileptoids, hysterical personalities (including pathological liars), unstable psychopaths, antisocial psychopaths, and constitutionally stupid. Some elements of Gannushkin’s typology were later incorporated into the theory developed by a Russian adolescent psychiatrist, Andrey Yevgenyevich Lichko, who was also interested in psychopathies along with their milder forms, the so-called accentuations of character.
In 1939, psychiatrist David Henderson published a theory of ‘psychopathic states’ that contributed to popularly linking the term to anti-social behaviour. Hervey M. Cleckley’s 1941 text, The Mask of Sanity, based on his personal categorisation of similarities he noted in some prisoners, marked the start of the modern clinical conception of psychopathy and its popularist usage.
Towards the mid 20th century, psychoanalytic theories were coming to the fore based on work from the turn of the century being popularized by Sigmund Freud and others. This included the concept of character disorders, which were seen as enduring problems linked not to specific symptoms but to pervasive internal conflicts or derailments of normal childhood development. These were often understood as weaknesses of character or wilful deviance, and were distinguished from neurosis or psychosis. The term ‘borderline’ stems from a belief some individuals were functioning on the edge of those two categories, and a number of the other personality disorder categories were also heavily influenced by this approach, including dependent, obsessive-compulsive and histrionic, the latter starting off as a conversion symptom of hysteria particularly associated with women, then a hysterical personality, then renamed histrionic personality disorder in later versions of the DSM. A passive aggressive style was defined clinically by Colonel William Menninger during World War II in the context of men’s reactions to military compliance, which would later be referenced as a personality disorder in the DSM. Otto Kernberg was influential with regard to the concepts of borderline and narcissistic personalities later incorporated in 1980 as disorders into the DSM.
Meanwhile, a more general personality psychology had been developing in academia and to some extent clinically. Gordon Allport published theories of personality traits from the 1920s – and Henry Murray advanced a theory called personology, which influenced a later key advocate of personality disorders, Theodore Millon. Tests were developing or being applied for personality evaluation, including projective tests such as the Rorshach, as well as questionnaires such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Around mid-century, Hans Eysenck was analysing traits and personality types, and psychiatrist Kurt Schneider was popularising a clinical use in place of the previously more usual terms ‘character’, ‘temperament’ or ‘constitution’.
American psychiatrists officially recognised concepts of enduring personality disturbances in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 1950s, which relied heavily on psychoanalytic concepts. Somewhat more neutral language was employed in the DSM-II in 1968, though the terms and descriptions had only a slight resemblance to current definitions. The DSM-III published in 1980 made some major changes, notably putting all personality disorders onto a second separate ‘axis’ along with mental retardation, intended to signify more enduring patterns, distinct from what were considered axis one mental disorders. ‘Inadequate’ and ‘asthenic’ personality disorder’ categories were deleted, and others were expanded into more types, or changed from being personality disorders to regular disorders. Sociopathic personality disorder, which had been the term for psychopathy, was renamed Antisocial Personality Disorder. Most categories were given more specific ‘operationalised’ definitions, with standard criteria psychiatrists could agree on to conduct research and diagnose patients. In the DSM-III revision, self-defeating personality disorder and sadistic personality disorder were included as provisional diagnoses requiring further study. They were dropped in the DSM-IV, though a proposed ‘depressive personality disorder’ was added; in addition, the official diagnosis of passive-aggressive personality disorder was dropped, tentatively renamed ‘negativistic personality disorder.’
International differences have been noted in how attitudes have developed towards the diagnosis of personality disorder. Kurt Schneider argued they were ‘abnormal varieties of psychic life’ and therefore not necessarily the domain of psychiatry, a view said to still have influence in Germany today. British psychiatrists have also been reluctant to address such disorders or consider them on par with other mental disorders, which has been attributed partly to resource pressures within the National Health Service, as well as to negative medical attitudes towards behaviours associated with personality disorders. In the US, the prevailing healthcare system and psychanalytic tradition has been said to provide a rationale for private therapists to diagnose some personality disorders more broadly and provide ongoing treatment for them.
The prevalence of personality disorder in the general community was largely unknown until surveys starting from the 1990s. In 2008 the median rate of diagnosable PD was estimated at 10.6%, based on six major studies across three nations. This rate of around one in ten, especially as associated with high use of services, is described as a major public health concern requiring attention by researchers and clinicians.
The prevalence of individual personality disorders ranges from about 2% to 3% for the more common varieties, such as schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, and histrionic, to 0.5-1% for the least common, such as narcissistic and avoidant.
A screening survey across 13 countries by the WHO using DSM-IV criteria, reported in 2009 a prevalence estimate of around 6% for personality disorders. The rate sometimes varied with demographic and socioeconomic factors, and functional impairment was partly explained by co-occurring mental disorders. In the US, screening data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication between 2001 and 2003, combined with interviews of a subset of respondents, indicated a population prevalence of around 9% for personality disorders in total. Functional disability associated with the diagnoses appeared to be largely due to co-occurring mental disorders (Axis I in the DSM).
A UK national epidemiological study (based on DSM-IV screening criteria), reclassified into levels of severity rather than just diagnosis, reported in 2010 that the majority of people show some personality difficulties in one way or another (short of threshold for diagnosis), while the prevalence of the most complex and severe cases (including meeting criteria for multiple diagnoses in different clusters) was estimated at 1.3%. Even low levels of personality symptoms were associated with functional problems, but the most severely in need of services was a much smaller group.
Personality disorders (especially Cluster A) are also very common among homeless people.
There are some sex differences in the frequency of personality disorders which are shown below (type of PD/predominant gender):
Paranoid personality disorder: Male.
Schizoid personality disorder: Male.
Schizotypal personality disorder: Male.
Antisocial personality disorder: Male.
Borderline personality disorder: Female.
Histrionic personality disorder: Female.
Narcissistic personality disorder: Male.
Avoidant personality disorder: Male.
Dependent personality disorder: Female.
Depressive personality disorder: Female.
Passive–aggressive personality disorder: Male.
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: Male.
Self-defeating personality disorder: Female.
Sadistic personality disorder: Male.
The two relevant major systems of classification are:
The ICD system is a collection of numerical codes that have been assigned to all known clinical disease states, which provides uniform terminology for medical records, billing, and research purposes. The DSM defines psychiatric diagnoses based on research and expert consensus, and its content informs the ICD-10 classifications. Both have deliberately merged their diagnoses to some extent, but some differences remain. For example, ICD-10 does not include narcissistic personality disorder as a distinct category, while DSM-5 does not include enduring personality change after catastrophic experience or after psychiatric illness. ICD-10 classifies the DSM-5 schizotypal personality disorder as a form of schizophrenia rather than as a personality disorder. There are accepted diagnostic issues and controversies with regard to distinguishing particular personality disorder categories from each other.
Both diagnostic systems provide a definition and six criteria for a general personality disorder. These criteria should be met by all personality disorder cases before a more specific diagnosis can be made.
The ICD-10 lists these general guideline criteria:
Markedly disharmonious attitudes and behaviour, generally involving several areas of functioning, e.g. affectivity, arousal, impulse control, ways of perceiving and thinking, and style of relating to others;
The abnormal behaviour pattern is enduring, of long standing, and not limited to episodes of mental illness;
The abnormal behaviour pattern is pervasive and clearly maladaptive to a broad range of personal and social situations;
The above manifestations always appear during childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood;
The disorder leads to considerable personal distress but this may only become apparent late in its course;
The disorder is usually, but not invariably, associated with significant problems in occupational and social performance.
The ICD adds: “For different cultures it may be necessary to develop specific sets of criteria with regard to social norms, rules and obligations.”
In DSM-5, any personality disorder diagnosis must meet the following criteria:
An enduring pattern of inner experience and behaviour that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture. This pattern is manifested in two (or more) of the following areas:
Cognition (i.e. ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other people, and events).
Affectivity (i.e. the range, intensity, lability, and appropriateness of emotional response).
The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.
The enduring pattern leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back at least to adolescence or early adulthood.
The enduring pattern is not better explained as a manifestation or consequence of another mental disorder.
The enduring pattern is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g. a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g. head trauma).
Chapter V in the ICD-10 contains the mental and behavioural disorders and includes categories of personality disorder and enduring personality changes. They are defined as ingrained patterns indicated by inflexible and disabling responses that significantly differ from how the average person in the culture perceives, thinks, and feels, particularly in relating to others.
The specific personality disorders are: paranoid, schizoid, dissocial, emotionally unstable (borderline type and impulsive type), histrionic, anankastic, anxious (avoidant) and dependent.
Besides the ten specific PD, there are the following categories:
Other specific personality disorders (involves PD characterised as eccentric, haltlose, immature, narcissistic, passive-aggressive, or psychoneurotic).
Personality disorder, unspecified (includes “character neurosis” and “pathological personality”).
Mixed and other personality disorders (defined as conditions that are often troublesome but do not demonstrate the specific pattern of symptoms in the named disorders).
Enduring personality changes, not attributable to brain damage and disease (this is for conditions that seem to arise in adults without a diagnosis of personality disorder, following catastrophic or prolonged stress or other psychiatric illness).
In the proposed revision of ICD-11, all discrete personality disorder diagnoses will be removed and replaced by the single diagnosis “personality disorder”. Instead, there will be specifiers called “prominent personality traits” and the possibility to classify degrees of severity ranging from “mild”, “moderate”, and “severe” based on the dysfunction in interpersonal relationships and everyday life of the patient.
There are six prominent personality traits/patterns categorised by the ICD-11:
Detachment (“tendency to maintain interpersonal distance (social detachment) and emotional distance (emotional detachment).”).
Dissociality (“disregard for the rights and feelings of others, encompassing both self-centredness and lack of empathy.” Equivalent to the DSM-5 classification of antisocial personality disorder.).
Disinhibition (“tendency to act rashly based on immediate external or internal stimuli (i.e., sensations, emotions, thoughts), without consideration of potential negative consequences.”).
Anankastia (“narrow focus on one’s rigid standard of perfection and of right and wrong, and on controlling one’s own and others’ behaviour and controlling situations to ensure conformity to these standards.” Equivalent to the DSM-5 classification of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.),
Borderline pattern (“pattern of personality disturbance is characterised by a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity”. Equivalent to the DSM-5 classification of borderline personality disorder.),
The most recent fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders stresses that a personality disorder is an enduring and inflexible pattern of long duration leading to significant distress or impairment and is not due to use of substances or another medical condition. The DSM-5 lists personality disorders in the same way as other mental disorders, rather than on a separate ‘axis’, as previously.
DSM-5 lists ten specific personality disorders: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
The DSM-5 also contains three diagnoses for personality patterns not matching these ten disorders, but nevertheless exhibit characteristics of a personality disorder:
Personality change due to another medical condition – personality disturbance due to the direct effects of a medical condition.
Other specified personality disorder – general criteria for a personality disorder are met but fails to meet the criteria for a specific disorder, with the reason given.
Unspecified personality disorder – general criteria for a personality disorder are met but the personality disorder is not included in the DSM-5 classification.
The specific personality disorders are grouped into the following three clusters based on descriptive similarities:
Cluster A (Odd or Eccentric Disorders)
Cluster A personality disorders are often associated with schizophrenia: in particular, schizotypal personality disorder shares some of its hallmark symptoms with schizophrenia, e.g., acute discomfort in close relationships, cognitive or perceptual distortions, and eccentricities of behaviour. However, people diagnosed with odd-eccentric personality disorders tend to have a greater grasp on reality than those with schizophrenia. Patients suffering from these disorders can be paranoid and have difficulty being understood by others, as they often have odd or eccentric modes of speaking and an unwillingness and inability to form and maintain close relationships. Though their perceptions may be unusual, these anomalies are distinguished from delusions or hallucinations as people suffering from these would be diagnosed with other conditions. Significant evidence suggests a small proportion of people with Cluster A personality disorders, especially schizotypal personality disorder, have the potential to develop schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. These disorders also have a higher probability of occurring among individuals whose first-degree relatives have either schizophrenia or a Cluster A personality disorder.
Paranoid personality disorder: characterised by a pattern of irrational suspicion and mistrust of others, interpreting motivations as malevolent.
Cluster B (Dramatic, Emotional or Erratic Disorders)
Antisocial personality disorder: pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, lack of empathy, bloated self-image, manipulative and impulsive behaviour.
Borderline personality disorder: pervasive pattern of abrupt emotional outbursts, altered empathy, instability in relationships, self-image, identity, behaviour and affect, often leading to self-harm and impulsivity.
Narcissistic personality disorder: pervasive pattern of superior grandiosity, need for admiration, and a perceived or real lack of empathy. In a more severe expression, narcissistic personality disorder may show evidence of paranoia, aggression, psychopathy, and sadistic personality disorder, which is known as malignant narcissism.
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: characterised by rigid conformity to rules, perfectionism, and control to the point of satisfaction and exclusion of leisurely activities and friendships (distinct from obsessive-compulsive disorder).
Other Personality Types
Some types of personality disorder were in previous versions of the diagnostic manuals but have been deleted. Examples include sadistic personality disorder (pervasive pattern of cruel, demeaning, and aggressive behaviour) and self-defeating personality disorder or masochistic personality disorder (characterised by behaviour consequently undermining the person’s pleasure and goals). They were listed in the DSM-III-R appendix as “Proposed diagnostic categories needing further study” without specific criteria. The psychologist Theodore Millon and others consider some relegated diagnoses to be equally valid disorders, and may also propose other personality disorders or subtypes, including mixtures of aspects of different categories of the officially accepted diagnoses.
Psychologist Theodore Millon, who has written numerous popular works on personality, proposed the following description of personality disorders:
Type of Personality Disorder
Guarded, defensive, distrustful and suspicious. Hypervigilant to the motives of others to undermine or do harm. Always seeking confirmatory evidence of hidden schemes. Feel righteous, but persecuted. Experience a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspicion of others that lasts a long time. They are generally difficult to work with and are very hard to form relationships with. They are also known to be somewhat short-tempered.
Apathetic, indifferent, remote, solitary, distant, humourless, contempt, odd fantasies. Neither desire nor need human attachments. Withdrawn from relationships and prefer to be alone. Little interest in others, often seen as a loner. Minimal awareness of the feelings of themselves or others. Few drives or ambitions, if any. Is an uncommon condition in which people avoid social activities and consistently shy away from interaction with others. It affects more males than females. To others, they may appear somewhat dull or humourless. Because they don’t tend to show emotion, they may appear as though they don’t care about what’s going on around them.
Eccentric, self-estranged, bizarre, absent. Exhibit peculiar mannerisms and behaviours. Think they can read thoughts of others. Preoccupied with odd daydreams and beliefs. Blur line between reality and fantasy. Magical thinking and strange beliefs. People with schizotypal personality disorder are often described as odd or eccentric and usually have few, if any, close relationships. They think others think negatively of them.
Impulsive, irresponsible, deviant, unruly. Act without due consideration. Meet social obligations only when self-serving. Disrespect societal customs, rules, and standards. See themselves as free and independent. People with antisocial personality disorder depict a long pattern of disregard for other people’s rights. They often cross the line and violate these rights.
Unpredictable, egocentric, emotionally unstable. Frantically fears abandonment and isolation. Experience rapidly fluctuating moods. Shift rapidly between loving and hating. See themselves and others alternatively as all-good and all-bad. Unstable and frequently changing moods. People with borderline personality disorder have a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships.
Hysteria, dramatic, seductive, shallow, egocentric, attention-seeking, vain. Overreact to minor events. Exhibitionistic as a means of securing attention and favours. See themselves as attractive and charming. Constantly seeking others’ attention. Disorder is characterised by constant attention-seeking, emotional overreaction, and suggestibility. Their tendency to over-dramatise may impair relationships and lead to depression, but they are often high-functioning.
Egotistical, arrogant, grandiose, insouciant. Preoccupied with fantasies of success, beauty, or achievement. See themselves as admirable and superior, and therefore entitled to special treatment. Is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they are superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings.
Hesitant, self-conscious, embarrassed, anxious. Tense in social situations due to fear of rejection. Plagued by constant performance anxiety. See themselves as inept, inferior, or unappealing. They experience long-standing feelings of inadequacy and are very sensitive of what others think about them.
Helpless, incompetent, submissive, immature. Withdrawn from adult responsibilities. See themselves as weak or fragile. Seek constant reassurance from stronger figures. They have the need to be taken care of by a person. They fear being abandoned or separated from important people in their life.
Restrained, conscientious, respectful, rigid. Maintain a rule-bound lifestyle. Adhere closely to social conventions. See the world in terms of regulations and hierarchies. See themselves as devoted, reliable, efficient, and productive.
Sombre, discouraged, pessimistic, brooding, fatalistic. Present themselves as vulnerable and abandoned. Feel valueless, guilty, and impotent. Judge themselves as worthy only of criticism and contempt. Hopeless, suicidal, restless. This disorder can lead to aggressive acts and hallucinations.
Resentful, contrary, sceptical, discontented. Resist fulfilling others’ expectations. Deliberately inefficient. Vent anger indirectly by undermining others’ goals. Alternately moody and irritable, then sullen and withdrawn. Withhold emotions. Will not communicate when there is something problematic to discuss.
Explosively hostile, abrasive, cruel, dogmatic. Liable to sudden outbursts of rage. Gain satisfaction through dominating, intimidating and humiliating others. They are opinionated and closed-minded. Enjoy performing brutal acts on others. Find pleasure in abusing others. Would likely engage in a sadomasochist relationship, but will not play the role of a masochist.
Deferential, pleasure-phobic, servile, blameful, self-effacing. Encourage others to take advantage of them. Deliberately defeat own achievements. Seek condemning or mistreatful partners. They are suspicious of people who treat them well. Would likely engage in a sadomasochist relationship.
In addition to classifying by category and cluster, it is possible to classify personality disorders using additional factors such as severity, impact on social functioning, and attribution.
This involves both the notion of personality difficulty as a measure of subthreshold scores for personality disorder using standard interviews and the evidence that those with the most severe personality disorders demonstrate a “ripple effect” of personality disturbance across the whole range of mental disorders. In addition to subthreshold (personality difficulty) and single cluster (simple personality disorder), this also derives complex or diffuse personality disorder (two or more clusters of personality disorder present) and can also derive severe personality disorder for those of greatest risk.
Dimensional System of Classifying Personality Disorders
Level of Severity
Definition by Categorical System
No personality disorder
Does not meet actual or subthreshold criteria for any personality disorder.
Meets sub-threshold criteria for one or several personality disorders.
Simple personality disorder
Meets actual criteria for one or more personality disorders within the same cluster.
Complex (diffuse) personality disorder
Meets actual criteria for one or more personality disorders within more than one cluster.
Severe personality disorder
Meets criteria for creation of severe disruption to both individual and to many in society.
There are several advantages to classifying personality disorder by severity:
It not only allows for but also takes advantage of the tendency for personality disorders to be comorbid with each other.
It represents the influence of personality disorder on clinical outcome more satisfactorily than the simple dichotomous system of no personality disorder versus personality disorder.
This system accommodates the new diagnosis of severe personality disorder, particularly “dangerous and severe personality disorder” (DSPD).
Effect on Social Functioning
Social function is affected by many other aspects of mental functioning apart from that of personality. However, whenever there is persistently impaired social functioning in conditions in which it would normally not be expected, the evidence suggests that this is more likely to be created by personality abnormality than by other clinical variables. The Personality Assessment Schedule gives social function priority in creating a hierarchy in which the personality disorder creating the greater social dysfunction is given primacy over others in a subsequent description of personality disorder.
Many who have a personality disorder do not recognise any abnormality and defend valiantly their continued occupancy of their personality role. This group have been termed the Type R, or treatment-resisting personality disorders, as opposed to the Type S or treatment-seeking ones, who are keen on altering their personality disorders and sometimes clamour for treatment. The classification of 68 personality disordered patients on the caseload of an assertive community team using a simple scale showed a 3 to 1 ratio between Type R and Type S personality disorders with Cluster C personality disorders being significantly more likely to be Type S, and paranoid and schizoid (Cluster A) personality disorders significantly more likely to be Type R than others.
There is a considerable personality disorder diagnostic co-occurrence. Patients who meet the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for one personality disorder are likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for another. Diagnostic categories provide clear, vivid descriptions of discrete personality types but the personality structure of actual patients might be more accurately described by a constellation of maladaptive personality traits.
Impact on Functioning
It is generally assumed that all personality disorders are linked to impaired functioning and a reduced quality of life (QoL) because that is a basic diagnostic requirement. But research shows that this may be true only for some types of personality disorder.
In several studies, higher disability and lower QoL were predicted by avoidant, dependent, schizoid, paranoid, schizotypal and antisocial personality disorder. This link is particularly strong for avoidant, schizotypal and borderline PD. However, obsessive-compulsive PD was not related to a compromised QoL or dysfunction. A prospective study reported that all PD were associated with significant impairment 15 years later, except for obsessive compulsive and narcissistic personality disorder.
One study investigated some aspects of “life success” (status, wealth and successful intimate relationships). It showed somewhat poor functioning for schizotypal, antisocial, borderline and dependent PD, schizoid PD had the lowest scores regarding these variables. Paranoid, histrionic and avoidant PD were average. Narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive PD, however, had high functioning and appeared to contribute rather positively to these aspects of life success.
There is also a direct relationship between the number of diagnostic criteria and quality of life. For each additional personality disorder criterion that a person meets there is an even reduction in quality of life.
In the Workplace
Depending on the diagnosis, severity and individual, and the job itself, personality disorders can be associated with difficulty coping with work or the workplace – potentially leading to problems with others by interfering with interpersonal relationships. Indirect effects also play a role; for example, impaired educational progress or complications outside of work, such as substance abuse and co-morbid mental disorders, can plague sufferers. However, personality disorders can also bring about above-average work abilities by increasing competitive drive or causing the sufferer to exploit his or her co-workers.
In 2005 and again in 2009, psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey, UK, interviewed and gave personality tests to high-level British executives and compared their profiles with those of criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor Hospital in the UK. They found that three out of eleven personality disorders were actually more common in executives than in the disturbed criminals:
Histrionic personality disorder: including superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulation
Narcissistic personality disorder: including grandiosity, self-focused lack of empathy for others, exploitativeness and independence.
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: including perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness and dictatorial tendencies.
According to leadership academic Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, it seems almost inevitable that some personality disorders will be present in a senior management team.
Early stages and preliminary forms of personality disorders need a multi-dimensional and early treatment approach. Personality development disorder is considered to be a childhood risk factor or early stage of a later personality disorder in adulthood. In addition, in Robert F. Krueger’s review of their research indicates that some children and adolescents do suffer from clinically significant syndromes that resemble adult personality disorders, and that these syndromes have meaningful correlates and are consequential. Much of this research has been framed by the adult personality disorder constructs from Axis II of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Hence, they are less likely to encounter the first risk they described at the outset of their review: clinicians and researchers are not simply avoiding use of the PD construct in youth. However, they may encounter the second risk they described: under-appreciation of the developmental context in which these syndromes occur. That is, although PD constructs show continuity over time, they are probabilistic predictors; not all youths who exhibit PD symptomatology become adult PD cases.
Versus Mental Disorders
The disorders in each of the three clusters may share with each other underlying common vulnerability factors involving cognition, affect and impulse control, and behavioural maintenance or inhibition, respectively. But they may also have a spectrum relationship to certain syndromal mental disorders:
Paranoid, schizoid or schizotypal personality disorders may be observed to be premorbid antecedents of delusional disorders or schizophrenia.
Borderline personality disorder is seen in association with mood and anxiety disorders, with impulse-control disorders, eating disorders, ADHD, or a substance use disorder.
Avoidant personality disorder is seen with social anxiety disorder.
Versus Normal Personality
The issue of the relationship between normal personality and personality disorders is one of the important issues in personality and clinical psychology. The personality disorders classification (DSM-5 and ICD-10) follows a categorical approach that views personality disorders as discrete entities that are distinct from each other and from normal personality. In contrast, the dimensional approach is an alternative approach that personality disorders represent maladaptive extensions of the same traits that describe normal personality.
Thomas Widiger and his collaborators have contributed to this debate significantly. He discussed the constraints of the categorical approach and argued for the dimensional approach to the personality disorders. Specifically, he proposed the Five Factor Model of personality as an alternative to the classification of personality disorders. For example, this view specifies that Borderline Personality Disorder can be understood as a combination of emotional lability (i.e. high neuroticism), impulsivity (i.e. low conscientiousness), and hostility (i.e. low agreeableness). Many studies across cultures have explored the relationship between personality disorders and the Five Factor Model. This research has demonstrated that personality disorders largely correlate in expected ways with measures of the Five Factor Model and has set the stage for including the Five Factor Model within DSM-5.
In clinical practice, individuals are generally diagnosed by an interview with a psychiatrist based on a mental status examination, which may take into account observations by relatives and others. One tool of diagnosing personality disorders is a process involving interviews with scoring systems. The patient is asked to answer questions, and depending on their answers, the trained interviewer tries to code what their responses were. This process is fairly time-consuming.
As of 2002, there were over fifty published studies relating the five factor model (FFM) to personality disorders. Since that time, quite a number of additional studies have expanded on this research base and provided further empirical support for understanding the DSM personality disorders in terms of the FFM domains. In her seminal review of the personality disorder literature published in 2007, Lee Anna Clark asserted that “the five-factor model of personality is widely accepted as representing the higher-order structure of both normal and abnormal personality traits”.
The five factor model has been shown to significantly predict all 10 personality disorder symptoms and outperform the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) in the prediction of borderline, avoidant, and dependent personality disorder symptoms.
Research results examining the relationships between the FFM and each of the ten DSM personality disorder diagnostic categories are widely available. For example, in a study published in 2003 titled “The five-factor model and personality disorder empirical literature: A meta-analytic review”, the authors analysed data from 15 other studies to determine how personality disorders are different and similar, respectively, with regard to underlying personality traits. In terms of how personality disorders differ, the results showed that each disorder displays a FFM profile that is meaningful and predictable given its unique diagnostic criteria. With regard to their similarities, the findings revealed that the most prominent and consistent personality dimensions underlying a large number of the personality disorders are positive associations with neuroticism and negative associations with agreeableness.
Openness to Experience
At least three aspects of openness to experience are relevant to understanding personality disorders: cognitive distortions, lack of insight (means the ability to recognise one’s own mental illness here) and impulsivity. Problems related to high openness that can cause problems with social or professional functioning are excessive fantasising, peculiar thinking, diffuse identity, unstable goals and nonconformity with the demands of the society.
High openness is characteristic to schizotypal personality disorder (odd and fragmented thinking), narcissistic personality disorder (excessive self-valuation) and paranoid personality disorder (sensitivity to external hostility). Lack of insight (shows low openness) is characteristic to all personality disorders and could help explain the persistence of maladaptive behavioural patterns.
The problems associated with low openness are difficulties adapting to change, low tolerance for different worldviews or lifestyles, emotional flattening, alexithymia and a narrow range of interests. Rigidity is the most obvious aspect of (low) openness among personality disorders and that shows lack of knowledge of one’s emotional experiences. It is most characteristic of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder; the opposite of it known as impulsivity (here: an aspect of openness that shows a tendency to behave unusually or autistically) is characteristic of schizotypal and borderline personality disorders.
Currently, there are no definitive proven causes for personality disorders. However, there are numerous possible causes and known risk factors supported by scientific research that vary depending on the disorder, the individual, and the circumstance. Overall, findings show that genetic disposition and life experiences, such as trauma and abuse, play a key role in the development of personality disorders.
Child abuse and neglect consistently show up as risk factors to the development of personality disorders in adulthood. A study looked at retrospective reports of abuse of participants that had demonstrated psychopathology throughout their life and were later found to have past experience with abuse. In a study of 793 mothers and children, researchers asked mothers if they had screamed at their children, and told them that they did not love them or threatened to send them away. Children who had experienced such verbal abuse were three times as likely as other children (who did not experience such verbal abuse) to have borderline, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive or paranoid personality disorders in adulthood. The sexually abused group demonstrated the most consistently elevated patterns of psychopathology. Officially verified physical abuse showed an extremely strong correlation with the development of antisocial and impulsive behaviour. On the other hand, cases of abuse of the neglectful type that created childhood pathology were found to be subject to partial remission in adulthood.
Socioeconomic status has also been looked at as a potential cause for personality disorders. There is a strong association with low parental/neighbourhood socioeconomic status and personality disorder symptoms. In a 2015 publication from Bonn, Germany, which compared parental socioeconomic status and a child’s personality, it was seen that children who were from higher socioeconomic backgrounds were more altruistic, less risk seeking, and had overall higher IQs. These traits correlate with a low risk of developing personality disorders later on in life. In a study looking at female children who were detained for disciplinary actions found that psychological problems were most negatively associated with socioeconomic problems. Furthermore, social disorganisation was found to be inversely correlated with personality disorder symptoms.
Evidence shows personality disorders may begin with parental personality issues. These cause the child to have their own difficulties in adulthood, such as difficulties reaching higher education, obtaining jobs, and securing dependable relationships. By either genetic or modelling mechanisms, children can pick up these traits. Additionally, poor parenting appears to have symptom elevating effects on personality disorders. More specifically, lack of maternal bonding has also been correlated with personality disorders. In a study comparing 100 healthy individuals to 100 borderline personality disorder patients, analysis showed that BPD patients were significantly more likely not to have been breastfed as a baby (42.4% in BPD vs. 9.2% in healthy controls). These researchers suggested this act may be essential in fostering maternal relationships. Additionally, findings suggest personality disorders show a negative correlation with two attachment variables: maternal availability and dependability. When left unfostered, other attachment and interpersonal problems occur later in life ultimately leading to development of personality disorders.
Currently, genetic research for the understanding of the development of personality disorders is severely lacking. However, there are a few possible risk factors currently in discovery. Researchers are currently looking into genetic mechanisms for traits such as aggression, fear and anxiety, which are associated with diagnosed individuals. More research is being conducted into disorder specific mechanisms.
Research shows a malfunctioning inner brain: hippocampus up to 18% smaller, a smaller amygdala, malfunctions in the striatum-nucleus accumbens and the cingulum neural pathways connecting them and taking care of the feedback loops on what to do with all the incoming information from the multiple senses; so what comes out is anti-social – not according to what is the social norm, socially acceptable and appropriate.
There are many different forms (modalities) of treatment used for personality disorders:
Individual psychotherapy has been a mainstay of treatment. There are long-term and short-term (brief) forms.
Family therapy, including couples therapy.
Group therapy for personality dysfunction is probably the second most used.
Psychological-education may be used as an addition.
Self-help groups may provide resources for personality disorders.
Psychiatric medications for treating symptoms of personality dysfunction or co-occurring conditions.
Milieu therapy, a kind of group-based residential approach, has a history of use in treating personality disorders, including therapeutic communities.
The practice of mindfulness that includes developing the ability to be non-judgementally aware of unpleasant emotions appears to be a promising clinical tool for managing different types of personality disorders.
There are different specific theories or schools of therapy within many of these modalities. They may, for example, emphasize psychodynamic techniques, or cognitive or behavioural techniques. In clinical practice, many therapists use an ‘eclectic’ approach, taking elements of different schools as and when they seem to fit to an individual client. There is also often a focus on common themes that seem to be beneficial regardless of techniques, including attributes of the therapist (e.g. trustworthiness, competence, caring), processes afforded to the client (e.g. ability to express and confide difficulties and emotions), and the match between the two (e.g. aiming for mutual respect, trust and boundaries).
Response of Patients with Personality Disorders to Biological and Psychosocial Treatments
Evidence for Brain Dysfunction
Response to Biological Treatments
Response to Psychosocial Treatments
Evidence for relationship to schizophrenia; otherwise none known.
Schizotypal patients may improve on antipsychotic medication; otherwise not indicated.
Poor. Supportive psychotherapy may help.
Evidence for relationship to bipolar disorder; otherwise none known.
Antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may help for borderline personality; otherwise not indicated.
Poor in antisocial personality. Variable in borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic personalities.
Evidence for relationship to generalized anxiety disorder; otherwise none known.
No direct response. Medications may help with comorbid anxiety and depression.
Most common treatment for these disorders. Response variable.
The management and treatment of personality disorders can be a challenging and controversial area, for by definition the difficulties have been enduring and affect multiple areas of functioning. This often involves interpersonal issues, and there can be difficulties in seeking and obtaining help from organisations in the first place, as well as with establishing and maintaining a specific therapeutic relationship. On the one hand, an individual may not consider themselves to have a mental health problem, while on the other, community mental health services may view individuals with personality disorders as too complex or difficult, and may directly or indirectly exclude individuals with such diagnoses or associated behaviours. The disruptiveness that people with personality disorders can create in an organisation makes these, arguably, the most challenging conditions to manage.
Apart from all these issues, an individual may not consider their personality to be disordered or the cause of problems. This perspective may be caused by the patient’s ignorance or lack of insight into their own condition, an ego-syntonic perception of the problems with their personality that prevents them from experiencing it as being in conflict with their goals and self-image, or by the simple fact that there is no distinct or objective boundary between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ personalities. There is substantial social stigma and discrimination related to the diagnosis.
The term ‘personality disorder’ encompasses a wide range of issues, each with a different level of severity or disability; thus, personality disorders can require fundamentally different approaches and understandings. To illustrate the scope of the matter, consider that while some disorders or individuals are characterised by continual social withdrawal and the shunning of relationships, others may cause fluctuations in forwardness. The extremes are worse still: at one extreme lie self-harm and self-neglect, while at another extreme some individuals may commit violence and crime. There can be other factors such as problematic substance use or dependency or behavioural addictions. A person may meet the criteria for dissociative identity disorder (formerly “multiple personality disorder”) diagnoses and/or other mental disorders, either at particular times or continually, thus making coordinated input from multiple services a potential requirement.
Therapists in this area can become disheartened by lack of initial progress, or by apparent progress that then leads to setbacks. Clients may be perceived as negative, rejecting, demanding, aggressive or manipulative. This has been looked at in terms of both therapist and client; in terms of social skills, coping efforts, defence mechanisms, or deliberate strategies; and in terms of moral judgments or the need to consider underlying motivations for specific behaviours or conflicts. The vulnerabilities of a client, and indeed a therapist, may become lost behind actual or apparent strength and resilience. It is commonly stated that there is always a need to maintain appropriate professional personal boundaries, while allowing for emotional expression and therapeutic relationships. However, there can be difficulty acknowledging the different worlds and views that both the client and therapist may live with. A therapist may assume that the kinds of relationships and ways of interacting that make them feel safe and comfortable have the same effect on clients. As an example of one extreme, people who may have been exposed to hostility, deceptiveness, rejection, aggression or abuse in their lives, may in some cases be made confused, intimidated or suspicious by presentations of warmth, intimacy or positivity. On the other hand, reassurance, openness and clear communication are usually helpful and needed. It can take several months of sessions, and perhaps several stops and starts, to begin to develop a trusting relationship that can meaningfully address a client’s issues.
It is characterized by a person’s efforts, conscious or unconscious, to avoid dealing with a stressor in order to protect oneself from the difficulties the stressor presents. Avoidance coping can lead to substance abuse, social withdrawal, and other forms of escapism. High levels of avoidance behaviours may lead to a diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder, though not everyone who displays such behaviours meets the definition of having this disorder. Avoidance coping is also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, avoidance coping is part of the approach-avoidance conflict theory introduced by psychologist Kurt Lewin.
Literature on coping often classifies coping strategies into two broad categories: approach/active coping and avoidance/passive coping. Approach coping includes behaviours that attempt to reduce stress by alleviating the problem directly, and avoidance coping includes behaviours that reduce stress by distancing oneself from the problem. Traditionally, approach coping has been seen as the healthiest and most beneficial way to reduce stress, while avoidance coping has been associated with negative personality traits, potentially harmful activities, and generally poorer outcomes. However, avoidance coping can reduce stress when nothing can be done to address the stressor.
Avoidance coping is measured via a self-reported questionnaire. Initially, the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (MEAQ) was used, which is a 62-item questionnaire that assesses experiential avoidance, and thus avoidance coping, by measuring how many avoidant behaviours a person exhibits and how strongly they agree with each statement on a scale of 1-6. Today, the Brief Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (BEAQ) is used instead, containing 15 of the original 62 items from the MEAQ.
Both active-cognitive and active-behavioural coping are used as replacement techniques for avoidance coping. Active-cognitive coping includes changing one’s attitude towards a stressful event and looking for any positive impacts. Active-behavioural coping refers taking positive actions after finding out more about the situation.
The relationship between schizoid personality disorder (SPD) and avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) has been a subject of controversy for decades.
Today it is still unclear and remains to be seen if these two personality disorders are linked to genetically distinct, but overlapping, personality disorders or if these two personality disorders are merely two different phenotypic expressions of the same genetic disorder.
Both have been associated with a shared genetic risk factor and the same polymorphism within the ANKK1 gene. There is also some evidence that AvPD (like SPD) is a personality disorder of the schizophrenia spectrum.
Originally, schizoid personality disorder involved social avoidance combined with marked ambivalence regarding the desirability of social contact. It included indifference or even cold disdain oscillating with longing for normal relationships. Through the efforts of Theodore Millon, this complex idea was later divided across two disorders with the emergence of a separate AvPD construct and the idea of ambivalence was lost.
According to the differential diagnosis guidelines provided in the text of the DSM-IV the two conditions are distinguished by the extent to which the individual desires social contact versus being indifferent to it. But such distinctions are often difficult to apply in practice, as patients often have unclear, marginal, or shifting status on those elements thought most crucial for differential diagnosis. In the case of the avoidant and schizoid personality disorders, however, both the problem and its solution may be more academic than real.
First, research indicates that all of the avoidant symptoms except social withdrawal correlate negatively with the schizoid symptom list and that differential diagnosis is not difficult.
Second, schizoid personality disorder is exceedingly rare and the diagnostic quandary may never occur in practice.
However, new research shows that both personality disorders are linked to hypersensitivity.
Avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is a Cluster C personality disorder in which the main coping mechanism of those affected is avoidance of feared stimuli.
Those affected display a pattern of severe social anxiety, social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation and rejection, and avoidance of social interaction despite a strong desire for intimacy.
People with AvPD often consider themselves to be socially inept or personally unappealing and avoid social interaction for fear of being ridiculed, humiliated, rejected, or disliked. They often avoid becoming involved with others unless they are certain they will be liked.
Childhood emotional neglect (in particular, the rejection of a child by one or both parents) and peer group rejection are associated with an increased risk for its development; however, it is possible for AvPD to occur without any notable history of abuse or neglect.
The avoidant personality has been described in several sources as far back as the early 1900s, although it was not so named for some time. Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler described patients who exhibited signs of avoidant personality disorder in his 1911 work Dementia Praecox: Or the Group of Schizophrenias. Avoidant and schizoid patterns were frequently confused or referred to synonymously until Kretschmer (1921), in providing the first relatively complete description, developed a distinction.
Signs and Symptoms
Avoidant individuals are preoccupied with their own shortcomings and form relationships with others only if they believe they will not be rejected. They often view themselves with contempt, while showing a decreased ability to identify traits within themselves that are generally considered as positive within their societies. Loss and social rejection are so painful that these individuals will choose to be alone rather than risk trying to connect with others.
Some with this disorder fantasize about idealized, accepting and affectionate relationships because of their desire to belong. They often feel themselves unworthy of the relationships they desire, and shame themselves from ever attempting to begin them. If they do manage to form relationships, it is also common for them to pre-emptively abandon them out of fear of the relationship failing.
Individuals with the disorder tend to describe themselves as uneasy, anxious, lonely, unwanted and isolated from others. They often choose jobs of isolation in which they do not have to interact with others regularly. Avoidant individuals also avoid performing activities in public spaces for fear of embarrassing themselves in front of others.
Extreme shyness or anxiety in social situations, though the person feels a strong desire for close relationships;
Heightened attachment-related anxiety, which may include a fear of abandonment; and
Substance abuse and/or dependence.
AvPD is reported to be especially prevalent in people with anxiety disorders, although estimates of comorbidity vary widely due to differences in (among others) diagnostic instruments. Research suggests that approximately 10-50% of people who have panic disorder with agoraphobia have avoidant personality disorder, as well as about 20-40% of people who have social anxiety disorder. In addition to this, AvPD is more prevalent in people who have comorbid social anxiety disorder and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) than in those who have only one of the aforementioned conditions.
Some studies report prevalence rates of up to 45% among people with GAD and up to 56% of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Posttraumatic stress disorder is also commonly comorbid with AvPD.
Avoidants are prone to self-loathing and, in certain cases, self-harm. In particular, avoidants who have comorbid PTSD have the highest rates of engagement in self-harming behaviour, outweighing even those with borderline personality disorder (with or without PTSD). Substance use disorders are also common in individuals with AvPD – particularly in regard to alcohol, benzodiazepines and heroin – and may significantly affect a patient’s prognosis.
Earlier theorists proposed a personality disorder with a combination of features from borderline personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder, called “avoidant-borderline mixed personality” (AvPD/BPD).
Causes of AvPD are not clearly defined, but appear to be influenced by a combination of social, genetic and psychological factors. The disorder may be related to temperamental factors that are inherited.
Specifically, various anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence have been associated with a temperament characterised by behavioural inhibition, including features of being shy, fearful and withdrawn in new situations. These inherited characteristics may give an individual a genetic predisposition towards AvPD.
Childhood emotional neglect and peer group rejection are both associated with an increased risk for the development of AvPD. Some researchers believe a combination of high-sensory-processing sensitivity coupled with adverse childhood experiences may heighten the risk of an individual developing AvPD.
Psychologist Theodore Millon notes that because most patients present a mixed picture of symptoms, their personality disorder tends to be a blend of a major personality disorder type with one or
more secondary personality disorder types. He identified four adult subtypes of AvPD as outlined below.
Phobic Avoidant (including dependent features)
General apprehensiveness displaced with avoidable tangible precipitant; qualms and disquietude symbolised by a repugnant and specific dreadful object or circumstances.
Blocks or fragments self-awareness; discards painful images and memories; casts away untenable thoughts and impulses; ultimately jettisons self (suicidal).
In 1993, Lynn E. Alden and Martha J. Capreol proposed two other subtypes of avoidant personality disorder, as outlined below.
Characterised by an inability to experience and express positive emotion towards others.
Characterised by an inability to express anger towards others or to resist coercion from others. May be at risk for abuse by others.
The World Health Organisation’s ICD-10 lists avoidant personality disorder as anxious (avoidant) personality disorder (F60.6).
It is characterised by the presence of at least four of the following:
Persistent and pervasive feelings of tension and apprehension.
Belief that one is socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.
Excessive preoccupation with being criticised or rejected in social situations.
Unwillingness to become involved with people unless certain of being liked.
Restrictions in lifestyle because of need to have physical security.
Avoidance of social or occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fear of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.
Associated features may include hypersensitivity to rejection and criticism.
It is a requirement of ICD-10 that all personality disorder diagnoses also satisfy a set of general personality disorder criteria.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the APA also has an avoidant personality disorder diagnosis (301.82). It refers to a widespread pattern of inhibition around people, feeling inadequate and being very sensitive to negative evaluation. Symptoms begin by early adulthood and occur in a range of situations.
Four of the following seven specific symptoms should be present:
Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.
Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked.
Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed.
Is preoccupied with being criticised or rejected in social situations.
Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy.
Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.
Is unusually reluctant to take personal risk or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing.
In contrast to social anxiety disorder, a diagnosis of AvPD also requires that the general criteria for a personality disorder are met.
According to the DSM-5, avoidant personality disorder must be differentiated from similar personality disorders such as dependent, paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal. But these can also occur together; this is particularly likely for AvPD and dependent personality disorder. Thus, if criteria for more than one personality disorder are met, all can be diagnosed.
There is also an overlap between avoidant and schizoid personality traits and AvPD may have a relationship to the schizophrenia spectrum.
Data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions indicates a prevalence of 2.36% in the US general population. It appears to occur with equal frequency in males and females. In one study, it was seen in 14.7% of psychiatric outpatients.
There is controversy as to whether avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is distinct from generalised social anxiety disorder. Both have similar diagnostic criteria and may share a similar causation, subjective experience, course, treatment and identical underlying personality features, such as shyness.
It is contended by some that they are merely different conceptualisations of the same disorder, where avoidant personality disorder may represent the more severe form. In particular, those with AvPD experience not only more severe social phobia symptoms, but are also more depressed and more functionally impaired than patients with generalised social phobia alone. But they show no differences in social skills or performance on an impromptu speech. Another difference is that social phobia is the fear of social circumstances whereas AvPD is better described as an aversion to intimacy in relationships.
Treatment of avoidant personality disorder can employ various techniques, such as social skills training, psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, and exposure treatment to gradually increase social contacts, group therapy for practicing social skills, and sometimes drug therapy.
A key issue in treatment is gaining and keeping the patient’s trust since people with an avoidant personality disorder will often start to avoid treatment sessions if they distrust the therapist or fear rejection. The primary purpose of both individual therapy and social skills group training is for individuals with an avoidant personality disorder to begin challenging their exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves.
Significant improvement in the symptoms of personality disorders is possible, with the help of treatment and individual effort.
Being a personality disorder, which is usually chronic and has long-lasting mental conditions, an avoidant personality disorder is not expected to improve with time without treatment. Given that it is a poorly studied personality disorder and in light of prevalence rates, societal costs, and the current state of research, AvPD qualifies as a neglected disorder.