Narcissism FAQ: Other Personality Disorders

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Question:

Many of the symptoms and signs that you describe apply to other personality disorders as well (example: the histrionic personality disorder or the borderline personality disorder). Are we to think that all personality disorders are interrelated?

Answer:

Yes, they are interrelated, in my view, at least phenomenologically. We have no Grand Unifying Theory of Psychopathology. We do not know whether there are – and what are – the mechanisms underlying mental disorders. At best, mental health professionals register symptoms (as reported by the patient) and signs (as observed). Then, they group them into syndromes and, more specifically, into disorders. This is descriptive, not explanatory science. Sure, there are a few theories around (psychoanalysis, to mention the most famous) but they all failed miserably at providing a coherent, consistent theoretical framework with predictive powers.

Patients suffering from personality disorders have many things in common:

  1. Most of them are insistent (except those suffering from the Schizoid or the avoidant personality disorders). They demand treatment on a preferential and privileged basis. They complain about numerous symptoms. They never obey the physician or his treatment recommendations and instructions.
  2. They regard themselves as unique, display a streak of grandiosity and a diminished capacity for empathy (the ability to appreciate and respect the needs and wishes of other people). They regard the physician as inferior to them, alienate him using umpteen techniques and bore him with their never-ending self-preoccupation.
  3. They are manipulative and exploitative because they trust no one and usually cannot love or share. They are socially maladaptive and emotionally unstable.
  4. Most personality disorders start out as problems in personal development which peak during adolescence and then become personality disorders. They stay on as enduring qualities of the individual. Personality disorders are stable and all-pervasive – not episodic. They affect most of the areas of functioning of the patient: his career, his interpersonal relationships, his social functioning.
  5. The patient is not happy, to use an understatement. He is depressed, suffers from auxiliary mood and anxiety disorders. He does not like himself, his character, his (deficient) functioning, or his (crippling) influence on others. But his defences are so strong, that he is aware only of the distress – and not of the reasons to it.
  6. The patient with a personality disorder is vulnerable to and prone to suffer from a host of other psychiatric disturbances. It is as though his psychological immunological system has been disabled by the personality disorder and he falls prey to other variants of mental sickness. So much energy is consumed by the disorder and by its corollaries (example: by obsessions-compulsions), that the patient is rendered defenceless.
  7. Patients with personality disorders are alloplastic in their defences. In other words: they tend to blame the external world for their mishaps. In stressful situations, they try to pre-empt a (real or imaginary) threat, change the rules of the game, introduce new variables, or otherwise influence the external world to conform to their needs. This is as opposed to autoplastic defences exhibited, for instance, by neurotics (who change their internal psychological processes in stressful situations).
  8. The character problems, behavioural deficits and emotional deficiencies and instability encountered by the patient with personality disorder are, mostly, ego-syntonic. This means that the patient does not, on the whole, find his personality traits or behaviour objectionable, unacceptable, disagreeable, or alien to his self. As opposed to that, neurotics are ego-dystonic: they do not like who they are and how they behave on a constant basis.
  9. The personality-disordered are not psychotic. They have no hallucinations, delusions or thought disorders (except those who suffer from a borderline personality disorder and who experience brief psychotic “microepisodes”, mostly during treatment). They are also fully oriented, with clear senses (sensorium), good memory and general fund of knowledge.

The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM) – IV (1994) defines “personality” as: “…enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself… exhibited in a wide range of important social and personal contexts.”

It defines personality disorders as:

  1. 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:
    1. Cognition (i.e., ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other people, and events);
    2. Affectivity (i.e., the range, intensity, lability, and appropriateness of emotional response);
    3. Interpersonal functioning;
    4. Impulse control.
  2. The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.
  3. The enduring pattern leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  4. The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back at least to adolescence or early adulthood.
  5. The enduring pattern is not better accounted for as a manifestation or consequence of another mental disorder.
  6. The enduring pattern is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., head trauma).

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.

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