What Is… a Personality Trait vs. Disorder

Insights into psychology: personality trait vs personality disorder

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week, we’ll look at the difference between a personality trait and a disorder.

Personality traits

Wikipedia defines personality traits as “habitual patterns of behaviour, thought, and emotion” that are mostly stable across time and context. Some traits fall on a continuum, such as introversion/extraversion. It’s unclear the extent to which biology and developmental factors each play a role in shaping who we become.

The “big five” personality trait model breaks down the human personality into five broad dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. High levels of neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness are associated with an increased risk for common mental illnesses.

The Myers-Briggs Type is a way of looking at how personality traits combine, although the typology hasn’t been scientifically validated. It includes introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and perceiving/judging.

Some other major personality traits include self-esteem, honesty-humility, harm avoidance, novelty-seeking, perfectionism, rigidity, impulsivity, disinhibition, and obsessionality. Many of these characteristics may be influenced by episodes of mental illness, even if they’re not present when the individual is well. I suspect there are also some traits that may normally be present at a low level but become more predominant under stressful conditions.

Personality disorders

Personality disorders do not correspond to specific individual traits; instead, they are a broader construct. Wikipedia says that personality disorders are:

“… characterized by enduring maladaptive patterns of behavior, cognition, and inner experience, exhibited across many contexts and deviating from those accepted by the individual’s culture. These patterns develop early, are inflexible, and are associated with significant distress or disability.”

The DSM-5 groups personality disorders into three clusters:

It’s possible to have traits of multiple different personality disorders.

Personality disorders are diagnosed based on the presence of a number of characteristics encompassing both inner experience (thoughts and emotions) and behaviour. A certain number of criteria must be met in order to receive a diagnosis. People who have some elements of a disorder and experience some distress as a result, but do not meet the full diagnostic criteria, might be diagnosed as having [e.g. borderline] personality traits.

Traits vs. disorder

Many people display some of the characteristics associated with some personality disorders at least some of the time. What sets personality disorders apart are the inflexibility of responses, the enduring and pervasive maladaptive responses. They also have a significant impact on social, work, and other important areas of functioning. Therapy for personality disorders doesn’t try to change the individual’s personality; instead, it focuses on learning to respond more skillfully to avoid disruptive and maladaptive patterns.

While the DSM breaks down personality disorders into particular categories, some researchers have proposed a dimensional approach, such as describing personality disorders based on the big five dimensions of personality. The Wikipedia personality disorder page has quite an interesting chart that lays this out.

I think most of my own personality traits have stayed reasonably consistent over time, although perhaps there has been variability in the extent to which I’ve embraced those traits behaviourally (I’m thinking of being introverted, in particular). When my depression is bad, a lot of ugly things can jump out and make an appearance that would normally stay tucked away in a mental closet. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the real me that I normally keep a tight leash on. I don’t really think it is, but then again, the ugly bits are always there when I need (?) them.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

6 thoughts on “What Is… a Personality Trait vs. Disorder”

  1. Great post. When I was studying for the licensure exam, I found the personality disorders particularly annoying because they are all very similar. Sometimes people have a touch of more than one of the disorders but the DSM tries to make you fit the person into a certain box.

  2. I have something from each one of the personality disorder clusters. Well that doesn’t surprise me a lot, but is rather sobering. My personality traits have remained relatively stable (I think) over my life, although some of the mental illness facets have probably impacted them.

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