Insights into Psychology

What Is… a Personality Trait vs. Disorder

head with cogs inside

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 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 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, but instead 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 introversion, 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.

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L. Peterson

Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis aims to cut through the misunderstanding and stigma, drawing on the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria and guest narratives to present mental illness as it really is.  It’s available on Amazon.

For other books by Ashley L. Peterson, visit the Mental Health @ Home Books page.

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

  1. This is really interesting. Personality disorders are among my favorite psychological topics. I was disappointed to read that there’s a correlation between low levels of conscientiousness and mental illness; because I’m mentally ill yet very conscientious. Maybe that correlation is between low conscientiousness and personality disorders…? I sure hope so! I sense a lot of immaturity among people with personality disorders. If I knew someone who had one and was working hard to be a good person, I’d have no judgment. But I’ve encountered too many narcissists to have much sympathy for them, ya know? I see what you’re saying about how we all have traits from among the personality disorders. Regardless of my disdain of narcissists, I sort of think antisocial personality disorder should be in its own grouping, because it’s far worse than narcissism, hystrionics, or being borderline (the latter of which I see as being more problematic than unkind, if that makes sense–I don’t have any associations with borderline people as being immature). Wow, I could write a book!! Great blog post, great topic!

    1. Yeah, it’s a fascinating topic. I think the personality disorders that are most problematic are those where the people experiencing them don’t believe they have a problem, like in antisocial and narcissistic PD. It seems like the chances of improvement are slim to nil since they’re not prepared to admit any need for therapy.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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