Personality Disorders and How to Help Sufferers

What do you know about personality disorders? How do they appear? What are the most important steps to take when one is detected? In this article, we'll answer these and other questions.
Personality Disorders and How to Help Sufferers
Brigida Higueras Madsen

Written and verified by the psychologist Brigida Higueras Madsen.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Each of us is a unique mix of heredity and life experience. It’s this that gives rise to what we know as our personality pattern. Having personality traits that define us is something common to all humans.

“The term personality comes etymologically from the Latin word, persona. It referred to the masks that actors used in theatrical performances.”

-J. Bermúdez-

Personality disorder

Sometimes, you meet people whose way of behaving or dealing with the environment isn’t adaptive. In fact, it’s limiting and, in many cases, harmful. They’re the kinds of people whose way of relating to others and facing everyday challenges complicates their daily life.

If these patterns of behavior aren’t appropriate or explainable, they may be suffering from a personality disorder. This is even more likely if the behavior appears early (in adolescence or early adulthood) and is maintained over time.

However, we must point out that the responsibility for the diagnosis falls, and should only fall, on a professional, and never on relatives and close friends of the person in question. Personality disorders have a really complex pathology and they should never be talked about lightly.

“More than one in ten adults has a personality disorder.”


woman with anxiety
Personality disorders are behavior patterns that are stable over time.

Characteristics of personality disorders

There are several types of personality disorders. However, as a rule, the following characteristics are common to all of them:

  • The way sufferers perceive themselves, other people, and events differ from the way in which others do.
  • Their emotional responses and the way they relate to other people are different from what’s socially expected.
  • They can present excessive control or a lack of control of their impulses.

It’s important to emphasize that personality disorders involve patterns of behavior that are stable over time. They’re not bad streaks, personal crises, or illnesses, nor are they due to drug use. The difficulties that they present appear in a wide variety of personal and social situations and they’re not limited to the sufferer only experiencing specific difficulties with certain people.

As a consequence of the above, those who suffer from a personality disorder suffer significant discomfort or deterioration in social, work, or other important areas of their lives. Furthermore, they usually present other symptoms such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, problems in the sexual sphere, and relationship conflicts, among others.

Living with a personality disorder

Living with a personality disorder can be extremely complex. It can be even more so if psychiatric and psychological care isn’t received. Family members and those close to the patient often feel really overwhelmed by events at home as they lack the tools and skills for acting in the different situations that arise. Indeed, many of them are highly complex, such as emotional blackmail or suicide threats.

In addition, it’s common for the family environment to have its own emotional conflicts and difficulties when it comes to relating. These have also probably worsened as a result of intra-family tension.

Sufferers of a personality disorder usually take time to ask for help and, if the family dynamics aren’t good, this is really unfavorable for them. In fact, it can lead to serious confrontations with ongoing tensions and conflicts.

There may also be a certain fear of contradicting them since it’s thought that they’ll react with anger and even outbursts of rage. That said, criticism from the family is common, as they tend to think it might incite the sufferer to change and reflect. Nevertheless, this only reinforces their pathological behaviors.

How can you help?

Personality disorders are manageable in professional practice and the results of validated interventions are more than promising. To access them, the first step will be to seek professional help for both the patient and the family.

The family situation isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite complex and it’ll take time to see the results of any therapy. For this reason, it’s really helpful if a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist helps the sufferer understand the disorder and their behavior.

You must understand that a person suffering from a personality disorder doesn’t know how to act in any other way. Their way of being is the result of adaptation to dynamics and vital circumstances that they usually went through during their childhood.

Factors to bear in mind

  • The reactions of family members have a great influence on people with personality disorders. This influence can go in a negative or positive direction and doesn’t always depend on the will of those who exercise it. In addition to motivation, knowledge is necessary.
  • Accept the situation and understand the diagnosis. To accept, you have to understand. That’s why it’s crucial to have professional help. Understanding exactly how these disorders work is the basis for relating to them. Empathizing doesn’t mean giving your approval and showing agreement with everything they do, but it’ll help you stay calm and better manage conflict.
  • Work on communication within the family. Communicate clearly and assertively, without hints, irony, or double meanings.
  • When they agree to listen, explain, calmly and respectfully, the consequences that their behavior has for others.
  • The disorder doesn’t excuse all of their behaviors, but it can explain a good part of them. After all, if people with optimal mental health can sometimes inadvertently cause great harm, the probability that a person who isn’t in good mental health will do so is much greater. For your part, you have to make a greater effort not to take some of their criticisms, or even attacks, personally.
Man doing therapy
Psychological therapy can be of great help for people suffering from personality disorders.

What happens if they refuse treatment?

It could happen. In many disorders, the sufferer has no awareness of their condition or it may not be that advanced. In these cases, their environment plays a crucial role. Indeed, for the intervention to take place, if you’re close to the sufferer, you’ll have to act as a real facilitator. It’s always best that you do so following the guidelines of the professional or professionals in charge of the case.

In these instances, although deception may seem like the easy way out, in the long run, it’ll be far better to try a more honest type of persuasion. Just imagine, if they lose trust in you, it’ll become far more complicated for you to help them.

Getting them to assimilate everything that therapy can bring them is, without a doubt, the best starting point. If they’re extremely resistant, be patient and take their refusal to go to consultation or commit to the intervention plan as something temporary. However, bear in mind that, in really serious cases, the option of waiting isn’t viable.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Asociación Estadounidense de Psiquiatría (2014). Manual diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales (DSM-5) (Quinta edición). Madrid: Editorial Médica Panamericana.
  • Cardenal, V., Sánchez, M., & Ortiz-Tallo, M. (2007). Los trastornos de personalidad según el modelo de Millon: una propuesta integradora. Clínica y salud18(3), 305-324.
  • Giner Zaragoza, Francesc, Lera Calatayud, Guillem, Vidal Sánchez, María Luisa, Puchades Muñoz, Mari Paz, Rodenes Pérez, Ainhoa, Císcar Pons, Sonia, Chiclana Actis, Carlos, Martín Vivar, María, Garulo Ibáñez, Teresa, Tapia Alcañiz, José, Díaz Esteban, Elena, & Ferrer Ferrer, Lucía. (2015). Diagnóstico y prevalencia de trastornos de la personalidad en atención ambulatoria: estudio descriptivo. Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría35(128), 789-799.
  • Quiroga Romero, E., & Errasti Pérez, J. M. (2001). Tratamientos psicológicos eficaces para los trastornos de personalidad. Psicothema, 13 (3).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.