Personality Disorders: How to Tell Them Apart

Humans are complicated beings whose attitudes and behaviors are shaped by numerous factors. These factors might be biological, psychological, social, or spiritual. Some are primarily neurobiological, others environmental. Sometimes these components combine to form one or more of the personality disorders in a trifecta of sociopathy, narcissism and borderline personality disorder.

The Triple Threat

The combination of sociopathy, narcissism and borderline personality disorder can be looked at more closely in these ways: Psychology Today describes antisocial personality disorder as having characteristics such as disregard for the rights and feelings of others. The magazine differentiates the condition from sociopathy, which is an impairment of conscience, and psychopathy, which is total lack of conscience. To someone with any of these diagnoses, other people are utilitarian: When they’re no longer of benefit, they’re discarded, emotionally or physically. People with these conditions can charm and scam others into trusting them before disappearing with money, property, or hearts. The magazine defines narcissistic personality disorder as having grandiosity, a lack of empathy, and what one therapist calls “center-of-the Universe-itis” — enjoying being the focus of attention at nearly all costs. Vanity and arrogance are also hallmarks. The third component of this triple threat is borderline personality disorder, the highlights of which are instability in relationships, dramatic and rapid mood swings, fear of perceived abandonment, and exhibiting high-risk behaviors, including drug abuse and self-injury, according to Psych Central. People with these attributes often create chaos and drama, as well as demonstrating all-or-nothing thinking: People in their lives are either savior or enemy.

Personality Disorders on Screen

Movies have been a cultural platform for characters with these qualities. “Single White Female,” starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, depicts a woman with a devastating secret that distorts her perception of life and relationships, contributing to violent actions. Hedy, played by Leigh, could be diagnosed with borderline and antisocial personality disorders. She seems able to care for others’ well-being on a limited basis – as long as she feels their well-being serves her needs. Hedy has no sense of self; she adopts the appearance, behaviors and mannerisms of Fonda’s character, Allie, to bond with her and to take on an identity because hers is so fractured by trauma. “Fatal Attraction,” starring Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, is a classic example of borderline personality disorder: Close plays a seductive, eventually jilted, woman who lures in her prey, then displays aggression against herself and Douglas’ character. Close’s Alex charms Douglas’ Dan and his family and gains their trust, then rapidly turns against them when she feels abandoned by her one-night-stand lover. Coincidentally, Michael Douglas plays a character with both antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders in the hit “Wall Street,” in which the ruthless businessman Gordon Gekko utters the classic line, “Greed is good.” He has no regard for the existence of others except as they serve his ends. Power is his watchword, and he enjoys the trappings a lifestyle that carries with it an air of respect. As with the aforementioned characters, when he feels his power threatened, he attacks. A behavior common to each of these personality disorders is “gaslighting.” The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer as a husband so determined to protect a secret that he drives his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, into insanity. Psychoanalyst Robin Stern’s book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life explains that the person on the receiving end of this behavior is meant to doubt his or her perception of reality if it differs from that of the person in power. To maintain control, people with personality disorders need to make the other people in their lives wrong. Manipulative people try to gain the upper hand by denying making certain statements, accusing others of disloyalty, and encouraging second-guessing.

Surviving the Personality Disorders of Others

So how do you live with someone who exhibits these qualities? Try these tips:

  • As much as possible, trust your instincts. If your gut tells you something’s wrong, it likely is. Stay grounded in reality, checking in with people whose perceptions you can believe.
  • Communicate calmly. Your anxiety might encourage the other person. For example, he or she might say, “See? You’re the one losing it” and suggest you’re therefore in the wrong. Those with antisocial personality disorder often have a calm demeanor.
  • Model consistency if possible, holding the person accountable for his or her choices.
  • Seek therapy and encourage it for your loved one. Al-Anon might help if addictions factor into the problem.
  • Keep in mind that dialectical behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as mindfulness practices, can be helpful with these conditions.
  • Be aware that to maintain power, the person might try to cause rifts between you and others.
  • Get yourself and anyone else in danger to safety if behavior escalates to threats or violence.
  • Honor yourself and leave the relationship if your best efforts fail. Even in cases of mental illness, you owe no one your safety or soul.
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