A personality disorder is a recurrent and pervasive pattern of maladaptive or inappropriate behaviour that causes significant distress or causes impairment in social, interpersonal, or professional functioning. People with personality disorders repeatedly think, feel, and react in ways that cause problems, and often elicit consistent reactions from the different people in their lives. Think of someone whose friends and colleagues all take advantage of him, someone whose romantic partners always leave her because she is so dependent, or someone who keeps getting fired because he refuses to work on projects that he considers to be beneath him. These are examples of enduring and problematic behaviour patterns.
How can you tell if someone has a personality disorder? A clinical supervisor once told me that when a client inspires an unusual or strong reaction during therapy, that's a big clue. After all, what happens in the psychotherapy office reflects what happens in the client's larger world; if I have a certain intense reaction during my limited contact with a client, changes are good that other people in his or her life do too. Example:
I have a new client who has a physical injury subsequent to a car accident. The injury is minor--something that doesn't usually disturb functioning for more than a month or two--but it has taken over the client's life. He remains significantly more disabled than what is expected at this stage, and family life revolves around his disability: The client's wife and children have put their regular weekend activities on hold to accompany the client to an outpatient rehabilitation centre an hour from home every weekend; the client's wife drastically cut her hours at work in order to care for him; and the client's children and extended family wait on him hand and foot. The client reports some tension as a result of his disability, but for the most part, his family members are extremely accommodating.
In a recent session with this client, I felt myself becoming intensely frustrated as he described his resistance to his doctor's proposal of a progressive return to work. However, despite my frustration, when the client wistfully expressed the wish for our sessions to be longer than the standard fifty minutes, I extended the session an extra fifteen minutes, keeping my next client waiting. When I looked at my schedule to book our appointment for next week and the client's preferred afternoon slot was unavailable, I accepted his proposal that I stay late at work and see him at suppertime.
After the client left, I felt unsettled: I don't usually spend more than an hour with any client, nor am I in the habit of extending my workday! I took a few minutes to explore what happened: Unusual client behaviour (asking for longer appointments; asking for an evening appointment)--check! Intense emotions (frustration) and unusual reactions (prolonging the session; rearranging my schedule) on my part--check! Probably replicating the client's family's behaviour of alternating between frustration and excessive accommodation--check!
It was fascinating to observe myself and the client replicating in therapy what I suspect is his dynamic wherever he goes. The client may or may not have a personality disorder, but my reaction to him tells me that it's something to explore. Clinically, it's not that important to establish whether or not the client has a personality disorder or which one he might have. What's essential is that we identify his maladaptive behaviour patterns so that I can help him by a) addressing the pattern in therapy, and b) making sure not to continue replicating/reinforcing the behaviour.