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What Causes Personality Disorders?

written by: Carma Haley Shoemaker • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/18/2011

Personality is created from variables such as genetics, environment, culture, and experiences. If any of these variables are altered or distorted, personality disorders may result.

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    Most commonly recognized by the age of adolescence or earlier, personality disorders can cause those affected to struggle in relationships, as well as basic life skills. What causes personality disorders is not completely understood and is not as simple as a virus or bacteria. While both genetic and environmental influences are known to contribute to personality disorders, experts, such as those at the Mayo Clinic Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), believe that the cause lies in a combination of factors. For example, while a person may be born with a genetic predisposition or vulnerability for a personality disorder, it is the addition of various life situations and stressors that brings the condition to its full development.

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    Personality Disorders Defined

    There are numerous “formally" identified personality disorders. Each fall into one of three categories, carrying with them their own set of behaviors, symptoms, and in most situations, the basis as to what causes personal disorders of this type.

    These categories (also referred to as clusters) are:

    Cluster A: Odd or eccentric behavior

    Cluster B: Dramatic, emotional, or erratic behavior

    Cluster C: Anxious fearful behavior

    Two examples of common personality disorders are:

    Borderline personality disorder

    Seen most commonly in females, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) makes it difficult for those affected to create and maintain relationships, results in sudden and often extreme mood swings, and a “fluctuating" self-image that can manifest in self-abusive behaviors.

    Obsessive compulsive personality disorder

    Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is a disorder marked by extreme control, perfectionism, rigid structure or routine, and an over concern with work or tasks, even at the expense of relationships and employment. Those who suffer from OCPD find it difficult to relax or have “down time," as they are preoccupied with even the smallest of details, rules, and productivity. Often perceived as stubborn, close-minded, self-righteous, stingy, and uncooperative to others, those affected by OCPD will place extreme rigid expectations on themselves, to the point of being intolerant of their own shortcomings.

    It is important to note that OCPD differs from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which is an anxiety disorder characterized by repetitive behaviors (compulsions), recurring, unwanted thoughts, or feelings (obsessions), and levels of anxiety associated with specific behaviors or situations, that often interferes with daily activities.

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    Genetic Causes

    Research supported by The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science (DNBBS), indicates people can be genetically predisposed to personality disorders. Just as other characteristics, such as eye color, hair color, and various talents are passed from parent to child, so are certain personality traits. These inherited tendencies are part of your DNA, or your genes, and cannot be altered or changed. NIMH supported studies of twins where both parties were affected by Borderline Personality Disorders suggests there is indeed a genetic predisposition.

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    Environmental Causes

    Mayo Clinic Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research has published research indicating that environmental causes play a large part into what causes personality disorders. Events or situations can exacerbate a preexisting genetic disposition, or can result in a disorder from learned behavior, abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events. Also, various components such as family members, surroundings, family relationships, and the type of parenting given can contribute as well. The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER) has reported personality disorders such as BPD and OCPD can develop as a result of childhood abuse, neglect, death of a parent or sibling, or a traumatic event (such as Hurricane Katrina or the recent Tsunami in Japan). For example, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that “faulty parenting" is a major factor in the development of OCPD. As early life experiences depend a great deal on “parental warmth and appropriate responsiveness to a child’s needs," the presence of negative or absent feelings, or parents who are too controlling or over-punishing, can contribute to the development of OCPD.

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    Other possible Causes

    As previously stated, what causes personality disorders is not known or completely understood. However, organizations such Mayo Clinic Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER) and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have been continuing research in an attempt to better understand these disorders and their causes. Through their research, it has been determined that there are many factors that play a large part into the development or the risk of developing a personality disorder. One such factor in the development of OCPD has been shown to be cultural. A cultural background or upbringing that is highly authoritarian, and bound to strict rules for various child-rearing practices, can increase the risk for the development of OCPD.

    The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines personality as a complex set of distinct traits or characteristics that defines a person, resulting in the totality of a individual’s behavior and emotional state. Many things can contribute to the development of an individual’s personality – both positive and negative. It’s not clear or well known which of these influences affect what causes personality disorders to develop or worsen. However, knowing what the possibilities are is a first step.

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    References:

    American Psychiatric Association. (2009). Mental Disorders In Adults: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. DSM-IV-TR. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

    Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). (January 2011) Accessed March 18, 2011 at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/personality-disorders/DS00562.

    Mental Healthy America. (November 2010). Accessed March 18, 2011 at http://www.nmha.org/go/information/get-info/personality-disorders.

    The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science (DNBBS). (September 2010). Accessed March 19, 2011 at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/organization/dnbbs/index.shtml.