Saturday, February 18, 2017

Portrait of a Personality Disorder, Part 2: What Are Cluster B Personalities?

So, we have ten standard personality disorders and they are grouped into three clusters, A, B, and C.  Here, we are going to focus on cluster B, arguably the most difficult and controversial of the three clusters, but before we dive in, lets take a quick glance at A and C, and get that out of the way.

Cluster A is the "odd duck" cluster of personality types.  These are clustered together because they share certain attributes and characteristics.  To a layperson, seeing someone with a Cluster A personality on the street, you might assume that person is seriously mentally ill.  They might keep to themselves, they might be dirty and unbathed with an unkempt look, they might be wearing a heavy coat in the middle of a warm summer, they might act paranoid.  Basically, they look mentally ill.  The only thing is, they aren't.  There are no delusions, no auditory hallucinations, no manic episodes.  This is a person who has separated themselves from society and from normative social standards.  They have made themselves social isolates, and there they stay (unless there is a dramatic change to their personality at some point).  The specific Cluster A disorders are Paranoid Personality, Schizoid Personality, and Schizotypal Personality Disorders.

Cluster C is the anxious and fearful cluster of personalities.  These are people whose personalities and habits have been shaped by lifelong anxiety and fear, resulting in avoidance, dependence on others, obsessiveness and compulsive behaviors.  These are personalities that could be associated with the popularized version of neurosis--bundles of worries with irrational behaviors.  The specific disorders are Avoidant Personality, Dependent Personality, and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorders.  Please note that Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is distinct from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder per se, which was categorized as an anxiety disorder in DSM IV but in the 5th edition was placed in the new category of Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders.  The very brief explanation of the difference is that OCD per se is more severe and has a higher subjective experience of distress, whereas the personality disorder is characterized by a person who finds comfort in the OCD type behaviors and therefore is not usually motivated to change.

And, now, what we are really here for, Cluster B personalities.  These are your worst nightmares, as a therapist.  These are people for whom everyone else is wrong.  Everyone else is at fault.  They are blind to their own role in the making of their misery.  Their behaviors are motivated to manipulate and use others while seemingly unaware of what they are doing.  They have deep seated defense mechanism and are rarely motivated to change.  After all, why should they change when they're never at fault?  It's your fault.  You made me this way.  You change.

Cluster B personalities are familiar to everyone, but they are notoriously difficult to define and understand.  The characteristics that make up these personalities are somewhat disparate, and yet they appear together as a pattern again and again.  You will rarely find Cluster B defined or described as a whole, because it is so difficult for people to get a conceptual grip on it.  The APA's diagnostic manual, keeping it simple, describes Cluster B thus, "Individuals with these disorders often appear dramatic, emotional, or erratic."  That's it.  That's what the DSM has to say on the subject.  The UK's NHA describes Cluster B thus, "Someone with a cluster B personality disorder struggles to relate to others. As a result, they show patterns of behaviour (sic) most would regard as dramatic, erratic and threatening or disturbing."

I'm sure I can't expect to do better than the APA or the NHA, but here's my best shot . . . (1) thinking is characterized by cognitive distortions in the form of strongly developed defense mechanisms in which the individual fails to recognize the negative impact to them from their own actions and behaviors (more on this next time), (2) excessive use of out and out dishonesty and subterfuge, (3) actions and interactions frequently tied to secondary gains (i.e., attention seeking behavior), (4) excessive emotional reactions, and (5) apparent lack of substantive empathy (but superficial empathy may be expressed).  These personality disorders, besides having some common characteristics, are conceptually tied because there is a fair degree of co-morbidity.  In other words, it is not uncommon to find someone, for example, who has a combination of narcissistic and anti-social traits.  And this holds true for all four Cluster B disorders.

In this cluster, we have Anti-Social Personality Disorder.  This is very broadly defined disorder that accurately describes just about anyone who has found themselves up against the criminal justice system more than once.  It is more widely known by the older term of psychopathic personality.  It's characteristics include lack of empathy, lack of stress reaction to violence, dishonesty, disregard for the safety of self and others (but, especially others), lack of remorse, impulsivity, consistent irresponsibility, etc.  One point I would like to emphasize is that anti-social types often fail to plan or think ahead.  This, of course, is tied to impulsive behaviors, lack of ability to get one's needs met through normative behaviors (e.g., holding a job and budgeting your money to pay rent), and lack of concern about consequences (because cognitively the individual is trapped in the moment, they seem blithely unaware that tomorrow is going to happen).

Then there is Borderline Personality Disorder.  This is the most difficult to understand and relate to, but we see this pattern of behavior quite frequently in the mental health system.  With this personality profile, you often see intense emotional reactions, misunderstandings, the individual frequently attributes negative motivations to others, self harm behaviors (e.g., cutting), suicidal gestures, suicide attempts, intense anger (but often masked), and highly unstable relationships.  Being in any kind of relationship with such an individual can be very difficult due to the constant manipulation and polar emotional swings between clinging and anger.

Histrionic Personality Disorder is the least often diagnosed of this cluster.  Many clinicians and researchers have questioned the validity of this diagnosis, but I think it is more accurate to say it is an anachronism in the sense that it is an idiom of emotional distress that was common in the cultural context of the past but is much less common now.  To give you a sense of the flavor, criteria include (1) Is uncomfortable in situations in which he or she is not the center of attention, (2) . . . inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior, (4) . . . uses physical appearance to draw attention to self, (6) shows self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion.  Et cetera.

And, lastly, we have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  It's been splashed all over the news, of late.  Most people already have a sense of what narcissism is, but that concept is not necessarily the same as the personality disorder.  Anyway, I'll save this one for a later, dedicated, blog post.

In our next installment we'll try to get a grip on those pesky Cluster B cognitive distortions that are so damn crazy making.

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