Could Emotional Trauma Be the Cause of Personality Disorders

sad tired depressed woman looking above

Personality disorders affect 9.1% of the American population, but the general public often has distorted ideas and harmful misconceptions about them.

When most people hear “personality disorder,” they think of narcissists, psychopaths, and “split personality disorder” (dissociative identity disorder).

In reality, there is a large range of variation between the expression, severity, and diversity of people who live with one of the 10 recognized personality disorders. 

Before looking at the causes of a personality disorder, it is important to define a personality disorder.

Understanding the clinical perspective can drastically alter the way a person perceives themself or someone they care about.

What is a personality disorder?

Mental health professionals and doctors recognize 10 personality disorders:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Schizoid personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder 

Each of these disorders has its own range of symptoms, which can range from mild to severe. What these disorders all have in common is the fact they impact four major aspects of a person’s life:

  • How they think about themselves and other people
  • The way they experience emotions and respond to others
  • How they perceive and relate to others
  • How they interpret, regulate, and control their own behaviors

A diagnosable personality disorder affects at least two of these areas in a person’s life. Looking closer, you will find that the exact experiences and symptoms vary by individual and disorder. 

It is crucial for people to understand that people with the same personality disorder are still unique. They may share common symptoms, emotional responses, and behaviors, but their diagnosis does not define their entire identity.

An important part of improving mental health worldwide is understanding that even severe personality disorders do not make someone broken. 

People can suffer immensely, but with the right treatment and a willingness to try, they can also heal.

Are personality disorders curable? 

The answer to this question is difficult as symptoms may be managed, but a personality disorder could last a lifetime. 

In reality, someone may always live with some symptoms linked to their disorder. However, they can learn to recognize these symptoms, manage them, and thrive.

There is always hope for someone who is willing to reach out and seek treatment. 

Rather than see personality disorders as something a person needs to rid themself of, it’s better to accept them as a part of their lived experience. 

Through a combination of medication and behavioral therapy, many people go on to recover from personality disorders and live wonderful, happy lives. 

Currently, only 42.2% of people with a personality disorder receive treatment. This can range from hospitalization to routine psychotherapy.

Ultimately, reaching out is the best way for a person to receive the care and personalized treatment they both need and deserve.

The Role of Emotional Trauma in Personality Disorders

Researchers have found a strong connection between childhood trauma and personality disorders.

There are many long-term effects of childhood trauma, including a higher risk of developing a borderline personality disorder.

Emotional trauma affects people of all ages, but trauma sustained in childhood tends to have the biggest influence on the development of personality disorders. 

In other words, it is unlikely someone will develop a personality disorder as a result of trauma in adulthood.

Instead, their symptoms may arise in their teens or 20s, but they likely stem from events that happened farther in the past.

Sexual abuse was found to have the highest impact on personality disorder development, but verbal abuse and neglect are also noteworthy factors. 

Childhood emotional trauma can lead to significant emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and social challenges.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children who grow up without a safe, secure, and stable environment go on to develop other means of coping with their lives.

In many cases, the adaptive behaviors a child develops go on to alter their thinking and emotional regulation. This can lay the framework for what later morphs into a personality disorder. 

Trauma victims have a tendency to internalize their suffering. They take others’ actions as a reflection of their worth.

As a result, they tend to blame themselves for mistreatment. For some people, this can lead to withdrawal and extremely negative thinking.

Others may become highly self-conscious and go to great lengths to receive attention, approval, and validation. 

In borderline personality disorder, people experience a deep-rooted fear of being abandoned, and their sense of identity is often turbulent.

They struggle to maintain healthy relationships because they find it extremely difficult to trust anyone. 

This could result from feeling neglected as a child. Without forming a safe, secure attachment and having their identity affirmed, the child who felt ignored, abandoned, and unworthy of love may go on to develop symptoms of borderline personality disorder. 

Children whose parents were extremely neglectful may not develop the ability to accurately experience, process, and interpret their emotions or emotions in others.

Their responding cold, distant, and emotionally detached nature goes on to reflect symptoms of schizoid personality disorder

Does trauma increase a person’s risk for developing a personality disorder? 

There is no definitive cause of personality disorders, but trauma does play a significant risk factor.

Research recently revealed that victims of childhood trauma are 13 times more likely to develop borderline personality disorder as adults. 

When examining the role of trauma in personality disorders, it’s important to identify the effects of trauma on each individual.

Many people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are often described as someone different from who they were before their disorder. However, they do not have a personality disorder. 

What’s notable is that PTSD patients exhibit the expression of trauma in a way that may shed light on personality disorders as well. 

In PTSD, adults who live through traumatic experiences often struggle with intrusive thoughts, high levels of anxiety, and difficulty controlling their emotional responses. 

They may go on to hold beliefs about themselves or others shaped by their trauma. These trauma-based beliefs then go on to reinforce trauma-driven emotions, such as anxiety and anger. 

In patients with personality disorders, the expression of trauma is less obvious. This can be due to the fact their trauma was more enduring, i.e. it happened over a period of time rather than a one-time event. 

It can also reflect the time their trauma took place. Childhood trauma survivors often have to adapt in unhealthy ways to survive in an unsupportive environment. 

If their parents or caregivers were neglectful, they may have had to “fill in the blank” with their own inflated ego, or they may have gone on to develop a deep need for others’ approval. 

Over time, their unmet needs as children went on to become core beliefs about themselves and the world.

These beliefs then affect how they experience emotions, connect to others, and perceive their external environment. 

For example, the attention-seeking behaviors neglected children exhibit can go on to become histrionic personality disorder if they are not addressed.

Additionally, studies show that narcissism can emerge as a coping mechanism for trauma and other negative early life experiences. 

The behaviors common among personality disorders may have developed as a way to survive, but they only go on to hinder someone’s happiness, support, and connection in adulthood.

How do you treat a personality disorder?

Psychotherapy can be highly effective in treating personality disorders. In fact, behavioral therapy is the most effective form of treatment for personality disorders. 

Contrary to popular belief, all disorders can respond to treatment. What matters most is the therapist’s experience, the type of therapy, and the patient’s willingness to participate in their treatment. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are two of the most supported and evidence-based models for treating personality disorders. 

However, personalized treatment plans that draw from different models may be most beneficial for someone living with a personality disorder. 

Many people with personality disorders have struggled to ever feel validated, approved of, and genuinely heard and respected in their lives.

They deserve therapy that helps them move beyond unhelpful beliefs about themselves and others, so they can learn to relate to, experience, and enjoy life more fully. 

Both outpatient and residential treatment programs can help someone with a personality disorder.

Choosing the right model for you might be best done with the help of your doctor or a psychologist.

Discovering Your Recovery

People with personality disorders have higher rates of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and trauma. 

At Tikvah Lake, we specialize in helping people struggling with addiction and co-occurring disorders.

Our residential programs put you in a safe, beautiful resort surrounded by nature and supportive professionals. 

Our goal is to reach you where you are. We work with you, embrace your lived experiences, and welcome you to start healing with personalized treatment plans. 

If you would like to learn more about how we treat trauma, mental health disorders, and more, please contact us today.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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