The Cluster B Personality Disorders

While most people are aware of personality disorders, few realise they are divided into groups. These are known as clusters A, B, and C.

A Personality Disorder

A personality disorder is more than its individual traits. Take social anxiety, for example. Social anxiety is a mental illness. The individual experiences extreme and debilitating anxiety when meeting new people, starting a new job, going to a party, and so on. An avoidant personality disorder includes social anxiety. The socially anxious go about life like everyone else: they shop, meet friends, go to work. When they do such things, the social anxiety causes problems, but that does not mean their entire personality is dysfunctional.

For someone with an avoidant personality disorder, this fear is built in to who they are. The socially anxious avoid the occasional party or barbeque, but the avoidant avoid by instinct. They will take the long route home so as to avoid work colleagues, or will steer their dog in another direction if they see fellow walkers up ahead. Avoidance is at the heart of their life.

Cluster B

There are four separate personality disorders in cluster B. First, there is the narcissist. As the word suggests, they are arrogant and self-centered. Next, there is the borderline personality, who is clingy, paranoid, and emotionally unstable. Third, the histrionic, who is a dramatic attention-seeker. And finally the anti-social, who refuses to obey laws and rules and acts without considering the consequences.

Those with a personality disorder often struggle to relate to others. This is true whether they are schizoid, dependent, avoidant, or whatever. The cluster B personalities, however, have an especially bad time.

Cluster A personalities struggle because their psyche is disordered and disturbed. Indeed, many border on the psychotic. The cluster C personalities have no difficulty understanding people, they just find the world scary, unpleasant, or overwhelming.

With the exception of the borderline, those in cluster B tend to be aggressive and manipulative in their dealings with others. Indeed, given their arrogance and contempt, this is hardly surprising. Narcissists and anti-socials are particularly contemptuous of the normal rules and hold themselves aloof and apart.

The Narcissist

The narcissist is perhaps the best known of the cluster B personalities. Of course, as with all personality disorders, many people have such traits. Indeed, you have probably heard a neighbor or work colleague described as “an unbearable narcissist.” In fact, they probably just possess a few narcissistic traits.

Above all, the narcissist is self-centred. The world revolves around him or her, and others exist to flatter and boost their ego. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be unpopular and even loathed. But thanks to their inflated sense of importance this usually goes unnoticed. Even if you were to tell them to their face, they would dismiss it as jealousy.

Before turning to specific traits, narcissism must be distinguished from arrogance. Plenty of people are confident – often annoyingly so – but that does not make them narcissists. The true narcissist disregards your feelings. At their worst, they seem bewildered when people show an interest in, or sympathy for, others. Why are they bothering, thinks the narcissist, when they could be listening to me?

Even delusions of superiority do not make you a narcissist. For example, an average Joe sets up a building firm. The business booms and within a few years he is rich. His ego inflates and he expects old friends to treat him differently. The same thing often happens when people win a place at some prestigious college, or when puberty transforms them into a beauty. Narcissists are different. They feel superior, and expect to be treated as such, for no reason.

The narcissists’s whole demeanor is arrogant and aloof, and they carry themselves as though others are hardly worth their time. They also resent other people’s success. It should have been their novel that got published or their song on the radio! At the same time, they are convinced everyone is jealous. As you can imagine, this leaves them vulnerable.

Narcissists also feel little empathy. That said, they should not be confused with psychopaths. The psychopath truly lacks empathy. The narcissist, on the other hand, may pity a sick child or depressed friend, but he will also be irritated by them. They have robbed him of the spotlight. A narcissist also takes no interest in other people’s hopes and dreams. Only the narcissist’s dreams matter; their friend’s plan to visit India or start a PhD are irrelevant.

Grandiosity is another common trait. The narcissist’s ego inflates (though it can also be surprisingly fragile). Because of this, they expect special treatment, and they will manipulate, lie, and exploit others to secure it.

Narcissists also enjoy a rich inner life. Many dream and fantasize about power and success. They imagine themselves giving an Oscar winning speech or being pursued by beautiful movie stars. Sometimes, however, these dreams are compensation: rarely does life meet their expectations.

Finally, they feel not just superior but unique. Not only are they the funniest or cleverest in the room, no one has ever been funny or clever in quite the same way. For example, imagine a college seminar. The students are discussing Great Expectations and the narcissist makes an observation. As usual, he is annoyed that the professor does not respond with awe and praise. Not only does the narcissist believe he made a clever point, he assumes no one else has ever thought of it.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

The word “borderline” is misleading, suggesting problems that merely border on a personality disorder. In fact, this is a personality disorder in its own right.

People with a BPD tend to be unstable and unpredictable. Their emotions and relationships are volatile. They also have a vague and confused sense of self, unsure who they are and what they believe. And this vagueness affects relationships. They tend to be needy and clingy. In romantic relationships, they live in constant dread of abandonment and spend much of their time avoiding it.

Another common trait is black and white thinking. People are good or evil, life is wonderful or hopeless, etc. Friends will say things like, “everything is so extreme with her: she’s either up or down, loves something or hates it…it’s like she doesn’t know there’s a middle ground!”

Both their behavior and their emotions are unpredictable. If someone makes a joke, for example, they will laugh just that bit too loud and too long – just enough to make everyone uncomfortable. In other words, everything is out of proportion. They also tend to be self-destructive. Unsurprisingly, relationships suffer!

They find life tough and often suffer from other problems. When they first visit a therapist, it will usually be with something like anxiety, depression, or anger issues. Borderline personalities frequently turn to alcohol and drugs as well. In part, this is because they find emotions difficult. Alcohol, cannabis, opiates, etc, are the quickest and easiest escape.

The Histrionic Personality

The histrionic personality is often confused with the narcissistic, and this is understandable. Like narcissists, histrionics want attention and flattery. But histrionics tend to be more emotional and dramatic. They will pull funny faces, dress in elaborate clothes, anything to attract attention. The narcissist doesn’t bother with such antics – he just assumes everyone is looking at him anyway.

Histrionics tend to be highly flirtatious, often embarrassingly so. Indeed, their whole approach to the opposite sex is usually seductive. As soon as they have won their victory and gained the other person’s attention, however, they grow bored and move on to someone else.

And this low attention span is another classic trait. Histrionics are flighty and shallow. They cannot bear being bored, and they dislike having to wait for gratification. When they do have to wait, their emotional state can suddenly change, switching from happy to tearful in an instant.

The Anti-Social

Do you remember that boy at school who was always in trouble? The one who never obeyed the rules and respected no teacher. The boy who lashed out when he was upset, who seemed to do what he liked when he liked. He possibly had an anti-social personality disorder.

As with the borderline personality, the title can mislead. When people hear the phrase “anti-social personality,” they imagine such people dislike socializing. But the anti-social are different to the socially anxious. The latter are frightened of people, the former are hostile.

The most obvious trait is a contempt for authority. The anti-social resent laws and rules and do not see why they should obey them – and they don’t. They also tend to be impulsive and to act without reflecting on the consequences. When you add in aggression and a reckless disregard for safety, you can see why they are dangerous.

A good example would be the teenager who persuades friends to jump a high wire fence and play on train tracks, in spite of the signs warning them to “keep out.” The anti-social also lack a sense of remorse. They aren’t necessarily heartless, they simply live in the moment. And if their actions do cause harm, they quickly justify and then forget them.

If just one word captures this personality it is “irresponsible.” They do what they like when they like. And their behavior is often harmful, not just to others but to themselves. When they drift into crime, which they often do, they also tend to be bad at it.

As you can see, cluster B covers a wide range of behaviors and traits. And yet even these do not go far enough. The American psychologist Theodore Millon, for example, identified numerous subtypes to each of the four. Finally, it should be kept in mind that no one perfectly fits into any box. Each individual has their own quirks and bears the scars of their own traumas.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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