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Is Bipolar a Personality Disorder?

January 9, 2012 Natasha Tracy

I've been studying mental illness for a long time and while I knew the answer to this question, I couldn't really have told you why. This is mostly because I haven't done a lot of work on personality disorders, but I have had occasion to learn more about them recently.

No, bipolar disorder is not a personality disorder, and here's why.

Bipolar Disorder is a Mood Disorder

Bipolar disorder belongs to a type of disorders called mood disorders. Mood disorders include bipolar as well as:

As the name implies, mood disorders affect mood. This means symptoms include an inappropriate, exaggerated or a limited range of emotions. This could be a very low emotional state, like depression, or a very high emotional state like mania (part of bipolar).

Personality Disorders

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) a personality disorder is,

. . . an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that differs markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment. Personality disorders are a long-standing and maladaptive pattern of perceiving and responding to other people and to stressful circumstances.

The Difference Between Bipolar and Personality Disorders

While some of the same emotional states and behaviors can be seen in personality disorders and bipolar disorder, they are not the same.

The key difference between a personality disorders and bipolar is:

  • Bipolar disorder is episodic whereas personality disorders are, by definition, stable over time

dsm-iv-tr

This means that there are periods where the person is depressed, periods when they are either manic or hypomanic and periods where they are stable. These episodes each bring about a different set of symptoms making bipolar symptoms unstable over time. Personality disorders have a defined set of symptoms that are consistent.

For example, comparing bipolar disorder to borderline personality disorder (its closest personality disorder cousin):

  • Impulsivity is a symptom of borderline that would only be present in the manic phase of bipolar
  • Suicidal behaviors, threats and self-mutilation are symptoms of borderline that would only be present in the depressive phase of bipolar
  • Mood instability tends to be constant and reactive to the environment in borderline personality disorder and moods are more consistent (within episodes) and less reactive in bipolar
  • Borderline personality disorder is marked by unstable and intense relationships whereas no such symptom is found in any phase of bipolar, the same can be said of frantic efforts to avoid abandonment
  • People with borderline are often not helped by the medication that helps people with bipolar disorder

In short, a personality disorder is an ingrained way of handling the world - a person's personality - whereas a mood disorder is overlaid on top of a person's personality.

Neither of these disorders are better, or worse, just different.

For more on borderline personality disorder, I recommend you check out Becky Oberg's blog, More than Borderline.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, January 9). Is Bipolar a Personality Disorder?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2012/01/is-bipolar-a-personality-disorder



Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook and YouTube.

Abby
October, 26 2017 at 8:22 am

Are you a doctor to be making articles and statements such as these? Even in a manic state, a person with bipolar disorder is no where near a personality disorder.

Shaz
February, 17 2016 at 7:06 pm

Hi, I was diagnosed with 'depression' at the end of September last year (2015) my father was diagnosed with 'depression' back in 2007/2008, and has just recently been told that it isn't depression and his GP and counsellor think it could be a personality disorder, I was just wondering if things like that can run in the family? My mother is always commenting on how much alike I am to my father with my moods, aggressive side, break downs etc. Any advice would be good, thanks!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natasha Tracy
February, 18 2016 at 5:45 am

Hi Shaz,
Yes, mental illnesses often run in families. Part of its basis is genetic.
- Natasha Tracy

Anonomous
June, 20 2014 at 2:05 pm

I was diagnosed as a classic manic depressive in 1991. All the experiments psychiatrists have done without my informed consent to my brain have caused me more problems than relief.
I finally gave up on these medical geniuses when I learnt that I was on a medication which caused one death in 10,000 users. They told me this was acceptable. For me, and not them or their families.
I decided to stop taking any of their prescribed meds in 2010. Since then, I have had no interactions with police, formerly a regular thing.
My creativity returned and I went back to self employment. And I am a happy man again.
My conclusion was that I have a bi polar personality immune to their meds and I like it.
I urge you to stop taking meds the effect of which is clearly unknown.

judy
June, 11 2013 at 10:37 am

Thank you for clarifying the difference. As I say, one (or even two) event(s) does not a personality disorder make. I hope friends and loved ones realize that you have to see a person as a whole. For me, it is as simple as laying out my life in a pie chart graph. Behaviors attributed to bipolar are really a section of that pie chart, not long standing traits. Another clue: if you are caught off guard and surprised by someone's behavior, probably an episode. If you casually comment, "meh - that's just how she is", probably dealing with a PD.

Sarah
April, 24 2013 at 12:52 am

Hi prit,
You did not say whether your husband has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or not.
If he has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, then the condition can be managed, but not cured. He can have a fairly normal life in this case if he is diligent about looking after himself, such as taking medications. It is not easy, so I suggest if your husband has bipolar disorder then to learn all you can about it and join a support group.
On the other hand, if this is not a case of bipolar disorder, he may have some other kind of problem or condition, or it may just be marital problems, or a problem with immaturity, anger management etc. Only a psychiatrist can diagnose. In this case I would suggest couples counselling. My ex (partner) and I had these kinds of problems and the relationship could not be salvaged. Much personal harm was done. Other relationships can be saved by counselling.
Another reader.

prit
April, 21 2013 at 6:37 am

Hi ,
I got married just two months ago. My husband is suffering from some kind of extreme mood swing. He is always angry with me. Every word I utter invites me bitter mood of his. Though I was his choice for marriage, he feels that I have done some conspiracy with him. As if I am involved with some other guys (many guys). His anger lasts for more than 3-4 days and I some cases it has been continued for more than 2 weeks.in between evn some normal moments intrude ! He feels that he is the best. He is way better than me. I dont know how to talk. He always knows everything (even my job) better than me. He always boasts about things like assets family repo and his inteligence and knowledge.
The most important thing is he is very manipulative. His worst side is only visible to me. For others his behaviour is normal. Like he would never try to make it public that we have some problems in between.
Physically he is very thin now. Loosing weight. Cannot sleep for more than 2-3 hrs and eat sufficiently when he is with me.
I think he is a great attention seeker. We have hardly enjoyed our outing for honeymoon also. There are lots of doubts figuring in his mind about my charecter and that I care for
him. He can speak for more than 3-5 hrs in one go when he is angry.
Pls suggest me if he can live a normal life in future.

Natasha Tracy
January, 11 2012 at 6:47 am

Hi Alistair,
You are certainly free to hold that opinion but bipolar is a different experience for different people and not everyone finds it so extremely. As for the word "disorder" it's just a word, used the way it was intended.
You're also free to feel that substance abuse is not a mental illness but it is defined in the DSM as one and there are now known biological underpinnings of the illness. (I used to feel like you, having had an alcoholic father, but after writing many articles on addiction, I changed my mind.)
- Natasha

Alistair McHarg
January, 11 2012 at 5:21 am

IMHO - Manic Depression (as I prefer to call it) is an extreme form of mental illness - after schizophrenia it is quite possibly the most extreme form of mental illness. To me, the term "disorder" fits into a far larger context of politically correct speech which waters things down to make them less offensive and scary. - The genetic component of "bipolar disorder" closes the debate for me. - Ironically, I do not feel the same way about alcoholism, which I regard as a personality disorder. In AA people like to call alcoholism a disease, it makes it easier for them to forgive themselves, which is essential. But to me, alcoholism is no more a disease than gambling addiction is.

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