Top 9 Mental Disorders That Can Be Mistaken for Character Traits

Despite the growing number of online resources on mental disorders, mental health advocates, support groups, and licensed mental health professionals available on apps and websites, mental disorders are still misrepresented and glamorized on social media and in pop culture. Misinformation and stigma surrounding mental disorders can lead to confusion about someone’s personality and a symptom of their mental disorder. And while some of the personality traits in this article are desirable qualities, when present as a result of mental disorders, they come alongside symptoms that people with these mental disorders often would not wish on anyone.

This article aims to raise awareness and understanding for mental disorders and should not be used to self-diagnose. Because everyone is different, people experience mental disorders differently, and might be diagnosed with a mental disorder mentioned without experiencing the personality trait that is emphasized in this article. If you relate to any of the signs in this article, please seek help from a licensed mental health professional to avoid improper diagnosis.

1: Perfectionism and OCD

According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation” (APA, n.d.). In people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), perfectionism often manifests in compulsions, or the need to do something, like organizing things in a particular way or repeatedly doing something until it feels right (National Institute of Mental Health, 2019, Oct).

Unlike perfectionism in typical functioning people or people with anxiety disorders or major depressive disorder, people with OCD are perfectionists in response to the obsessive part of their disorder. Failure to follow through with perfectionist compulsions often leads to feelings of anxiety, panic, or a sense of doom in people with OCD (National Institute of Mental Health, 2019, Oct). Praising people with OCD for their perfectionism or attention to detail is harmful because it negates the uncomfortable and fearful feelings that motivate their actions.

2: Procrastination and Major Depressive Disorder

While procrastination is a common trait among people with and without mental disorders, it can also occur as a side effect of major depressive disorder, or clinical depression. Research has linked brooding and lower levels of self-compassion with procrastination, two factors that are also common signs of depression (Flett, 2016). Other symptoms of depression that might cause procrastination are fatigue, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, and feelings of hopelessness or emptiness (National Institute of Mental Health, 2018).

It can be difficult for those experiencing a depressive episode to be productive because even small tasks like getting out of bed take a lot of energy to accomplish. Those who don’t understand how it feels to have depression may label those with major depressive disorder as lazy or bad with time-management, but their procrastination may stem from their disorder rather than their personality.

3: Suspicion and Paranoid Personality Disorder

While jumping to conclusions and occasionally feeling like you’re being watched are fairly common, when these suspicions are almost constant, they could be a sign of paranoid personality disorder. Symptoms of paranoid personality disorder include: fear that people in your life are trying to harm you without evidence, extreme distrust and suspicion that others will use your words against you, lasting grudges, unfounded worry about the faithfulness of your partner, and reading malicious intent in people’s benign or indifferent actions towards you and lashing out in response (Vyas, 2016).

Paranoia can also be a symptom of mental disorders like schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder (Pershall, 2012). Because personality disorders affect parts of someone’s personality, it may be even harder for people without a mental health background to distinguish between someone’s personality and their mental disorder. It’s important to have empathy in these situations and avoid telling people who have been diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder, schizophrenia, or bpd that they’re overreacting, because this creates a false narrative that associates paranoia with their personality.

4: Shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder

Although there is some overlap between shyness and social anxiety, shyness is usually defined as hyper-awareness of other people, physical symptoms such as shaking and sweating in social situations, and quietness or withdrawal (APA, n.d.). People who are shy are painfully aware of themselves in social situations and usually take a long time to open up to and get to know other people, but they don’t regularly feel the same fear during social interactions that people with social anxiety disorder do (Poole, 2017). Social anxiety can cause people to panic, and people with social anxiety disorder often avoid social situations because they trigger fear responses and feel like everyone is judging them (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.). This anxiety goes far deeper than discomfort that comes from shyness.

5: Egotism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

We can all probably think of a person who constantly talks themselves up and boasts about their every success. But if this person vastly exaggerates their accomplishments, finds it difficult to empathize with others, and demands special treatment from everyone, including people of the same or higher qualification, they could be suffering from narcissistic personality disorder rather than an egotistical personality (Mayo Clinic, 2017).

6: Impulsivity and Bipolar Disorder

Impulsivity is often seen as a fun and even desirable trait, with self-help resources frequently encouraging us to switch up our routine. But in the case of bipolar disorder (bd), impulsivity comes in the form of risky decisions that people with bd may later regret doing. Impulsivity in people with bd usually occurs during manic episodes–heightened moods that typically come with increased energy, multitasking and irritability (American Psychiatric Association, 2017).

Examples of impulsive behaviors someone with bipolar disorder might do are: spending sprees, gambling, reckless driving, unprotected sex, drug use, or binge eating and drinking (National Institute of Mental Health, 2020). And although movies and TV shows often portray these actions as exciting, the real-life consequences include financial loss, relationship conflict, property damage, STIs, and even death, and glamorizing them takes away from what someone with bipolar disorder or another mental disorder like antisocial personality disorder, which also includes impulsivity, might be experiencing as a result of their mental disorder.

7: Distraction and ADHD

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder that involves three types of behavior: inattention, or difficulty focusing, hyperactivity, or restlessness and need for frequent movement, and impulsivity, or acting without fully thinking through the consequences (National Institute of Mental Health, 2019, Sep). People who have been diagnosed with ADHD may have one of these signs or a combination of them. People with inattentive ADHD often forget things, have trouble concentrating on a single task, struggle to be organized, and have difficulty paying attention to other people (National Institute of Mental Health, 2019, Sep). Someone who is uneducated about ADHD may accuse a person with inattentive ADHD of not listening to them or caring about them when in fact their disorder makes it hard for them to pay attention without getting distracted by their thoughts or external stimuli.

8: Attention Seeking and Histrionic Personality Disorder

There are many reasons why someone might seek attention or validation from others, including low self-esteem, self-doubt, and trust issues. But if someone is part of the 2-3% of the population diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder (hpd), their need for external validation goes beyond asking for reassurances (French, 2020). People with hpd feel worthless or undervalued if they are not the center of attention, and often react with emotional outbursts in response to these feelings. Those with hpd might also try to retain others’ attention through flirtatious–sometimes inappropriate–behavior, bright clothing, and bold claims (French, 2020). A person with histrionic personality disorder is more than just “needy” or “high maintenance” and labeling them as such is harmful because it again shifts the focus from their personality-affecting disorder to their individual personality.

9: People Pleasing and Dependent Personality Disorder

Many people find it difficult to say “no” to others and struggle to set boundaries. However, people with dependent personality disorder feel intense fear when they have to do anything by themselves, including everyday tasks like choosing when to wake up or what to have for breakfast, that typical-functioning people usually don’t think twice about (Mayo Clinic, 2016). Those with dependent personality disorder are also more likely to stay in an abusive relationship, change jobs or move to stay with their significant other or another person they are dependent on, and jump into a new relationship immediately after their previous one ends (Harvard Medical School, 2007).

Do you or someone you know have any of the mental disorders in this list? Has anyone confused a symptom of your disorder with your personality? If someone has praised or reprimanded you for something that is part of your mental disorder, how did you react? Let us know in the comments below. If you have ever made the mistake of confusing a personality trait with a mental disorder, hopefully this article cleared up any ambiguity you had and you can be better informed the next time to help end the stigma against mental disorders.


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