Do I have a personality disorder?

Dear Alice,

I think I have a personality or character problem. I do not seem to lack the intellectual capacity to achieve or work (I have passed with success all my exams), but I just stall. I have just qualified as a lawyer and have an English degree, too.

Here's my problem: I go to interviews, being very scared and nervous, but they turn out fine. But I leave dreading that the people actually hire me. I want to be hired, but I don't want to be hired. This sounds crazy (maybe it is!), but this is how I feel most of the time. Plus: I am quite efficient at pinning down potential employees, but a week later, somehow I haven't used what I found.

People say that I am not stupid and I think they think of me as rather smart. I consider myself to be very shy, but at the same time, I can be very sure of myself, if not downright arrogant. There are times when it's okay for me to see nobody for days. What is wrong with me? I seem to be incapable of having a stable desire for a job. I have a very low income at the moment, but I seem to settle for it thinking it's only temporary. I am losing my mind and settling for it. My father says I have a personality disorder. What is my problem??? What can I do?


Dear Clueless,

Perhaps you're not really as clueless as your by-line infers! Writing your question and exploring your emotions and motivations are both useful and brave endeavors. You bring up a number of different issues in your question: feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, mixed reactions at the prospect of getting a new job, and what sounds like some concern (on the part of yourself and other people in your life) that there may be something serious holding you back in your quest for a career, as well as in some social situations.

Based on other things you've said, however, it also sounds like you are functioning well in many respects: you have multiple advanced degrees and have succeeded academically; you are currently employed and are seeking to find better work. These are some signs that with some careful thought, and perhaps work with a trained counselor, you will likely be able to figure out what's troubling you and how to better manage these issues.

You also mention that your father has suggested that you may have a personality disorder. Unfortunately, this is a widely misunderstood concept, one that gets thrown around as a general catch-all term to describe people who may have some level of social awkwardness or unusual personality traits. In reality, personality disorders, of which there are several types, describe a distinct set of symptoms. In general these include unusual cognitive and emotional patterns of response and understanding, impaired interpersonal relationships, and concerns around impulse control. Although most people can likely identify with at least a few of the patterns of behavior involved with these disorders, it is only when these behaviors are long-standing that they may be considered a problem. In addition, these characteristics must cause significant personal distress and impairment in a person's social life, work success, and other important areas. It is best to have a mental health professional do an assessment to figure out whether a personality disorder might be at the root of some of your concerns.

While it may be worthwhile to consider this possibility, it can also be useful to think about some other explanations. For example, it's not unusual to hear recent graduates express frustration about seemingly dead-end job searches, anticipated boredom, or fear of getting in over their heads. I want a better job! in the Go Ask Alice! archives offers some tips and strategies for figuring out your career goals and how to get there. Another possibility is that self-doubt and/or anxiety are holding you back. The reader in Struggling with low self-esteem describes some feelings with which you might relate. You described yourself as shy yet sometimes arrogant. Many people who are struggling with a faltering self-image and general worry over-compensate by presenting themselves as extremely self-confident, together, and even sometimes cocky. The key here is to figure out how your sense of yourself and your behavior are affecting your life and relationships. When you don't see anyone for days, is it because you are absorbed by a personal project, or because you're afraid of interactions? Do you feel comfortable being alone, or are you isolated and lonely?

You may have a personality disorder, or you may not. Either way, it's good to work on feeling confident and comfortable with how and where your life is going. Talking with a supportive friend or relative may be a good place to start, or you may prefer to seek out the assistance of a trained counselor, clergy person, or mentor.

Take care,

Last updated Jul 05, 2015
Originally published Oct 05, 2000