Most people in their 20’s are meeting new people every day—in person and/or online. Whether you are dating, looking for a job, making friends, joining an organization or creating your own team, it’s wise to develop personality awareness skills. Such skills can save you a lot of stress, help you avoid spending a lot of emotional energy where you won’t get a positive return, and possibly keep you out of danger. They can also help you refine your own personality in ways that you want to grow.
Major Personality Study
In the early 2000’s, the largest study of personality disorders was done in the United States, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).1,2,3 They interviewed over 35,000 people to determine the prevalence of each of the personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The researchers wanted to know the prevalence of personality disorders in society, since they are often associated with intense family conflicts, workplace problems and criminal behavior. They took a random sample of the U.S. population and broke down the results by age group, income, marital status and several other categories.
The results showed that the youngest age group—people 20-29—had the highest percentage of each of the ten personality disorders, with one exception: the Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder was highest in the 30-44 age range, with the 20-29 group a close second. Here’s a comparison between the overall average and the results for the 20-29 age group for the five personality disorders most prone to being “high-conflict” in relationships of all types. (Important note: Not everyone with these personality disorders is high-conflict, because they don’t all focus on a target of blame. But those who do can make your life very difficult if you become their target of blame.)
Adult Average 20-29 age group
Narcissistic: 6.2% 9.4%
Borderline: 5.9% 9.3%
Paranoid: 4.4% 6.8%
Antisocial: 3.7% 6.2%
Histrionic: 1.8% 3.8%
Of course there is some overlap, as some people have two or three personality disorders. But these five may represent approximately 25% of people in this age group. With this in mind, there are seven skills (at least) to learn which should be helpful.
1. Know What Healthy Relationships Look Like
Personality disorders are mostly interpersonal disorders. In a healthy romantic relationship there is a comfortable balance: of time together and time apart; of time with friends and family; of responsibility for communicating and solving problems; of listening to each other’s ups and downs; of trying out each other’s interests; of paying attention to each other’s wants, tastes and needs; and being allowed to be different. If it doesn’t feel comfortable to you, then something needs to change: either your expectations or behavior; the other person’s expectations or behavior; or maybe you just aren’t a good fit for each other.
In healthy workplace relationships there are standards and rules. If a co-worker or supervisor or business partner repeatedly wants you to do things that are uncomfortable, then (as above) you may need to change your expectations; the boss needs to change their behavior (unlikely); or that position is not a good fit. Look around and see if there is another department or organization that may be a better fit. Consult with friends, family or a counselor to see if you are in a healthy situation or something needs to change.
2. Recognize Abusive Behavior
People in their 20’s are often the most vulnerable to abuse in relationships, because they have fewer experiences to know what’s appropriate and what’s not. In the workplace, they are often at the bottom of the pecking order and dependent on their supervisors for good evaluations and future work. The MeToo movement has done a lot to expose the ways that young adults have been manipulated and harmed at work by people in positions of authority with dangerous personalities. Most of the stories of sexual harassment are about young women (and some young men) in their 20’s because of the reasons mentioned above.
3. Learn Recognizable Patterns of Personality Disorders
People with personality disorders have a dysfunctional pattern of interpersonal behavior across many settings, such as in the workplace, in romantic relationships, in friendship groups and in organizations of all types. The five personality disorders above have narrow, identifiable patterns of behavior. These are not hard to learn, but it takes time and experience to spot them in action.
The ones to watch out for are those who also have high-conflict personalities: 1) a tendency to focus on one or more targets of blame; 2) a lot of all-or-nothing thinking; 3) unmanaged emotions; and 4) extreme behaviors. For more on recognizing these patterns, see my Psychology Today blog 5 Types of High-Conflict Personalities or my new book 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life.
4. Get Comfortable Setting Limits
High-conflict people tend to be aggressive and regularly push the limits of relationships, of behavior at work, in social groups and even with strangers. This means that you will need to learn to set limits on a regular basis, such as: limiting the topics you will discuss, the time you will spend with someone, the favors you will do, the “crises” of others that you may need to ignore, even telling others your whereabouts who don’t need to know. Know that you have a right to set limits and get comfortable saying “No.” You can still be a nice person even if you set limits.
Of course, this especially relates to sex. If you’re feeling pressured, are afraid someone won’t like you or you’ll get a reputation as a prude if you say No, you’re probably in a situation to avoid. High-conflict people are often seeking fast intimacy, on an emotional and physical level. For more on this in relationships, see the book Dating Radar, which I co-authored last year with Megan Hunter.
5. Be Cautious with Major Commitments
Despite having narrow patterns of behavior, people with personality disorders—especially those with high-conflict personalities—can be good at covering up their negative behavior for are while, even weeks or months. Therefore, it is recommended to wait at least a year before making any big commitments in romantic relationships, like getting married and having children. Sometimes it takes this long for someone’s abusive behavior or unstable personality to come out. Likewise, in your work and social life, be careful about making several-year commitments to projects or financial investments with people you haven’t known very long.
6. Adapt How You Communicate
While you may be trying to be authentic in all your relationships, it’s okay to adapt how you communicate to protect yourself, such as when you think you may be dealing with a high-conflict personality. In general: avoid trying to give them insight into themselves, avoid trying to win pointless arguments with them, and avoid emotional confrontations like telling them you hate them or that they are super-frustrating. Just reduce your contact with them and focus on being with people who you can be relaxed and authentic with. If you have to be around them, such as with a difficult family member or problematic co-worker, communicate in a matter-of-fact manner and focus only on what you really need from them. Try not to show your emotional vulnerability with high-conflict personalities, because that often reinforces their efforts to manipulate or humiliate you.
7. Be Self-Aware
Last, but not least, it’s important to recognize that we all have some of the traits I have been talking about. When these traits become patterns that are stuck in one’s personality is when they can cause a personality disorder. If you’re in this age group, the chances are slightly higher that you may have such a disorder and now is a good time to become aware and to work on managing or over-coming it. It’s normal to reflect on yourself and try making changes to be more successful and happy in life. Meeting with a counselor may be very helpful, even if it’s only occasionally.
People with personality disorders generally lack self-awareness of their social dysfunctions, which is why some (the high-conflict ones) become preoccupied with blaming others. So if you can be self-aware and always looking at how you can improve yourself and looking at your own part in interpersonal problems, you are less likely to have a personality disorder or more likely to deal with it well. Some people outgrow personality disorders with enough effort in learning self-management skills. Self-awareness can help everyone grow in this ever-changing world.
Some people call the 20’s the “journey years.” You will learn a lot about your interests, your career goals, your interpersonal skills and possibly make some friends for life during this time. But you also will need to learn about people to avoid or manage in different ways, because there are so many potential high-conflict personality disorders among your peers. No one chooses to have a personality disorder and many are born this way or developed these disorders from abusive childhood experiences. So it’s important to go forward with compassion for others and yourself, while you also have your eyes wide open and learn personality awareness skills.