Toxic Personality Traits vs. Characteristics

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Difficult people come in many varieties. Whether you’re dealing with a narcissistic mother-in-law, a histrionic partner, a borderline sibling or a sociopathic boss, the bottom line is, you’ve got troubles. A quick look around the net will help you start collecting the information you need to validate your instinctive knowing that the problems you face with these people are not your fault.

But while much of what you find will make things clearer, not everything available is both accurate and easy to understand. One of the things that’s most often confused and misunderstood is the difference between a trait and a characteristic.

Most people assume that traits and characteristics are the same thing, and the words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing, which creates confusion.

In terms of personality disorders:

A trait is a basic element of a person’s personality that is not widely considered to be notably changeable. It is displayed consistently over time and under varying circumstances. Some examples of traits from a few different personality disorders are:

“Lacks Empathy
“Frantic Efforts to Avoid Real or Imagined Abandonment”
“Reckless Disregard for the Safety of Self or Others”


A characteristic describes any number of certain types of behaviors that a person may engage in when they have the trait. Some examples of a few potential characteristic behaviors for the above traits are:


Lacks Empathy (NPD) – Tells you they don’t care if you’re hurt, lacks compassion for their crying child, walks all over others without a care, etc.

Frantic Efforts to Avoid Real or Imagined Abandonment
(BPD) - Stops at nothing to get you to come home, threatens to do something awful if you don’t come back after being gone, keeps begging for constant reassurance that you still love them and always will, etc.

Reckless Disregard for the Safety of Self or Others
(AsPD)Doesn’t put their child in a safety seat, physically assaults others, has racked up serious tickets for driving dangerously, etc.


So one narcissist with the NPD trait of “Requires Excessive Admiration” tries to get it by lying and saying they are a Nobel Laureate, and another narcissist with the same trait may try to get it a completely different way — by insisting on a standing ovation for their first minor role in a small local play. But both those behaviors are characteristic of narcissists who have the trait of requiring excessive admiration.

No doubt you can think of a few more examples of traits and the many characteristics that often result from them, based on people you know.

Links to the lists of the official traits of the most high-conflict and/or problematic personality disorders are available below:


Narcissistic Personality Disorder Traits
Histrionic Personality Disorder Traits
Antisocial Personality Disorder Traits
Borderline Personality Disorder Traits
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder Traits
Dependent Personality Disorder Traits
Avoidant Personality Disorder Traits


Join us Friday — we’ll be discussing the magic of happily giving toxic people the last word – on purpose!

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