Understanding 5 Difficult Personality Types and How to Handle Them


As a psychologist who has had the opportunity to assess and treat all sorts of colorful people, I’d say I know a thing or two about difficult personalities. This is not to say that I don’t have some (ahem) unique traits of my own. I’ve been known to be a little difficult sometimes… OK, lots of times, but just don’t ask my husband. And if we’re being honest, we all have aspects of our personality that need work. It just seems to easier to pinpoint other people’s, shall we say, quirks. Maybe because ours are so wrapped up in our own thoughts and emotions that we just miss it—until someone points it out, of course.

But just because there are aspects of our personality that need work, it doesn’t mean we qualify as having a personality problem. Now it’s important to make a distinction between problematic or difficult personality types and personality disorders. A personality disorder is a clinical term that describes an enduring pattern of problematic traits so pervasive it interferes with significant areas of a person’s life such as school, relationships, and work.

While most people don’t walk around with full-blown personality disorders, there are some that come pretty darn close. You know that person at work whose energy is so bad you instinctively run the other way when you see them coming? Or the friend who is so demanding, you’ve stopped answering their text, emails, and calls? Or even that family member who has no clue that their presence drains all the good vibes out of you? Yeah, that’s the one.

You may not know for sure if the person has a clinical diagnosis, but you know something is off. And if you’re wondering whether or not the person with the issue is you, chances are it’s probably not. One of the hallmarks of a person with a personality disorder (or something like it), is a remarkable ability to believe that everyone else, not them, is the problem. So if you’re thinking it’s you, it’s probably them. Unless it really is you and you have the interpersonal chaos to prove it, but you’re working on it (virtual high-five to you!).

But let’s stay focused— this article isn’t really about you, it’s about them and how they affect you. And by “them” I don’t mean a person you don’t like or had a falling out with. I’m referring to those who have enough features or traits of a problematic personality type that most who interact with them find them disagreeable—that is, more than just you (not that you’re not a good judge of character).

And keep in mind that people with difficult personality types are not necessarily “bad”, they’re just rigid in the way they interact, making it difficult for you to be around them. So if you have to spend time with anyone who fits this description, here are some well-known types to spot and related tips that may make it a little easier to be around them and still keep your good vibes afloat.

Histrionic Personality Type

Contrary to what we usually think of a difficulty personality type, this person is really very likeable and often the life of the party. They leave an indelible impression on others, and you can’t help but be drawn in by the dramatic way with which they approach well, everything. The only problem is that that they aren’t really very deep. That is, they tend to have shallow relationships and fleeting emotions. So while you believed them when they said they would loooooooove to help you with a project, or their life is toooootally falling apart, or they found theeeeee person of their dreams last night, they have a hard time keeping their word or acting in ways consistent with their sentiments.

It’s as if they lose attention and focus quickly. One of the main issues with this type of person is dependency. They are dependent on attention and excitement, and have difficulty feeling adequate if they are not performing. So one of the ways to protect yourself from the avalanche of drama is to simply disconnect (and I mean that in the healthiest of ways). That is, take what they say with a grain of salt, and don’t react to every whim or “emergency.”

Just because they may not be consistent or predictable does not mean that you don’t have to be. And perhaps you’re ability to be more consistent and sincere will, at the very least, model a healthier interaction.

Narcissistic Personality Type

While this might be one of the most widely known personality types, it’s also often misunderstood. We tend to associate narcissistic types with people who can’t seem to stay out of the mirror, or think they’re better than everyone else. And while these associations aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re rather limited and don’t capture the full essence of the narcissistic type.

They believe they’re special for sure, but it’s usually not because they think they slay. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. Many don’t have a good perception of themselves at all, and that’s what makes them see themselves as special or different. Sometimes so different that they feel entitled to what they believe they’re missing, and have difficulty with empathy. So if your friend seems to go out of her way to meet her needs at the expense of yours and it has caused some serious rifts, she may be struggling with narcissistic traits.

You can deal with these indiscretions by pointing out how her decisions have personally affected you. Often people with narcissistic traits are so wrapped up in trying to fulfill unmet needs that they have little insight into the impact of their actions. And if that doesn’t seem to work, you may have to draw a line in the proverbial sand and be clear on what you will or will not tolerate.

Holding them accountable and backing up your words with action will protect you from further heartache—and will at least force them to rethink how they deal with you.

Compulsive Personality Type

If people with difficult personality types tend to be rigid in how they interact, then those with a compulsive style are like the gods of rigidity. Of course, they’ll tell you no one is perfect, but the idea of doing anything that falls short of their very high expectations (both for themselves and you) is disturbing enough to make blood boil. To their credit, these folks are really very good at planning and keeping things in order. When they say the meeting is at 3:20 p.m., they mean it. But that’s not the problem.

In their perfect world, there is no room for error or mixing things up. It’s kind of like walking in their own self-imposed straight-jacket with little room for them and those in their world to deviate from  the “norm.” So if feel like you’re walking on eggshells whenever around them, and find yourself thinking of ways to avoid them just so you don’t have to feel the knots turning in your stomach, you may be dealing with a compulsive personality type.

They thrive on holding things together, often in an attempt to compensate for something that has made them feel less than adequate. So if you’ve had enough, lay down your law and be clear about how you operate. While World War III might break out in the process, don’t worry, it may not be the end of the friendship forever. But if it’s a boss or supervisor, you may be less inclined to be badass about it.

Ultimately you can manage the negative vibes by focusing on doing and being your best, and not by their judgment, and being clear about agreed upon expectations.

Dependent Personality Type

Histrionic types depend on your attention, but dependent personality types depend upon the sense of security and closeness you give them. They may be the meek, obliging friend who is content just playing a background role, or the clingy boyfriend who can’t seem to do anything on his own. It seemed nice and maybe even sweet at first, but a lack of assertiveness and independence drives you nuts—and makes you feel like you have to babysit their feelings.

They may present a façade of independence, but always seem to be caught in a bind that requires your help. They make excuses for their behaviors so nothing really changes, including the dysfunctional dynamics of your relationship.

Oftentimes these traits develop within the context of a significant loss or rejection and dependent people believe (even if they aren’t consciously aware of it) they have to assume a more submissive role in order to find the sense of connection they seek.

If you find that you are being pulled in by dependency needs, it’s important to maintain strict boundaries to show you will not be used to fulfill someone’s unmet needs. This may actually work in their favor forcing them to be more independent. Or, it could end the relationship, and while this may be difficult, you’ll ultimately feel freer without the emotional weight of someone who was subtracting more value from your life—rather than adding to it as healthy relationships should.

Depressive Personality Type

You’ve heard of major depression, seasonal depression, and other mood disorders, but you may have heard less about depressive personality (probably because the full-blown Depressive Personality Disorder is no longer an official diagnosis). But nonetheless, I figured there are enough Debbie Downers, Pitiful Pauls, Mourning Marthas… (just stop me please) out there to talk about it. These folks may not have a mood disorder per se (although you can never be too sure); they may just have a really bad way of looking at things—which ultimately can become a mood disorder if they don’t fix it.

That is, they see the world through a really, really dark cloud, and often struggle with low self-esteem, tend to feel guilty about things, and feel ineffective at work or school. (Who knows how they got to be this way.) They may have decided a long time ago that being negative is the safest way to protect themselves from disappointment, or they may have felt that being negative was the way to get attention, or maybe it was just what was modeled for them by their family. Whatever the reason, you find it increasingly difficult to be around them because they are never happy, always have a problem, and never have anything positive to say, even when you attempt to be positive around them.

OK, they may have one positive thing to say, but it’s quickly replaced by something negative. Maybe you can’t avoid being around this person because you work with them or they’re a family member or family friend. They may even be great people, they just don’t realize it. And they probably wouldn’t choose to be negative if they knew a better way of approaching life.

Having sympathy is good, but if their negativity is starting to take a toll on you, it’s time to think about how to guard yourself from it. While it’s not your job to fix them, resolve to be your normal happy and upbeat self when you’re with them. That is, don’t internalize their negativity or let them sway you from the person you want to be, and just like with the other personality types, you may force them to make the changes, rather than the other way around.