Body Language and Personality Disorders
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By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Patients with personality disorders have a body language specific to their disorder. It comprises an unequivocal series of subtle presenting signs. The patient's body language usually reflects the underlying mental health problem. For instance: people with Avoidant Personality Disorder and patients with its diametrical opposite, the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, comport themselves differently.
A few examples:
The Narcissist's body language- from my book "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited":
"Haughty" body language – The narcissist adopts a physical posture which implies and exudes an air of superiority, seniority, hidden powers, mysteriousness, amused indifference, etc. Though the narcissist usually maintains sustained and piercing eye contact, he often refrains from physical proximity (he maintains his personal territory)."
The psychopath is likely to be expansive (dominate and invade other people's personal territory), swaggering, and vaguely menacing. His manifest equanimity is bound to be mixed with an underlying streak of agitation, violent impatience, and hypervigilance. The general impression is of a wound time bomb, about to explode.
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The Avoidant is reticent and maintains a clearly demarcated personal turf to which she often withdraws (for instance, by folding her legs underneath her). Her body posture is tense and defensive: shoulders stooped, arms folded, legs crossed. She avoids eye contact.
The Borderline is "all over the place". Her body seems to not be fully under her control. She is irritated, fidgety, manic, and alternates between displaying empathic warmth and a demanding, sulking or even threatening position.
The Schizoid is robotic, slow, and deliberate. He moves reluctantly, maintains great distance from the therapist, and is passive (but not aggressive) throughout the encounter.
The Schizotypal is hypervigilant but friendly and warm. He does not hesitate to gesture his emotions; affection, anger, or fear. Similar to the Obsessive-Compulsive, the Schizotypal has small, private rituals which he uses to reduce his level of anxiety.
The Paranoid is cold and defensive, hypervigilant and has a startle reaction. His eyes dart, he fidgets, and sometimes sweats and has difficulties breathing (Panic Attacks). His speech is likely to be idiosyncratic and he maintains eye contact only when trying to prove a point and to gauge his interlocutor's reaction.
In itself, body language cannot and should not be used as a diagnostic tool. But, in conjunction with psychiatric interviews and psychological tests, it can provide an additional layer of diagnostic certainty.
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