Before we dive in, I want to make clear that this article only intends to provide a basic overview of schizoid personality/schizoid personality disorder. That’s because it’s incredibly complex. I’ve done my best to capture what I understand constitutes the essence of ‘schizoid’, and I’ve included some links at the end which I think provide further useful introductions.
What is ‘schizoid’?
‘Schizoid’ is a term used to describe people with a ‘socially distant’ personality. Schizoids lack interest in social relationships and are uncomfortable with forming close interpersonal connections. As a result, they tend to be solitary creatures.
So schizoids are basically just introverts?
No – see, this is where it starts to get complicated (but also interesting)…
Introversion is an inborn temperament which predisposes one towards the inner world and away from social stimulation.
Now, it’s probably the case that most schizoids are introverts – wired to prefer a quieter, less sociable life. But there are particular things going in that inner world of the schizoid, that make them more than a ‘mere’ introvert.
An introvert likes spending time alone because being around people literally drains them of energy. But they still seek connection with, and enjoy the companionship of, others. It’s just that too much socialising sets their nervous system ajangling, so they also enjoy retreating into solitude in order to recuperate and replenish themselves.
The schizoid, on the other hand, distances themselves from others for very different reasons. Reasons that have less to do with nervous systems, and more to do with defence mechanisms; psychodynamics.
The schizoid has a dread of being smothered, “of being engulfed by relationships” (McWilliams). They fear people getting too close to them; of being prised open. Ultimately, the schizoid fears that being connected to other people, entering into relationships with them, will lead to a loss of the self.
The “whole effort” of the schizoid individual is to “preserve his self.” The schizoid feels “safe only in hiding, and isolated” because “relationship of any kind with others is experienced as a threat to [their] identity.”R. D. Laing, The Divided Self
Therefore, it’s not enough to say that schizoid = socially distant. To really understand what schizoid is, we have to know why schizoids are socially distant. It’s the inner workings of the schizoid mind – often referred to as ‘dynamics’ or ‘adaptations’ – that constitute someone’s schizoid-ness.
So you can’t tell if someone’s schizoid from the outside?
Having said that, some observable traits and behaviours have been identified as ‘typically’ schizoid. These usually come from the DSM’s (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) definition of schizoid personality disorder. In addition to “neither desires nor enjoys close relationships” and “almost always chooses solitary activities”, it also lists “show(s) emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affectivity” and “takes pleasure in few, if any, activities” as schizoid characteristics.
The DSM’s take on schizoid is a tad controversial, though. Although many schizoids would recognise at least some of themselves in its description, the DSM gives us just that, a description of schizoid personality, rather than an explanation of it. And as we noted earlier, the heart of the schizoid condition lies in the why rather than in the what.
There may be any number of reasons why someone chooses solitary activities or shows emotional coldness. After all, social and emotional detachment are also characteristic of depressive people. What distinguishes the social and emotional detachment of the schizoid from that of the depressive are the internal dynamics driving the detached behaviour in each case (though they may intersect – depressive schizoids do exist!). That’s why we need to look at what’s going on internally i.e. psychodynamically. But that isn’t the DSM’s wheelhouse.
So what is going on internally?
Ultimately, the schizoid doesn’t feel safe around other people. This is because they fear others will impinge upon, invade, and ‘take them over’, leading to a loss of self.
This is why the schizoid is socially distant – because alone, they are safe, in control, inviolable. It’s also why they may not be very emotionally expressive – because that would entail revealing themselves, which in turn could open up a route by which the other person could find their way ‘in’ to the schizoid, and that’s when things would really fall apart…
Also common to the schizoid psyche is the harbouring of a fantasy life. According to schizoid specialist Elinor Greenberg, “People who have made schizoid adaptations tend to substitute elaborate fantasy relationships for real relationships. My schizoid clients explain that unlike in real life, in their fantasies they have total control over what happens. That makes fantasy relationships safer.”
Greenberg has also noted that the schizoid has a weak sense of self. This is why they have such a fear of losing themselves in relationships – because “their sense of “This is who I am and this is what I believe” [is] weak and permeable.” This also means that the schizoid tends to find it difficult to establish boundaries with others, and so “when they are in a relationship with a friend or mate, [the schizoid] find themselves doing things that the other person wants, even when they know it is not what they want to do.”
This gives us a very different picture of the schizoid than that painted by the DSM. Sure, schizoids can be aloof and lack emotional affect, but they can also come across incredibly agreeable and friendly. Their weak sense of self prevents them from being able to assert themselves, and so they’ll often go along with what other people want, putting their own needs second.
If someone’s schizoid, does that mean there’s something wrong with them?
‘Schizoid’ is often mentioned in the context of schizoid personality disorder (SPD), a clinically diagnosable mental health condition. A diagnosis of SPD is often made using the DSM criteria.
However, Socially Distant takes the view that ‘schizoid’ should not always be equated with SPD.
Schizoid can also refer to a particular type of socially distant personality, or a specific set of psychodynamics/adaptations that result in socially distant behaviour/traits. And to have a schizoid personality, or schizoid traits, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you in a clinical sense.
In decoupling schizoid from schizoid personality disorder, Socially Distant takes its cue from Nancy McWilliams, who in her paper, Some Thoughts About Schizoid Dynamics, argues for the destigmatisation and mainstreaming of the term ‘schizoid’. McWilliams argues – rather compellingly – that the schizoid personality is far more common, and a lot less ‘sick’, than we might typically think.
McWilliams uses the term schizoid in the way it was originally used (before the days of the DSM), to capture “the complex intrapsychic life” – “the dynamisms and internal splits” – of a particular type of introverted individual.
All of this is to say that someone can be schizoid without meeting the DSM criteria for SPD – which as we noted above, doesn’t give us the most useful insight into the schizoid anyway.
But if schizoids find relationships with people difficult, doesn’t that cause them a lot of problems?
Being schizoid isn’t easy – regardless of whether one has a diagnosis of SPD or not.
Feeling uncomfortable around people; becoming detached from your emotions; not knowing how to navigate certain social situations, and experiencing your sense of self being smothered and then shattered – all of this can make the schizoid’s everyday life a struggle at best, and a near-hell at worst.
This is why having a diagnosis of SPD can be helpful for some schizoids. A diagnosis can lead to the schizoid getting the support they need, without which, they might find life harder to cope with. But even without a diagnosis of SPD, those with schizoid personalities might still seek out therapy as a way to better understand themselves, and figure out ways to navigate certain situations or relationships.
It’s also the case that schizoid dynamics/traits tend to develop as a result of trauma, or adverse life events, which, of course, can also cause the schizoid individual difficulty and distress.
At the same time, it’s also worth considering the role social norms and expectations play in contributing to the struggles schizoids face.
Central to our understanding of human nature is the notion that humans are social animals. But by showing little interest in relationships, and preferring to keep to themselves, the schizoid ‘fails’ to meet this most fundamental criterion for what makes us ‘human’. So, is it any wonder they can be diagnosed with a personality disorder, or just generally made to feel there’s something wrong with them?
It’s important to note that being schizoid doesn’t cause distress for every schizoid individual. Some may have managed to create a life that suits them just fine – a fairly solitary one, with work and hobbies filling the space where relationships are ‘supposed’ to be.
Sure, the schizoid may have pursued such a life because they could not cope with the psychic pain that living in close relation with others would bring. But would this matter so much if we weren’t led to believe that no one can possibly be happy alone? If we weren’t so wedded to the idea that we must have intimate relationships, because that’s what’s natural?
Is there anything else I should know?
Yes – it’s important to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ schizoid.
Not all schizoids have the same traits/adaptations. Some meet all the DSM’s criteria for SPD, others have what we might call a ‘basic schizoid personality’. Some schizoid folk are high-functioning, and you probably wouldn’t notice anything ‘different’ about them. For others, their schizoid-ness causes great distress and has a negative impact on their daily life. Some schizoids live pretty solitary lives, others do have close relationships.
And of course, schizoid people aren’t just schizoid. They all have other personality traits, and psychodynamics, which will intersect with their schizoid-ness. Some schizoids are neurodivergent, or have (other) mental health conditions, and it’s not always clear where the autism or the anxiety, for example, ends and the schizoid begins (if indeed, it even works like that…). Some schizoid people have always believed they were schizoid on some level; others can clearly point to a particular life event, usually a traumatic one, that caused them to develop schizoid adaptations.
One more thing – given how little awareness there is of schizoid personality/schizoid personality disorder, it’s highly likely that there are a fair few people walking around not even knowing they’re schizoid.
Where can I find out more?
Here! One of the reasons why I created Socially Distant was to explore the rich terrain that is schizoid personality (disorder), and in doing so, raise more awareness of the schizoid way-of-being in the world. Click here to view all articles in the ‘schizoid’ category.
Also check out the following:
- Nancy McWilliams: Some Thoughts About Schizoid Dynamics (also referenced above)
- Elinor Greenberg: What Everyone Ought To Understand About Schizoid Personality Disorder (also referenced above)
- Internet Kindness’ YouTube video on Schizoid Personality Disorder
- The Schizoid Wiki FAQ on Reddit
Let me know what you think
As I said at the beginning, this article only attempts to give a broad overview of what schizoid is. If you think I’ve missed anything important (or majorly messed up on something) feel free to let me know (nicely!) in the comments down below. Other comments/questions are also welcome.