The 10 most dysfunctional characters on TV
As the fall television season gets set to debut, viewers are gearing up for another round of steam, seduction and sensationalism on the small screen. While we love the drama, romance and comedy, we secretly also love to tune in to “Scandal,” “The Big Bang Theory” and other favorite shows because many of the main characters are so dysfunctional. Watching their lives fall apart -- or fail to come together -- makes us feel a little better about our own.
Because their lives are so complicated, there’s little doubt these characters could benefit from some time in therapy. In fact, mental illness seems pervasive among some of the hottest characters and their storylines. Here’s an exclusive look inside the neuroses, personality disorders and mental health issues of some of TV’s hottest characters, courtesy of psychologists.
Olivia Pope – ‘Scandal’
Her symptoms: Olivia is a stress junkie who runs a thriving crisis-management firm. She’s also having a torrid, illicit affair with the president of the United States, while simultaneously keeping secrets about her lover, her best friend and her co-workers’ tumultuous pasts. So it’s no wonder she suffers from insomnia, is meticulous and hyper-attuned to details and has trouble cultivating healthy relationships. Olivia is also a control freak with a penchant for looking over her shoulder and constantly living in fear of anything, real or perceived, that threatens to unravel her secrets.
The diagnosis: Obsessive-compulsive disorder and inability to trust
Olivia is obsessed with stressful situations because life as a fixer has fooled her into thinking she’s in control. In reality, experts say she’s likely careening out of control on the inside. “All that stress and secrecy can either build bonds and draw people close to her or cause Olivia to feel isolated from those around her she’s keeping the secrets from,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “And she’s torn between both of those bonds.”
In a world filled with so many secrets and lies, Lieberman says it’s no wonder Olivia has trust issues. “She knows what harm people are capable of doing to each other and feels she has to try to protect herself all the time at all costs,” says Lieberman.
Amy Farrah Fowler – ‘The Big Bang Theory’
Her symptoms: This socially inept brainiac is stuck in a vicious cycle that has her wanting friendly and/or romantic relationships but being unable to develop them. Amy is highly intelligent and good-hearted, but it’s her flat, blunted approach to social situations that sends people running in the opposite direction from this pedant. She’s also suffering from inhibitions, repressed sexuality and fear of intimacy.
The diagnosis: Social phobia with signs of avoidant personality disorder
Ramani Durvasula, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is a professor of psychology at California State University, says people with both of these disorders crave social interactions but often shy away from them for fear of being criticized or ridiculed. So it’s no wonder Amy was isolated from social interactions until connecting with her love interest Sheldon through an online dating site.
“Once [social phobics] do get a friend they will often relent on just about everything to keep them and often feel clingy and sticky because they are not very socially skilled and get very anxious in social situations,” says Durvasula. That is why Amy often says awkward things to Penny and Bernadette. It’s also why instead of laying it on the line with Sheldon, Amy avoids expressing her sexual needs and desires.
Barney Stinson – ‘How I Met Your Mother’
His symptoms: His history of promiscuity and serial dating are signs that he’s terrified of intimacy, says Lisa Bahar, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Dana Point, Calif. His life focuses on meeting, manipulating, sleeping with and discarding women. He also has an exaggerated sense of self and constantly craves attention. In his own words, “In my body, where the shame gland should be, there is a second awesome gland. True story.” Barney is also preoccupied with material objects.
The diagnosis: Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and intimacy issues
Bahar says Barney’s NPD characteristics stand out in his incessant womanizing. Barney is love-avoidant and will continue to have challenges creating intimate relationships with women, says Bahar. “It’s likely his façade and denial of how he is acting out his sadness will catch up to him, and he will have a breakthrough, which may be overwhelming since his persona will crack given enough stress, due to the energy it takes to avoid intimacy.”
Emily Thorne – ‘Revenge’
Her symptoms: Tragedy seems to find poor Emily, haunting nearly every one of the socialite’s platonic and romantic relationships. And while tragedy isn’t necessarily a symptom of mental illness, Emily’s reactions are. The years she spent mourning, then hating, then mourning her father, and bouncing from foster homes to juvenile detention has left this character with two distinct personae.
The diagnosis: Antisocial personality disorder
On the outside, Emily meets the criteria for what’s often called a sociopath, says Elizabeth Lombardo, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is the best-selling author of “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness.”
“Antisocial personality disorder is defined as having a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Emily’s history of killing, setting fires and pathologically lying lend support to this diagnosis.
But Emily also exhibits empathy and the capacity to love people like Jack, Amanda and Aiden. “She was against murders committed by Aiden and Amanda, and overall, Emily is a woman obsessed with a mission of revenge that she has, at times, questioned,” says Lombardo. So there just might be hope for her after all.
Raj Koothrappali – ‘The Big Bang Theory’
His symptoms: He is prone to revealing inappropriate feelings for female friends and disclosing secrets without understanding why his actions cause conflict. He’s also unable to speak to women unless he’s drunk.
The diagnosis: Social phobia
Raj has found himself at a loss for words in the presence of women he’s not related to. It seems the more attractive the woman, the more anxious and fearful of being judged he feels, says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the author of "Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie."
Saltz says Raj suffers from a non-generalized form of social phobia, since it is limited to potential romantic partners. “When the woman was extremely attractive and age appropriate for a romantic partner, his anxiety was so extreme he met criteria for selective mutism, meaning he speaks in all social settings except to women.
“He likely has self-incriminating thoughts around women, and he feels embarrassed at the idea that they are judging him harshly,” she adds. Alcohol affords Raj a boost of liquid courage to converse with the ladies, and the broken heart he sustained in Season 6 seemed to ease his anxiety. However, Saltz says his problem is fairly severe, as it interfered with his ability to date or find a girlfriend. So who knows if -- or how long -- his ability to chat up the ladies without the benefit of booze will last?
Meredith Grey – ‘Grey’s Anatomy’
Her symptoms: From her self-destructive, alcohol-fueled one-night stand with a stranger (who turns out to be her boss) to her emotionally disconnected relationship with both parents, Meredith demonstrates significant trust issues and an avoidant style, says clinical psychologist Lombardo. She has a pattern of withholding information from those close to her. She didn’t talk about her mother having Alzheimer’s and she sidestepped discussing feelings related to the hospital shooting. Meredith also has a history of self-destructive behaviors, including excessive partying and getting involved with a married man.
The diagnosis: Borderline personality disorder (BPD) with a focus on acute stress disorder and abandonment issues
Meredith is the poster child for BPD, as those living with the disorder have long-term patterns of unstable or turbulent emotions, says Lombardo. These inner experiences often result in impulsive actions (such as one-night stands, risky behavior, etc.) and chaotic relationships with other people.
While it’s true Meredith Grey has evolved and psychologically matured over the nine seasons we’ve spent with her, Lombardo says she’s still fractured and fragile. “She’s characterized by a history of unstable relationships, moods and behaviors. Her fear of abandonment, sexual promiscuity, suicidal references and emotional instability are also examples of BPD traits.”
Walter White – ‘Breaking Bad’
His symptoms: Walter initially appeared selfless, almost noble, wanting to forgo treatment for lung cancer in order to spare his family the burden of colossal medical bills. Instead, the cancer diagnosis drove the once promising chemist and high school teacher to start a meth operation that he hoped would generate enough money to support his family after his death. As he’s gone deeper into the drug world, however, Walter has lost sight of his original noble intentions. They’ve been replaced with a need for admiration and the alter ego of “Heisenberg.”
The diagnosis: Narcissistic personality disorder
“The diagnosis of NPD is highlighted by the need for admiration and lack of empathy,” says John E. Mayer, a licensed clinical psychologist in Evanston, Ill. “And by the delusion that he can only be understood by someone of his intelligence or higher, his sense of entitlement and that he is interpersonally explosive taking advantage of others for his own gain.”
Walter also buys into the notion that others are envious of him. In short, poor Walter is a hopeless mess.
Alicia Florrick – ‘The Good Wife’
Her symptoms: She struggles with intimate relationships and her need to care for others, sometimes at her own expense. When her politician husband cheats on her with prostitutes, she exhibits strength and maturity but in the end forsakes her own happiness and second chance at true love with “the one that got away.”
The diagnosis: Chronic codependency
Alicia’s willingness to sacrifice her needs for those of husband Peter factors into this diagnosis, says Silvia M. Dutchevici, a licensed social worker and president of the Critical Therapy Center. “Codependents like Alicia try to control the situation for their loved ones. For example, [she believes] that coming to Peter’s rescue every time he needs her and saving him from mayhem and distress is her responsibility.”
Codependents display a dysfunctional pattern of not expressing their true feelings and a penchant for turning their back on their own happiness, all to please someone else (her kids, ex-hubby, etc.).
Dutchevici says Alicia has a long history of being codependent. She has assumed the role of caretaker to her mother and tolerates her mother’s pursuit of whatever makes her happy even at the expense of Alicia and her children.
Caroline Wesbox Channing – ‘2 Broke Girls’
Her symptoms: Seeming to overcome her mother’s abandonment and father’s Ponzi scheme, Caroline comes off as resilient. But Caroline also craves attention, is flirty (sometimes to a fault) and is overly concerned about her appearance.
The diagnosis: Histrionic personality disorder
Clinical psychologist Durvasula says Caroline’s emotional excess and dramatic flair point to this type of personality disorder. “However, the histrionic in her doesn't override the fact that she is smart and even at times manipulative.” It’s her ability to transcend her circumstances without too much bitterness that keeps her from earning a second diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.