Personality Disorders: The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper
Sheldon Cooper, superbly portrayed by Jim Parsons on CBS's The Big Bang Theory, is a very complex guy. Some might agree that he is brilliant only at the things he is passionate about and inept at anything else. Sheldon lives with, and works in the same university as, his friend Leonard Hofstadter. The show takes place predominantly in their apartment where they are often visited by two friends and CalTech colleagues, Rajesh Koothrappali and Howard Wolowitz. These four friends often get themselves involved in funny situations, initially with just Penny, who lives next door to Sheldon and Leonard, but later on with other characters as well.
Many of the episodes are centered around Sheldon Cooper's quirks and nuances. Sheldon's behavior and thought patterns align closely with some personality disorders. Perhaps he is suffering from more than one personality disorder.
*Note: For people to be diagnosed with a personality disorder, the "symptoms" have to be chronic and interfere with everyday life.
A Cup of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder
People who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) exhibit the following characteristics. They:
- are preoccupied with orderliness, rules and regulations;
- function well with lists and schedules;
- are perfectionists;
- are rigid and inflexible;
- and need to be in control.
We see the OCPD part of Sheldon Cooper in the very first, pilot episode. Sheldon has a "thing" with sitting in "his seat" in the apartment he shares with his roommate, Leonard. Sheldon tells his rationale about the seat to Leonard and next door neighbor Penny:
In the winter that seat is close enough to the radiator to remain warm, and yet not so close as to cause perspiration. In the summer, it's directly in the path of a cross-breeze created by opening windows there and there. It faces the television at an angle that is neither direct, thus discouraging conversation, nor so far wide as to create a parallax distortion. I could go on, but I think I've made my point.
Another obsessive-compulsive part of Sheldon's personality comes out when he is knocking on either Penny's front door or Leonard's bedroom door to get their attention. Sheldon feels the need to knock three times in a row, quickly, before saying the person's name, then knock three more times in a row, quickly, before saying the person's name again, and finally, knock three more times in a row, quickly, and then say the name again. For example:
Knock, knock, knock, "Penny ...."
Knock, knock, knock, "Penny ...."
Knock, knock, knock, "Penny ...."
At one point, Penny opens the door after the second set of knocks and interrupts Sheldon's usual pattern. Before Sheldon can respond or move forward, he has to get in the last set of knocks. Then, after all three sets are released out of his system, he is then able to proceed. He can't just leave it at two.
Another example of Sheldon's rigidity comes emerges when dinner time rolls around. He has a daily food routine that, when broken, brings distress to his life:
- Mondays: Dinner: Thai Food: Mee Krob with extra peanuts
- Tuesdays: Dinner: Big Boy burger or Cheesecake Factory burger
- Thursdays: Dinner: Giacomo's Pizza (sausage, mushrooms, and light olives)
- Fridays: Dinner: Chang's Chinese Food: diced chicken with brown rice, spicy mustard, and low-sodium soy sauce
- Mondays: Breakfast: oatmeal
He only has hot chocolate during the months that contain the letter "r."
These are just a small sampling of Sheldon Cooper's Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder tendencies. This list could go on and on as this is the dominant disorder of them all as portrayed by this extremely interesting character.
A Tablespoon of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, comes across in people as a sense of entitlement. Some of the characteristics include:
- a sense that they deserve special treatment. The world or others owe them something.
- haughtiness and arrogance
- a tendency to have low self-esteem, deep down inside, which can make them depressed.
With NPD, the characteristics in the first two bullets listed above are the ones that are exhibited by Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon often times will express his feeling that others owe him something. He is extremely arrogant and seems to think that he is better than everyone else.
He specifically looks down on Howard Wolowitz, one of his friends, because Howard doesn't have a PhD. Sheldon sees Howard as "just an engineer" and is very disrepectful as a result. He says, “Engineering is merely the slow younger brother of physics, watch and learn gentlemen." He tells Howard, "Howard, you do not have a PhD. Your cologne is an assault on the senses, and you're not available for video games during the Jewish high holidays."
Sheldon has issues with people who he feels are not as intelligent as himself. He has a hard time communicating with Penny, his neighbor, who he says is "just a waitress." He looks down on her. Here is an exchange between the two...
- Sheldon: Why are you crying?
- Penny: Because I'm stupid!
- Sheldon: That's no reason to cry. One cries because one is sad. For example, I cry because others are stupid, and that makes me sad.
Sheldon Cooper also feels that he is extremely deserving of the Nobel Prize. He has a short conversation with a former winner, Dr. Smoot...
- Sheldon: You won the Nobel prize, what, three years ago? So you must deal with a whole lot of "what has Smoot done lately?" My thought is we continue my research as a team, you know, Cooper-Smoot, alphabetical.. When we win the Nobel Prize, you'll be back on top.
- Dr. Smoot: With all due respect, Dr Cooper, are you on crack?
- Sheldon: Fine, Smoot-Cooper, what a diva!
Sheldon Cooper's NPD tendencies are clear in that he feels he is superior to others in many different ways, especially intellectually. He looks down on many people and feels he deserves to be recognized for his cognitive abilities.
A Teaspoon of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
People who exhibit characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder have short spurts of moodiness. They have a hard time calming down once they are upset. They could end up having impulsive, angry outbursts. They have a polarized view of the world and function in terms of extremes such as "all or nothing". They have a hard time focusing on anything for long.
When Sheldon Cooper doesn't get his way, he throws fits and tantrums. He is an extremist in some ways and tends to pout. He definitely has an "all or nothing" attitude. In a few episodes, when the four friends are ready to do something and Sheldon doesn't get his way, he often shuts down and doesn't want to participate at all. He sometimes ends up spending the evening by himself as a result.
Sheldon also has a hard time calming down once he is upset. It seems that his mother is the only one that can fully calm him down when he is in a funk. During one episode, Sheldon wouldn't come out of his room as he was very upset with the world. His roommate, Leonard, called Sheldon's mother, who eventually traveled from Texas to California to pull Sheldon out of his depressing pout session. On occasion, Penny will be able to calm Sheldon down, but most of the time, his mother is the only one who can calm down "Shelly," as she calls him.
Most of the time, when Sheldon pouts and pulls his "all or nothing" tactics, he comes across as an intelligent man trapped in a young boy's body, throwing childish tantrums to get his way.
A Dash of Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD)
People who suffer from Paranoid Personality Disorder have a hard time trusting others. They constantly think that others are out to get them, taking advantage of them, or intentionally irritating them. PPD patients keep a distance from others. They also have a need to attack those they feel threatened by as they become pathologically jealous.
Of all the characters in The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper is the one that has the most difficult time trusting others. He often feels that life is unfair since others don't do things they way he does. He becomes very threatened by others who are just as intelligent and tends to mask this by putting others down. This is part of the jealousy he feels when others are successful. For years, Sheldon was not recognized for his work in the physics department as he vies for the Chancellor's Award each year. He often puts down the people who end up winning the award. During one of the episodes, without knowing that he might be the one chosen for the current year, Sheldon puts down the award winners in general.
- Leonard: So I was just at the Dean's office and I overheard them discuss the winner of the Chancellor's Award for Physics this year.
- Sheldon: And you've come to rub my nose in it. I'm the William Shatner of theoretical physics. All right, I'll play along. What self-important preening fraud are they honoring this year?
- Leonard: I'm so glad you ask it like that. You.
Sheldon definitely stays away from others and isolates himself. He is happy to not have too many people around him.
- Leonard: We need to widen our circle.
- Sheldon: I have a very wide circle. I have 212 friends on MySpace.
- Leonard: Yes, and you've never met one of them.
- Sheldon: That's the beauty of it.
I personally find Sheldon Cooper to be an interesting psychological case study. Some people think that he is on the autistic spectrum. Although some of his characteristics align with those found on the spectrum, I believe he has characteristics of several personality disorders. What do you think?