Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer

This week I’m introducing a series of articles on personality and character disorders.  It’s perhaps the most important and ambitious series I’ve slated for this blog to date.  My purpose is to lay out the fundamental principles of human nature and behavior in a framework that makes it easy for anyone to understand why the people in their lives do the things they do.  In the process, I hope to bring some sorely needed simplicity to some of the more complex aspects of human functioning and also some clarity to the often murky and confusing world of psychological and behavioral science.

Perhaps the learning difficulties I experienced as a child helped me acquire a knack for cutting through the sometimes confusing and  contradictory aspects of complex topics and zeroing-in with precision and clarity on the most essential points.  And I did my best in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance to use that talent to help folks understand the wide range of personality and character dysfunction so prevalent in our times.  In the upcoming series of articles, I hope to bring even greater depth and clarity to the topic, in the hopes that the readers will not only come to a greater awareness about personality and character dysfunctions but also arrive at a deeper understanding and appreciation of the material in my books and other writings.  The series will also serve as a prelude to the kinds of material I’ll be most often discussing during my upcoming tour of workshops and seminars across the country.

Ask anyone what a personality or character disorder is and you’re likely to get some vastly different answers.  Even mental health professionals harbor differing views on the topic.  And before you can understand what it means to have a personality or character disorder, you have to have a good understanding about what the terms personality and character actually mean as well as what constitutes the nature of any true psychological disorder.  But to adequately define either personality or character, you also have to dispel the many erroneous, contradictory, and inaccurate notions that prevail so widely on the subject.

What is personality?  Perhaps it would aid the cause of clearing up the most prevalent misconceptions by first outlining what personality is not:

  • Personality is not the same thing as a trait or distinguishing personal attribute.  A person might tend, for example to be somewhat shy in novel social situations.  But that shyness does not in itself define their personality.  It’s an aspect of their personality to be sure, but it’s not their whole personality.  
  • Personality is not merely the sum of a person’s traits.  While some choose to define personality as the aggregate total of an individual’s distinguishing characteristics, personality is actually a bit more complex than all of one’s personal attributes put together.
  • Personality is not the same as one’s temperament.  Some people are by nature more laid-back or pacific in temperament, while others are more high-strung.  Some are quick to anger and others are slow to react.  There are many different temperamental variables that contribute to personality.  And while temperamental variables are an important aspect of one’s personality, it’s inaccurate to say that a person’s temperament defines their personality.
  • Personality is not the same as one’s biologically-based predispositions or environmentally-acquired or learned “habits.”  Behavioral predispositions definitely play a role in personality, but they don’t define an individuals personality on their own.
  • Personality and character are not the same thing.  Although both of these terms are used quite loosely and often spoken of (even by professionals) as if they are just different ways to say the same thing, they are very different concepts.  Character is an important aspect of one’s personality, reflecting an individual’s ethics and integrity, but it is not synonymous with personality (there will be much more on this later).

So what exactly then is personality?  The term itself derives from the word “persona,” which is Latin for “mask.”  In the ancient Greek and Roman theaters, actors wore masks to depict certain emotions and also to denote gender.  That’s because only males performed on stage and the art of dramatization hadn’t evolved to the point where actors could produce, display, and convey various emotions at will.  It just so happens that the giants of classical psychological theories (Freud, Adler, Jung, etc.) and their followers conceptualized personality as the social “mask” people wore to conceal and protect their “true selves” from possible disfavor, ridicule, or rejection.  And this sort of conceptualization of personality dominated the fields of psychology and psychiatry for a long time, persisting in some circles even to this day.

Adherents to traditional psychology perspectives generally believe that we’re all basically the same (and also, basically good) behind the “wall” of our unconsciously constructed “defenses.”  Such folks believe that as the result of our fears – mainly fears about whether we’ll be safe or loved in this potentially hostile world – we unwittingly and reflexively put up barriers to our true selves and present a “front” to others that we think will successfully manipulate the safety and support we seek.  This conceptualization actually appears to have relevance and to hold a good deal of truth for some of us (especially those of us I affectionately refer to in my writings as “neurotic”).  But traditional personality perspectives have proved inadequate when it comes to understanding the makeup of the more unsavory characters among us.  That’s why for years, many in the behavioral science field (myself included) have advocated for a more comprehensive conceptualization of personality.  

Over the past several decades, clinicians and researchers have increasingly preferred a multidimensional conceptualization of personality.  And while traditional perspectives on personality are still held by many, the multidimensional perspective (the perspective I hold) is slowly but steadily replacing the traditional view because of how well it appears to explain the workings of all kinds (not just “neurotic”) of individuals.  I’ll be discussing that perspective in depth in the next article in the series.  And I’ll also be discussing the difference between personality and character.  We’ll then move into a discussion about when someone’s personality is rightfully considered disordered and also explore the most prevalent kinds of personality/character disturbances and disorders and their defining characteristics.  I expect the next few articles should spur considerable discussion, and I will welcome any and all (reasonable) comments and questions.



38 thoughts on “Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer

  1. Very useful Series.Nicely explained the term “Personality” Origin and its use by traditional Psychologists,Which is inadequate to explain the behaviour of “CD”. look forward to upcomings.Thanks Dr simon.

  2. I am reminded of the “ambivalence theory of human nature” some anthropologists hold. Nobody is “basically good.” We are all a mix, and we hold the often opposing drives in uneasy balance.

  3. I’ve read your article concerning Jungian shadow as it relates to neurotics and how disturbed characters are comfortable with what others would be apprehensive to acknowledge. This doesn’t directly relate to this article, but I’m curious concerning what Rollo May called the daimonic, something that can take over a person. Is being taken over by the daimonic more common in neurotics or have you seen the same to happen to a character-disturbed person?

    1. Good question. It’s much more common in individuals who are more toward the “neurotic” part of the spectrum. And remember, there is a spectrum. Very few fall at either extreme of the continuum.

  4. Many of my clients discuss characteristics of personality and character disorders. I am hoping very much that this set of articles look more at how we deal with the disturbed character when you need to maintain a relationship with them.
    I found In Sheep’s Clothing to be the most insightful read in helping to understand and deal effectively with the covert aggressor. Hoping to help other redefine their positions in what are effectively very damaging relationship dynamics.

    1. Thank you, Martin. From what you say, I’d be you’d find Character Disturbance even more helpful, especially the therapy vignettes contained within, if you’ve not already read it.

  5. Dr Simon,

    In a lecture, Dr Bruce Perry, showed a brain scan of someone with sociopathic features. The brain scan showed a lot of white space (or missing brain connections).

    I am wondering if the brain scans would help provide evidence to support the case of disturbed characters to mental health professionals?

  6. Dr Simon,

    In a lecture, Dr Bruce Perry, showed a brain scan of someone with sociopathic features. The brain scan showed a lot of white space (or missing brain connections).

    I am wondering if the brain scans would help provide evidence to support the case of disturbed characters to mental health professionals?

    1. I have several articles on this topic, both on this blog and on the blog. There are now many studies showing not only structural differences but also neuronal circuit “networking” difference between “normal” individuals and those with psychopathic characteristics. And there’s some evidence with regard to other types of impaired characters. But this data is often grossly misinterpreted. Most of the time, it’s interpreted as evidence that the brains of psychopaths and other disturbed characters are “wired” differently from the get-go and therefore can’t be altered. But no such thing has been established at all. So a lot more research needs to be done.

      Some food for thought: There’s longstanding solid research showing very analogous brain abnormalities in persons suffering from true and severe OCD. But interestingly enough, no matter whether they’re treated strictly biochemically or through cognitive-behavioral therapy (or both), when the treatment “takes” and their OCD remits, scans show that THE EXACT SAME CHANGES IN STRUCTURES APPEAR IN THE EXACT SAME PLACES IN THE BRAIN THAT WERE ONCE ABNORMAL.

      We have so much left to learn. And really, it’s only been in the last couple of decades that we’ve moved away from all of our old assumptions and begun a serious scientific inquiry into the workings of the human brain. So it will be a long time before we can draw any really meaningful conclusions with regard to complex behavior patterns. And even when we succeed in finding abnormalities, given the brain’s remarkable plasticity, the really big question will be what it will take to alter the way in which the brain works to account for both structural and “networking” abnormalities either present from birth or acquired during development.

  7. Dr Simon, would you be so kind and ask your webmaster to add more comments in the right hand column (Recent Comments)? Like a dozen, perhaps. When discussion erupts here, it’s hard to see where people are making those comments because they quickly slide off the screen.

    Thank you!

          1. Yeah….I don’t know if its a format specific feature (edit comment). I know on some of the other sites you are able to click an edit comment button and correct spelling, add further comments, etc. and you can erase something you may decide you don’t want posted.

        1. Someone gets so overloaded with their own self-love that they lose touch with reality.

          I also happened to find a page that uses those same words:

          A charismatic leader being discussed has “self-belief – so high, they can easily believe that they are infallible, and hence lead their followers into an abyss, even when they have received adequate warning from others. The self-belief can also lead them into psychotic narcissism, where their self-absorption or need for admiration and worship can lead to their followers questioning their leadership.” That’s in the best case anyway.

          1. Okay. I get what you mean. I have a couple of different series of articles planned already, but when they’re finished I plan an interesting 3 or 4 post series on narcissism, grandiosity, mania, and bipolar D/O. It would seem appropriate to discuss these issues then. Please remind me if I forget.

  8. Dr Simon, a question. What is the gist of the difference between guilt-tripping and confronting with behavior? I still don’t get it. I remember the transcript (in Char. Dist.) of the boy verbally attacking his mom, and you sounded to me pretty reproachful when he lashed out.

    This is so hard!

    1. Confrontation is asserting a line somewhere to defend your own rights, while guilt-tripping is a subtly aggressive way of saying: “You’re a bad person and you better let your rights slide from the way of mine.”

      1. Right, J. I have it in my head, but when I am confronting someone in actuality, I get confused. I want to give a powerful message to that person, not a wussy one. And the culture has taught me the way of reproach, if not outright blame.

        1. Vera…..what happens if you just make it about you…..I don’t like it, I don’t feel comfortable, I feel scared and uncomfortable so I don’t like being with you…..and not confront? IDK???

    2. Vera,

      As I recall, the vignette you describe was a here-and-now “in the moment” confrontation of not only the young man’s behavior, but of his clear awareness of it and use of the “denial” tactic.” This is a therapeutic intervention, and the “how” of doing it without reproach and guilt-tripping takes literally seminars of training. And also, as I recall, as soon as the behavior was confronted, I switched immediately back to what I was willing to do to assist this family, namely, to work toward empowering the mother and to deny the young man an audience until the time he was willing to “own” and work on the behaviors in question.

      I know it seems hard to discriminate the subtle differences at times, but this is the very reason I do workshops and will be once again beginning this fall. And I will have many of my most illustrative vignettes acted out by professionals on camera, so that all the subtleties can be captured.

      And sorry, initially, my response was sent via the email channel in error, so I’m posting it here for the benefit of the readers.

      1. Dr. Simon…..I wish I could just plug your brain into mine!!!! LOL!
        Are these workshops only available in person? Like if you GO to them? What if you can’t?
        Will they be available for purchase? We need armor and ammo!

        1. I always do my workshops for the “crossover” audience of both lay persons and mental health professionals. We’ll be targeting all major regions of the country, but to keep per person costs affordable, we’ll only be picking locations likely to yield strong attendance. And we’ll be taping the events to package into a DVD and series of “webinars.”

  9. Dr. Simon, Im not sure how to put this……….I sense that he is “contagious”. Its like the longer i’ve known him the worse my behavior becomes. Not the same behavior but my responses to him. OK, That is true in some ways but not in others. I don’t mean that I am LIKE him but that it seems like the way he is is undermining my ability to cope and function with the situation in a mature and responsible “loving” way. The last email I sent which was a reply to several things he has said was somewhat snotty and attacking…..probably saying things I shouldn’t or in a way I shouldn’t.I know this is serving him and his position in some way which is why I’ve now gone no contact. I smell a trap…..a set up… he’s just baiting me and waiting for me to have a melt down so he can say “SEE!!! See how she is”! He has done this all along…..pushes the situation and bends and twists my words to the point that Im so frustrated that I break. Earlier on, i didn’t know to disengage and just couldn’t because i was so invested. I had swallowed the hook and was committed to the success of the relationship while he continued to undermine it blaming me.
    I’ve basically seen the futility at this point. I am not able to think on my feet and am too easily knocked off center.
    My point is, it seemed, intuition, gut feeling, that he was intentionally frustrating me in hopes of getting a reaction. Pushing the limits, as someone on a different web site said…..they don’t care like we care and play a game of “chicken” in a way. All a big game. :(

    1. While I’m no professional and don’t pretend to be, please let express my thoughts on this. Also, I want others to point out if there is something I’m missing or overlooking.

      Perhaps you are still, on some level, expecting him to come around nad act reasonably. If you tell yourself on conscious level he’s unreasonable, but something else in the back of your mind says something else, then I’m sure you want to explore that.

      “Active imagination” I recommend with certain reservations, since you already are seeing a therapist from what I recall and I don’t know if recommending another type of exercise would confuse.

      Perhaps you also need to really let yourself expect that this man WILL twist words around and WILL act unreasonably.

      1. J……I will tell you this, my expectations WERE based on not having encountered this type of person in a romantic relationship before, not truly understanding how twisted and sick he was. I totally get that NOW but it has taken me until NOW to really get it.
        Then, because of my exhaustion, I just took on his explanations and the subtle nature of his manipulations were VERY hard to prove. I STILL doubt myself on some of it. This last thing with the death threat BS is so blatant, there is NO denying it. The actual slander I know to be a lie and the way he is handling it shows me some very important things about his character that I guess I couldn’t come to terms with while I was still enmeshed in his company( which he did everything he could to insure ). I really was in a trance of sorts.
        I read something somewhere……If you don’t have a frame of reference to interpret these peoples behaviors, manipulations, etc,,,,,you will interpret them through the ones you have until you develop the ability to see them for what they are. Unfortunately, I was all too willing to take it on myself and blame myself and take on an undo amount of responsibility in the relationship both positive and negative.
        It comes from my own self doubts and insecurity and my childhood experiences with parents who were unaccountable and unavailable.
        Thanks for your input J

        1. I’ll chime in here, but I still must heed the caveat against giving direct advice specific to anyone’s particular situation. But I have written extensively about some important principles that seem to apply, so here goes:

          Interactions with certain characters “invite” us to focus externally. And when we try to restrict focus to our own feelings and the actions we need to take to improve our situation, self-doubts and insecurities can creep in. Nonetheless, the solution is to DO THE VERY THING your prior programming hinders you from doing, and to do it over and over again, recognizing and reinforcing yourself for the effort every time. It’s the ONLY way to break the cycle. Allowing your focus to drift anywhere past your own legitimate needs, wants, desires, feelings, etc. and the actions you need to take on your behalf to make things better only pours salt on the early life wounds that still haven’t healed. Healing is your duty and requires your commitment. DO the very think you’re not inclined to do or have doubts about doing. And let the long-term results and not the anticipated catastrophes be your behavioral guide.

          None of us is without some character issues. It’s not an either-or thing, but a matter of degree. Our duty is to focus on addressing our own issues and to make decisions in our best interest as how to deal with the character impairments of others. And it’s the small, self-directed efforts that need recognition and reinforcement. We need to develop the “habit” of self-care and strengthen it over time. And we need to keep the self re-programming simple. DO something different than usual. ANYTHING different from usual. Develop the habit of taking charge and learning from experience. And never forget the self-endorsement, no matter how small the effort. In time you’ll be absolutely astonished how much changes for the better.

          1. Dr. Simon, thank you for that pep talk. I need to move forward, no doubt. Right now I’m in the death throws of this nightmare and fairly exhausted but there is light at the end of the tunnel and I hope it’s not the Spath Express!
            During the encounter, i did not take care of my wants, needs, desires, etc. I bent to accommodate his desires and life circumstances. I didn’t realize this wasn’t a relationship that he would invest himself in and i was already invested,,,,too late.
            It seems impossible but I sense that I gave up. Even though i gave up, I never quit hoping.Even now….it seems impossible that it is over because I really bought in.
            Im so depleted right now…..I really need to rest, regroup and recover.
            Thanks again for your post. I’m going to reread it and if my computer and printer cooperate, Ill print it.

          2. I just want to add, that for me personally, while still in the company of this person… was impossible at that time to get my feet under myself in any significant way, for any significant period of time. I’d get on foot on the ground then as soon as the first toe of my other foot toushed the ground, the rug got jerked out from under me and I’d end up in a >>>Puddle<<< on the floor again. Regroup, go again. Not good.
            I have so much sympathy for domestic violence survivors and victims now. I never understood how a battered woman could stay in an abusive "relationsh-t". Even though Spathx never raised a hand to me, I feel like I have been beaten bloody in my mind and in my heart. At some point I just "lost" my ability to take care of myself and it was too confusing to do anything different than what I had been doing.

  10. Hi there
    I wonder how you would categorize the traits shown by the person who I live with – he has lived off me for many years and when it came to the joint house being sold, he insisted on the proceeds going into his account and will not produce bank statements so I can see where it all went. When we were in that house, I paid about 80% he 20% of the bills, he would regularly ask me to get him tobacco when I was abroad but never paid for it and he is now refusing to have my name on the deeds for the current house – even worse, he thinks he is fully entitled to moan that he is now having to pay half the bills…. I am at my wits end and at an age when I can do without all this.

    1. Christine, I think you will get a better idea about how to “categorize” or size up the character of the person you’re dealing with after either reading the series I’ve posted on personality/character types or the first 4 chapters of my book Character Disturbance. It’s important to understand personality types within the broad context of personality and character formation. And once you do, your general outlook on things will change in a way that will empower you to make sound judgments about how to best take care of yourself in relationships.

  11. I forgot to mention that this man quite often claims that he has been “wiped out” financially by me – he agrees to pay some money back and then claims never to have said that, he used my money to pay for his brother’s funeral and had the cheek to say I said to pay it (as if….) – it is as if he is in complete denial although I can produce evidence for everything I am saying. I am leaving but am not going empty handed as I have had enough. Is this a form of sociopathy? This absolute denial of everything and sweeping everything under the carpet. His son has worse problems – he is a full blown sociopath.

    1. Have to comment on the “as if he’s in complete denial” part here. Be very careful about making any assumptions about whether that kind of “denial” is at work. This is so important that I’ve written several posts on the topic. Denying you said something or did something in order to make the person who catches you in a bad behavior think they’re crazy is simply tactical lying and a the singular best indicator of severe character disturbance. People who are truly in a state of denial are unconsciously blocking the emotionally unbearable. That’s not likely the case here. So to say that the son has worse problems is probably an understatement. It sure seems like the son comes by the sociopathy genes honestly. And as far as a “form” of sociopathy question you ask, this is accounted for in the perspective that sees all forms of character disturbance as existing along a spectrum and there are several articles discussing that issue as well.

      1. Thanks very much Dr. Simon – I am going to try and look through all the articles – it is good to know that the resource is there.
        It is also reassuring to know that it is not me – he once accused me of having a persecution complex (that was when the son was with us and he was trying his best to tip me over the edge – no one believed me till a letter he had written detailing all he was doing (taking my pills and adding them to my yogurt drink, taking some of the other pills and flushing them down the toilet, listening to all the conversations and gleefully reporting that there was a lot of arguing going on therefore his plan was working and so on) came to light. I have been a fool for too long and now is the time to sort it. Thanks again.

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