Personality and Character Disorders – Part 2

Last week’s post (see:  Personality and Charcter Disorders:  A Primer) addressed some of the popular misconceptions about personality and also discussed the more traditional definitions of both personality and character.  This week’s post takes a look at the multidimensional approach to understanding personality, an approach that differs in many respects from traditional perspectives and is steadily gaining favor among professionals as a more accurate interpretation of the construct.

Personality can be conceptualized as the distinctive “style” a person has of engaging with the world.  The concept of personality as a “style” of relating is really nothing new.  Even traditional theorists (i.e. those who view personality as a social “mask” or facade , defined by one’s “unconscious defenses” against their fears and anxieties) often conceptualize personality as an individual style.  In fact, David Shapiro’s landmark book Neurotic Styles, specifically outlines several of the long-accepted and distinctive personality styles, although it unfortunately regards each of these styles as different manifestations of a person’s neurosis.

The multidimensional approach embraces the notion of “style” as the hallmark feature of personality.  But unlike traditional models, it does not conceive of personality as necessarily an unconsciously constructed facade born of a person’s defenses against his or her fears and anxieties.  Rather, within the multidimensional framework, the distinctive and preferred way people develop of perceiving the world around them and relating to that world is most often viewed as a genuine expression of who they really are.  And what’s even more different about the multidimensional perspective is the notion that a variety of critical factors contribute to the development of this style.  So, instead of seeing a person’s style of relating as merely the outgrowth of unconscious fears and defenses, the multidimensional approach views this style as the result of:

  •  Constitutional factors  (things make up a person’s biological “constitution”), including:
    • Heredity (genetically-conferred or influenced traits and predispositions)
    • Temperament
    • Other biological variables (e.g., hormonal levels, biochemical balances or imbalances)
  • Environmental factors, such as:
    • learned behaviors and learning failures
    • cultural influences and social consequences
    • trauma
    • exposure to drugs and toxic agents
  • Developmental factors, and perhaps most importantly:
  • Dynamic interactions between all contributing factors at various phases in a person’s development.

Over time, these factors contribute to the development of a person’s unique “style” of perceiving and relating to others and the world at large.  The degree to which any of the aforementioned factors plays a more dominant role in the shaping of personality style varies from person to person.  There are some individuals, for example, who are so naturally”volatile” in temperament that their personality is, to a remarkable degree, marked by that volatility, which may persist even in the face of many environmental influences that might otherwise have tempered it (e.g., parent’s attempts to discipline, legal system attempts to sanction, etc.).  And generally speaking, once a certain “style” develops and solidifies, it remains intact and relatively unchanging across a wide variety of circumstances and throughout most of a person’s life.  However, for many folks, certain aspects of their personality do change as they grow, acquire wisdom, and mature.   Few of us can say that we are exactly the same person we were 20 or 30 years ago.  Still, at our core, most of us retain a distinctive and unique identity that most of our friends and acquaintances can easily recognize as distinctively “us.”  Some folks, however, either as a result of experiencing extreme trauma during their formative years or because they have an innate predisposition toward high cognitive and behavioral ambivalence, never seem to “solidify” a stable personality.  The result is often an erratic and unpredictable pattern of emotional expression and behavioral conduct so distinctive that it appears as a “style” of its own (as in the case of borderline personality).

Most personality styles are adaptive in the sense that they draw upon the person’s natural inclinations as well as their learned experience to form a distinctive and functional “strategy” on how to deal with life’s challenges, get one’s needs met, and prosper.   But sometimes one’s distinctive way of coping can, in and of itself, present big problems.   And when a person’s “style” of perceiving and engaging with the world is the very cause of significant distress and dysfunction, it’s considered to be a “disorder.”  Most of the time, a person’s style of relating becomes dysfunctional or disordered when it is:

  • Inordinately intense (i.e. the behaviors associated with their preferred style of coping are exceed the culturally normal bounds of expression)
  • Inflexible (i.e. the person doesn’t appear able to moderate their responses or implement alternative coping strategies)
  • Resistant to modification despite adverse consequence.

For example, let’s take the situation of folks who tend to be obsessive and compulsive about things.  Their meticulousness and conscientiousness can be quite adaptive and functional if they happen to be in the business of brain surgery or tax accounting.  But if they are so rigid that they give their children no breathing room to explore and learn, and if they can’t “turn off” their conscientiousness when it’s time to kick back, relax, and let loose a bit, there can be real problems.

Now, I mentioned in my earlier post that some (especially traditionally-minded folks) professionals tend to use the terms personality and character as if they were synonymous.  This can be especially problematic when we start talking about personality and character disorders.  As I suggest in my book Character Disturbance, character is better defined as the aspect of personality that reflects one’s personal integrity, degree of virtue and commitment to ethical conduct.   When the nature of a person’s character necessarily impedes them from functioning in a pro-social manner, we say they have a character disturbance or impairment.  When that impairment is so intense, inflexible, and resistant to modification despite adverse consequence, we consider them to have a character disorder.  You can see that when we make such distinctions, there is a big difference between someone having a personality disorder (a personality that simply “doesn’t work” adequately in the interpersonal sphere) and a person who has a character disorder (a personality characterized by antisocial attitudes and behaviors).

In the next post we’ll make a side by side comparison of the traditional views vs. the multidimensional views on personality.  This is important because the differing viewpoints lead to very different assumptions made in the mental health professional community about how people got to be the way they are and how to intervene to make things better, if in fact it’s determined that personality issues are the source of problems.


18 thoughts on “Personality and Character Disorders – Part 2

  1. “Some folks, however, either as a result of experiencing extreme trauma during their formative years or because they have an innate predisposition toward high cognitive and behavioral ambivalence, never seem to “solidify” a stable personality. ”

    For many years I had that odd feeling of living out the false self.

    It is so clear to me now that when I was solidifying an identity, my enmeshed CA parent would come and ambush. I cut off contact a few years ago.

    Oddly, just before that, a therapist was helping me to get separation from this CA parent. But when our company did layoffs and CA parent swooped in, proposing she and I go to therapy together, my personal therapist said I better go.

    Why on earth would I spend time in therapy with a CA parent when I need to land another job asap? I am so mad that I paid this so-called therapist to push me into the lion’s den.

    The last thing you do with a CA is to open a dialog with them.

    1. What is a CA? Chronological age? Conditioned avoidance? Canada? California? Chartered accountant? Calcium?

      Thanks for your help . . . .

  2. And the last thing you should do with a CA is tell them what you need from them. A CA hates to submit, so if you tell them what you need this from them, they will be less likely to give it to you.

    A CA will find out what you need so that they can manipulate you, hold what you need just beyond reach to get you to do what they want you to do.

    I deeply believe this personal therapist should have his license pulled. Oddly, he was the first to introduce the concept of “enmeshment” and “individuation” to me, and he was about the sixth therapist I’d seen in my adult life.

    I gave up on therapy after this and just started going to church and embracing the idea that we should connect up to a higher power, the same higher power others are connecting to, and embrace that some people sin.

    1. The other people who don’t get this are the Non-violent communication crowd. The ones who teach how to approach folks with feeling/needs feedback. Works like a charm with normals. CAs, not so much. 😉

      1. Vera, how true that is. There are some people to whom you should not reveal your buttons.

        Feelings and needs are buttons or levers for a CA to push.

        Trust is earned – we do not have to be open books with people who violate our boundaries.

        1. Amen Clair/ Vera…….I know Spathx was withholding many things I had voiced as needs/ desires. ABSOLUTELY. Just a big game, a game of chicken. She’s hooked, I know she wants me, so here we go! What will she put up with?? Where will she draw the line? It’s fun to watch her when she’s so upset she finally draws a line and it’s so satisfying when I repeatedly cross it and she does nothing….yep! She is hooked!

  3. Claire, I feel for you. While I do like my therapist (she’s helped me quite a bit), she also, when discussing my engulfing narcissistic mother, tells me to focus on her behavior (not the label). And if the behavior is appropriate, ok. If it’s not, express my disapproval and state my needs. I’m not sure my T realizes how disordered a narcissist can be. I figured out on my own (through reading this site any many, many books on narcissism, and then thinking back on 40 years of experience with her) that all my mother would do is alter her behavior in a sneaky, sly way to manipulate me and get exactly what she wanted. And I wouldn’t know what hit me. I would think everything was normal and then WHAM! Whiplash when whatever occurred ended.

    Growing up, my mother was very overt in her abuse–physical, emotional & psychological. But when I left home at 18, she ended up going to therapist. No doubt to find out what was wrong with *me* in order to fix me because I had left her. Like a child should do when they grow up! After her therapy I did see a huge change. What I didn’t realize was that the abuse turned covert. I imagine her therapist told her to focus on her “behavior” — what is acceptable and appropriate behavior. And boy did she ever. He helped turn her into a world class manipulator. She feels very entitled to whatever she wants. Like Dr. Simon says, “She sees, she just disagrees.” And she’s very smart. I’ve thought a lot lately that I’d love to have a little talk with that therapist she went to. He helped to cause an additional 20 years of abuse.

    1. LMR, Your story is mine exactly. My mother was borderline/npd so really erratic and physically abusive when I was a kid, drug abuser whole 9 yards. Marries rich husband number three and then goes to therapy and she lets her inner waif roar. I’m still angry from the early childhood trauma and she and other npd relatives are scapegoating me behind back. Best thing for me ever. Got me out of the Lion’s den. But boy are they manipulative. I can smell the manipulation wafting under the doorframes in the morning when I used to spend the night with them.
      But yeah, going to covert really set me up to play the working so hard to be good and make her proud thing until the day she died.

      1. Jaleo, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been through this too. It’s a tough thing to wake up to, and then to heal from. So confusing! But so worth it. Good luck to you in your journey.

  4. Dr Simon…….I have a question. You talk about the difference between an unconscious behavior or action in neurotics ( i’m sure your wording is better than mine here, sorry!!) and the conscious, willful behavior of CA’s and the like.
    Is it possible for a CA to also have at least SOME unconscious behaviors that are hurtful and destructive? Kind of an interesting thought. Where and how would you make the determination between the two?
    Hope you are well. Things are kind of quiet this week!

    1. Great question! As I discuss in Character Disturbance, problems always exist along a continuum between mostly neurosis and mostly character impairment. And where a particular individual lies along the continuum varies. So, it’s indeed possible (and not at all out of the ordinary) for there to be SOME behaviors that are hurtful and destructive that are unconsciously motivated. That said, when a person of otherwise sound character realizes they’ve hurt someone, even without intending to, they are prompted in conscious to increase their awareness and do their best to avoid doing similar hurtful things in the future. THAT’S how you tell whether character disturbance is your bigger problem to deal with.

      Well, back to working on tomorrow’s post. And yes, things generally quiet down a bit at the start of summer vacations. 🙂

      1. In reply to your response, and thank you, I would imagine that your VERY helpful article on Contrition comes into play here? Contrition vs lip service “Im sorrys”?
        Very helpful.

      2. You describe shallow apologies well, Puddle.

        If there’s anything character-deficient people are sorry for, it’s themselves and thei cruel world that doesn’t hand them everything.

      3. *their position in the cruel world that doesn’t hand them everything. As I think they would see it through their cognitive distortions.

  5. Wow, I like this: the difference between lip service and contrition.

    As a long time A.A. member, I can tell you that I have seen, sponsored (taken other men thru the 12 Steps), and learned some real practical tests for ascertaining the difference.

    In Step 9 (the “amends Step”), I was told, and pass it on to the men who ask me for direction (IF they ask), or when I get to share on the topic, that “we” as alcoholics/addicts, have usually always worn out the word “sorry.” There is even a line in our basic text which reads, “…a remorseful mumbling that we are sorry will not fill the bill at all (paraphrase).

    I was taught to 1) enumerate specific harms, without acting emotional (manipulation!)and then to ask if there is any other ways in which I may have harmed them and then 2)LISTEN and WRITE what they say; and, 3) Ask what THEY would have me do to straighten out the harms. (and ask 2 and 3 several times (“are you sure? You’d really be helping me to grow if you let me know what your experience of me as a person who has harmed you has been…” because people are likely to be hesitant to let me have it because they are afraid of confrontation; or, don’t want to derail the poor struggling drug addict, etc!).

    The test is obvious: Did I go through with the amends process by doing whatever they asked (If its not something insane), and do I try very hard NOT to repeat the harms going forward.


  6. …and their answer to question #3 is likely to be “Oh, its okay. Just keep doing what you’re doing. We’re fine.” So Iit is really important to let them know that they can let me know if something arises later in terms of more harms done, and what specific actions I can take to truly amend tthe harm, if not the relationship itself too.


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