Perhaps no two concepts in psychology are as confusing at times as personality and character. That’s in part because the definitions of both terms have evolved over time. But it’s also because certain misconceptions about the terms have persisted over the years not just in the minds of the general public but also in among professionals.
I once gave an instructional seminar to some 3rd year medical students (wanting to enter psychiatry) on the different approach needed to deal with character disturbance as opposed to neurosis. One young man in the front row was shaking his head in a negative direction the entire seminar, whereas most of the audience appeared not only receptive but affirming. This person later made some statements and asked some questions that revealed he harbored two all-too-common misconceptions: that personality and character are one and the same thing and that every personality style is a manifestation of a particular type of neurosis.
As I outlined in one of last year’s posts (See: Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer):
- Personality is not the same thing as a trait or distinguishing personal attribute. It’s also more complex than merely the sum of a person’s individual traits.
- Personality is not the same as a person’s temperament. Temperamental variables are an important aspect of one’s personality to be sure, but it’s inaccurate to define someone’s personality by their temperament alone.
- Personality is neither comprised only of one’s biologically-based predispositions nor is it merely a reflection of their environmental influences or learned “habits.”
- Personality and character are related but nonetheless different concepts. Although both of these terms have been used quite loosely and often synonymously (even by professionals) they are very different constructs. Character is an important aspect of one’s personality – the aspect that reflects one’s ethics and integrity, but it is not synonymous with personality.
So what exactly then is personality? The term derives from the Latin word “persona,” meaning “mask.” In the ancient theater, actors wore masks to depict various emotional states and also to denote character identity and gender. 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.” And 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 always proved inadequate when it comes to understanding the makeup of the more unsavory characters among us, and we now live in an age where pathological neurosis is less common. That’s why for years, many in the behavioral science field (myself included) have advocated for a more comprehensive view of personality.
Over the past several decades, clinicians and researchers have increasingly preferred a multidimensional conceptualization of personality. They’ve also tended to view personality as the distinctive “style” a person has of engaging with the world. While 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) have conceptualized personality as an individual interaction style, informed professionals today no longer view these styles as manifestations of a person’s neurosis or an unconsciously constructed facade. Rather, they view these styles as a genuine expression of who the person really is and how he or she prefers to relate. Moreover, within the multidimensional perspective, a variety of critical factors are thought to contribute to the development of each person’s unique style of relating, including:
- Constitutional factors (all the factors that comprise a person’s biological “constitution”), such as:
- Heredity (genetically-conferred or influenced traits and predispositions)
- Other biological variables (e.g., hormonal levels, biochemical balances or imbalances, etc.)
- Environmental factors, including:
- learned behaviors and learning failures
- socio-cultural influences on and consequences for behavior
- exposure to drugs and toxic agents
- Developmental factors, and perhaps most importantly:
- Dynamic interactions between all the contributing factors during various phases in a person’s development.
Over time, a dynamic interaction between all the aforementioned factors contribute to the development of a person’s unique “style” of perceiving and relating to others and the world at large. And the degree to which any of the aforementioned factors plays a more dominant role in the shaping of personality style varies from individual to individual. 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 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 (This is the case with Borderline Personality, and for more on the topic see: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder).
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 problems. When a person’s “style” of perceiving and engaging with the world is 1) inordinately intense (i.e. the behaviors associated with their preferred style of coping far exceed the bounds of expression considered normal for the culture), 2) Inflexible (i.e. the person doesn’t appear able to moderate their responses or implement alternative coping strategies), and 3) resistant to modification despite a clear lack of functionality, it’s considered a “disorder” of personality.
As I suggest in my book Character Disturbance, character is better defined as the aspect of personality that reflects one’s moral integrity. The word character derives from a Greek word describing the distinctive mark engraved on a printing plate. The nature of our character “marks” our personalities with respect to our social conscientiousness and personal ethics. When the nature of a person’s character impairs their ability (willingness) to function in a pro-social manner, we say they have a character disturbance. And when that impairment is so intense, inflexible, and resistant to modification despite adverse consequences, we say they have a character disorder.
For much of the modern era, there’s been a bias in the professional community against recognizing personality and character disturbances and disorders and their role in psychological problems. But because we live in an age in which so many socio-cultural factors both promote and reward character dysfunction, that bias has been steadily waning. It’s really hard to find a case these days where personality is not a major player in a person’s difficulties, regardless of the clinical label they might be given. There are relatively few problems that come to the attention of mental health professionals that are strictly the result of disease processes, biochemical abnormalities, extreme and unusual circumstances, inevitable response to trauma, or strictly involuntary factors. Personality factors, and sometimes character issues, often play significant roles in problems, even though they’re not always recognized, diagnosed correctly, or afforded the kind of attention they warrant in treatment. That’s why in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome, and in my numerous online articles, I’ve focused so heavily on personality and character issues and the roles those issues play in people’s difficulties.
This Sunday’s Character Matters program will include a further discussion of these topics but will also reserve ample time for an open forum on topics of the listeners’ choice.