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.