There’s more information available these days about personality and character disorders than there’s ever been. Still, many misconceptions exist. That’s in part due to the failure of professionals to succinctly and uniformly define many of the key concepts involved. It’s also due to the high degree of variance of opinion about the nature of personality disturbances and what can be done about them. The series I’m inaugurating today is a companion to the primer series that began with the post: Personality and Character Disorders: A Primer. So I invite folks, especially newcomers to the site, to avail themselves of that series. In the current series, I’ll be concentrating on dispelling some of the more common misconceptions about personality disturbances in general as well as matters pertaining to intervention. And I’ll also be expanding on topics broached in the earlier series. At times, I’ll be using some real examples to illustrate important points.
In the early editions of my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I was one of the first to introduce to the general public what has become known as the multidimensional model of personality. And I was also among the few to make a clear distinction between the concepts of personality and character. I had the great fortune during my early professional training to be mentored by a former student of the foremost personality authority. And I wanted to help dispel some of the erroneous notions that folks had about personality and personality disturbances, some of which persist even today. Here are just a few:
- Personality is not the same thing as an innate trait such as impulsiveness, easy irritability, shyness, extraversion, etc. Nor is it the same thing as the sum of a person’s innate traits. Personality is the distinctive way or “style” of interaction a person adopts in both perceiving and relating to others and the world at large. It’s the individual’s preferred way of coping with circumstances and a lot of things other than innate predispositions contribute to a person’s preferred style of relating. Early environmental shaping influences play a role. And those influences dynamically interact with a person’s innate predispositions in unique ways over the course of their emotional development to shape personality. For example, a child who by temperament tends to be shy and retreating will likely have a very different response to and develop a very different style of coping with a hostile, abusive environment than would a person who innately tends to be tenacious. All of a person’s innate traits, as well as the unique environmental influences to which they are exposed during their early development contribute to the eventual “strategy” they develop for dealing with life.
- Personality is not the same thing as character, even though the terms are all-too-frequently used synoymously. In my books and other writings, I explain that character has more to do with the aspect of an individual’s personality that reflects their level of integrity and virtue and distinctively “marks” them as a conscientious (or not so conscientious) social being (for more on this topic see the relevant chapters in my books as well as the article: Misunderstood Psychology Terms – Part 2: Personality & Character).
- While by definition, most personality styles are relatively enduring and remain constant over a wide variety of situations, as we learn and grow, most our personalities mature somewhat. Few of us would consider ourselves the same person we were 20 or 30 years ago. That’s not to say that our core innate tendencies completely change. They rarely do. But we often learn over time not only to moderate our basic inclinations but also to overcome some of our self-limiting traits. So while we might not completely “change our stripes” so to speak, we become different people as we learn and mature. Now, the picture is very different when it comes to a personality or character disorders. It’s the extreme and deviant nature of a person’s style and the relative inflexibility (i.e. resistance to alteration) of that style despite the experience of adverse consequence that defines a personality or character disorder. But as I long ago asserted (and as I discuss at length in Character Disturbance), personality and character pathology exists along a spectrum of severity, and depending upon where someone lies along that continuum there are very different prospects for change (for more on all the aforementioned topics, see: Can We Change Our Personality?).
There’s a lot more to say about personality and character and I welcome questions from the readers during the current series. I’ll do my best to answer them in a timely fashion. I’ll also be discussing this topic over the next few weeks on my Character Matters program Sundays at 7 pm Eastern Time (6 pm Central), although the upcoming program will feature an interview for the better part of the show.