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)
- 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
- 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.