Today’s article is the last in a series on personality and character disturbances and disorders. And after discussing two of the more common personality types, I’ll be giving some brief attention to a few infrequently occurring personalities as well as presenting a framework for understanding one of the most difficult personality types to understand and deal with: borderline personality.
There are two types of personalities that are primarily characterized by the kind of social detachment they display. One is the “avoidant” personality. This type of individual desires social engagement, wanting nothing more than the acceptance and approval of others, but because they anticipate disappointment are so sensitive about the prospect of rejection that they actively avoid intimate encounters. These folks are beyond shy. And because they so frequently and excessively isolate themselves to the point they can’t function well, their personality styles easily rise to the level of a disorder.
Hypersensitivity and an overly anxious and reactive temperament are thought to predispose this type of personality development. And, because an individual so predisposed is actually likely to experience a significant amount rejection and negative reaction from others during their formative years, the combination of a learned expectancy for disappointment and rejection from one’s outer world coupled with a hypersensitivity to that perceived rejection produces an effective one-two punch with respect to avoidant personality formation. On balance, this is a relatively “neurotic” personality style, and avoidant individuals are predisposed toward certain clinical conditions, especially anxiety disorders and phobias, as well as mood disorders, particularly depression and dysthymia.
The therapy room can provide an excellent training ground for building the confidence in relationships avoidant personalities need. Still, the therapist must take care to help the client realize that not every relationship is likely to be as unconditionally positively regarding as the therapy relationship is. So the task is to help the client recognize and appreciate his/her value, even in the absence of “unconditional” acceptance by others.
Another “detached” personality type is the schizoid or “asocial” personality. Unlike avoidant personalities who crave yet fear intimate involvments, schizoids lack the motivation to form such bonds. Some lead a hermit-like existence. Constitutional predispositions appear to play a large role in the formation of this personality style, although the exact constitutional factors at play are still undetermined. About the only environmental factor known to contribute to this type of personality development is a cold, sterile and non-stimulating atmosphere in the home where dispassionate neglect abounds.
Another personality type is the Dependent (sometimes called “passive-dependent”) Personality. These individuals tend to be remarkably unassertive and overly “submissive” in their interpersonal relations. They are the polar opposites of group of individuals I label the “aggressive personalities” on just about every dimension one can think of. They may have a constitutional predisposition toward an overly pacific temperament and an abnormal degree of comfort with submissive behavior. And during their developmental years, they typically fail to do what most folks do to develop a sense of self-efficacy and self-reliance. Their passivity and inaction invites over-protection as well as over-domination by powerful others. As a result, they over-learn to depend on external sources for satisfaction of their emotional wants and needs. When their passivity and submissiveness reaches dysfunctional levels, they become the archetypal “doormats” whom others walk all over. Passivity and submissiveness at this level truly represent a disorder. And these features predispose individuals of this personality type to a wide variety of clinical conditions, not the least of which are depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. Vulnerability to these disorders is highest when, for various reasons, dependent personalities lose a perceived source of emotional support.
Dependent personalities are a natural magnet for narcissists and aggressive personalities. And they’re also drawn to what they see as the innate confidence and brandished “power” of these unsavory characters. This allows them to easily become the penultimate victims, exploited and abused, but nonetheless apprehensive about disengagement because they have so little confidence in their ability to fend for themselves.
Histrionic (sometimes called “active-dependent”) personalities, like dependent personalities, look outside of themselves (in contrast to narcissists) for satisfaction of their emotional needs. But unlike their passive counterparts, these individuals are active in their pursuit of involvements with others to satisfy their cravings for emotional gratification. Often quite gregarious, they can appear to others as overly reactive, dramatic, seductive, and attention-seeking. And because their lives are so chronically full of drama, they can also come across as quite superficial. Sometimes gregarious to a fault, they can exercise very poor judgment with respect to their social involvements, being drawn to those who appear powerful and/or capable of providing high levels of stimulation and excitement but who may also be of such deficient character that association with them necessarily invites trouble. Histrionic personalities seem to have a constitutional predisposition to high emotional reactivity. In their formative years, they may have been overly “trained” to look outward instead of inward for satisfaction of emotional needs. This can happen in the case of an attractive, talented, energetic, and outgoing child who is always the center of everyone’s attention. These personalities are at risk for anxiety and depressive disorders, especially in the absence of energy-charged relationships. They can become easily despondent when bored or deprived of sufficient stimulation and anxious in the absence of someone to connect with.
On the neurotic vs. character impaired spectrum, both the active and passive dependent personalities often fall somewhere in the middle. There are some aspects of their coping “styles” that appear to arise out of the inner emotional conflicts. But there are also some aspects of their personalities that arise primarily out of their predispositions both innate and behavioral which reflect a lack of sound moral social judgment. Perhaps the passive-dependent personality’s greatest character flaw is their general weakness of character, perpetuated by their repeated failure to take assertive action, whereas the active-dependent personality’s greatest flaw is the lack of judgment they exercise in relationships because of their excessive sensation-seeking tendencies.
Paranoid personalities are among the rarest personality types but they’re significantly disturbed. These are folks who see reasons to distrust others and actively guard against the possibility of victimization at every turn. They come across as hypervigilant and mistrusting, hostile, secretive, and pathologically jealous. Although their personality isn’t characterized by true delusional thinking, they can easily succumb to more severe pathologically paranoid behavior under stress. Such folks are often described as a “ticking time bomb,” waiting to go off at a perceived slight. It’s not easy to get “lured into” relationships with these folks because of how overtly unattractive their “style” of interacting is. Still, depending upon how severe their personality disturbance is, their true colors might not be fully seen early in a relationship, only to surface as their tenuous controls deteriorate under stress.
One very rare personality type is the schizotypal personality. These individuals are so odd and eccentric in their manner of self-presentation that it’s easy to erroneously label them as schizophrenic. But although these fold might behave in odd ways that reflect odd beliefs, they don’t operate under genuine delusions, don’t have hallucinations, and show none of the other critical signs of a psychotic thought process.
I once interviewed a middle-aged woman who spoke with a thick British accent, dressed and behaved in the manner of an aristocrat, and, came across as being a person of wealth and remarkable pedigree. She was, in reality, however, a country girl, born and raised in a small town in the mid-southern United States. She was not delusional, nor was she out of contact with reality. She held no false beliefs about herself and although she acted like royalty, she never claimed to be what she was not. Still, her manner was distinctly odd and eccentric. And she was an absolute delight to talk to, despite her remarkable persona. Her schizotypal personality didn’t even rise to the level of a disorder because she was not significantly impaired in her ability to cope or relate to others. In fact, you’d probably just want to invite her over for “tea and crumpets.” An interesting and rare example of a very rare and peculiar personality type! Under stress, these personalities can deteriorate and exhibit signs of true mental illness. And although it’s highly suspected that there are strong constitutional predispositions for this personality type (mental illness in the family history is one known risk factor), no specific predisposing factors have yet been identified.
Borderline personalities are perhaps the most misunderstood of all the personality types. Perhaps that’s because their overall “style” of coping really emerges by default, arising out of their failure to solidify a solid sense of personal identity. In other words, borderline personalities are individuals whose personalty never quite came together. And, perhaps the biggest reason why there’s so much confusion – even among professionals – about how to best perceive and deal with these folks, is the fact that depending on what innate traits and acquired habits are most predominant, every borderline personality is different. Individuals with a weak sense of self but whose dominant personality traits are of the “submissive” variety, for example, are very, very different from those with strong narcissistic and/or aggressive personality trait s. Still, there are some common behavioral manifestations that accompany the failure to develop a well-integrated and stable sense of self. These include impulsive and erratic behavior, explosive anger displays, self-damaging and self-injurious gestures and acts, highly intense but equally chaotic interpersonal involvements and enmeshments, and periodic deterioration into severe forms mental illness.
Constitutionally, borderline personalities may be predisposed to unusually intense fear and anger responses. Excessive fear and anger may easily impair their ability to master emotional developmental stages, and making it more difficult to solidify a healthy or adaptive and preferred “style” of coping. Borderlines also appear overly predisposed toward “dialectical” thinking. This makes it harder than normal for them to decide “which way to go” when contemplating various coping strategies they see “both sides” too easily, “split” concepts into their “good” and “bad” components, and become easily overwhelmed trying to determine what the “reality” of a situation really is. They have a markedly impaired ability to modulate and self-regulate their emotions. Most interestingly, they also tend have experienced highly abusive and traumatic situations during their formative years. When all these things are taken into consideration, it’s easier to understand why and how these personalities fail to progress smoothly through their emotional development, arrive at a stable sense of self, and develop a preferred and adaptive way of coping.
Borderlines are prone to numerous clinical syndromes, most especially severe mood disorders (including Bipolar Disorder) and psychotic episodes. Conventional therapies other than intensive psychoanalysis are largely ineffective. Artful and long-term psychoanalysis has shown some ability to help borderline personalities slowly build a more solid sense of self. And Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a specialized form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, has demonstrated some effectiveness, possibly in part because it’s compatible with the borderline individual’s natural tendency toward dialectical thinking.
This post represents the last in a series on the major personality types and personality disorders. But before progressing to the next series of articles, perhaps next week’s post will incorporate a lot of the questions and feedback the current series has prompted. So, as always, reader input is most welcome.