We all have personalities, but what does it mean to have a personality “disorder”?
What is a Personality?
A personality is a certain habitual way I deal with the world around me. When you think to yourself “boy, that person sure has a personality!”, what comes to mind is probably certain predictable characteristics that stand out about them and that don’t just blend in with the surroundings.
Our personality is a collection of enduring traits about ourselves that make us stand out as well as make us predictable. Hence, I might tend to be “the life of the party” or the “loner”, the eternal optimist or the perpetual worrier, the workaholic or the worka-phobic, the antagonist or the person who always tries to please.
Whatever the case, my personality uniquely equips me to deal with certain situations, while it puts me at a disadvantage for dealing with certain others. My greatest strength in one context – becomes my greatest weakness in another…
My personality serves as a kind of immune system that protects my own mental health from the challenges and demands of life. It consists of a collection of go-to coping mechanisms and thinking styles through which I confront the world.
My personality is my specific way of dealing with the demands of life, such as creating a satisfying social life, succeeding in my chosen career, collaborating with others, developing close relationships, and dealing with interpersonal conflicts.
When things go well in life, that is, when my traits or tendencies match with my environment, then I can likely live a symptom-free life. However, when there is not a good match, tensions will begin to rise within me, and I am likely to become depressed, anxious, angry, or otherwise unhappy.
John has a Personality Disorder:
John loves to be “the life of the party” and uses this trait to his great advantage. He becomes an actor so he can feel the thrill of being on stage, and has a very active social life that satisfies his need for attention. His personality helps him succeed in areas of his life that are important to him.
Yet John might begin to get in trouble if he ALWAYS has to be the life of the party, if he NEVER can be alone with himself, or if he ALWAYS relates to others as an entertainer, actor or performer.
He may for example meet a romantic partner he likes, but due to his chronic and excessive need for attention, may make every conversation about himself.
With his excessive focus on his own needs, John may not be able to be empathic with his partner’s needs and may not be able to maintain the mutuality required to create an intimate relationship.
When his partner begins to feel dissatisfied with John’s excessive attention-hoarding and demand that something changes, John may not be able to give in to the demand, since doing so would make him feel depressed, unloved, or empty.
He therefore instead turns the blame back on his partner whom he accuses of just not being that interesting and therefore being responsible for his own misery.
When his partner withdraws his interest in the relationship and in John, John does not have the flexibility in his personality to allow himself to notice this, so he instead “tells himself a story” and tries to convince himself and his friends that everything is fine.
When his relationship finally falls apart, John might at first become self-righteously indignant. He may seek out friends who can confirm his belief that his partner is to blame. He may also launch himself into a string of affairs to confirm to himself how lovable he is and therefore prove that “it is his partner’s loss” — not his
However, if these strategies fail, John may eventually have no way to maintain his fragile self-esteem and may finally have to engage in some painful soul-searching. At this point he is likely to become depressed, may begin to drink, or may not be able to maintain work obligations or friendships.
What is a Personality Disorder?
John would likely be diagnosed with a personality disorder.
His character traits are rigid. If people around him do not adapt to his preferred ways of dealing with situations, John cannot change his approach and adapt to the new situation.
As a result, John is bound to have many conflicts with people around him, and frequently be at odds with the demands placed on him by different tasks or role expectations.
In John’s situation, differences between personality style and environment are solved by devaluing the environment or changing the environment, which works as long as other people are ready to accommodate him.
In other personality types, such as in people with strong dependency needs or excessive fearfulness, differences may be solved by acquiescing, letting go of healthy assertiveness, or abandoning oneself.
In either case, the environment threatens the integrity of the person’s self-esteem and makes it impossible for them to learn from the situation and master a greater repertoire of skills. The person tends to always respond the same way regardless of circumstance and is thus locked into a cycle of repeating the same failed outcomes.
John, for example, may fall in love again, but his next relationship will likely have the same ending, since the need for admiration is the only way John knows to raise himself out of an ever-looming depression.
This then leads to another hallmark of people with personality disorders: They tend to run into the same problems time and again. Depending on their personality style they may show patterns of getting fired due to having trouble taking orders from a boss, falling out with friends due to inability to deal with conflicts, getting divorced on multiple occasions due to the same complaints by their spouses, and so on and so forth…
Personality Disorders are Dimensional:
We all have certain rigid and unbendable traits that can get us in trouble in life and can make it difficult to deal with the demands of particular situations. With each personality comes certain advantages and disadvantages. This is to be expected. Most of us reduce tension and discomfort by creating a life that maximizes our advantages and reduces the need to be someone we are not. This does not mean that we have a personality disorder.
Our personality only becomes a severe liability when we feel chronically deficient in the many aspects needed to live a fulfilling life. We may for example not be able to tolerate intimacy regardless of circumstances, or may not be able to EVER relax or be spontaneous, or may not be able to enter into ANY relationship without sexualizing it. It is in these cases that assigning the label of a personality disorder may be appropriate.
Having a personality disorder is therefore not simply about having a personality trait or habit that gets us in trouble. This trait must be so rigid, so exclusionary of other ways of doing things and perceiving the world, that it severely limits our ability to function effectively in life. Hence there is a difference between being perfectionistic, and not being able to complete a work assignment because one is never satisfied with the result.
Many traits only become dysfunctional when taken to a certain level of intensity or severity. In the first case, perfectionism might help me win awards for my attention to detail, while in the latter, my perfectionism might end up getting me fired.
Therapy for Personality Disorders:
If your personality prevents you from getting along with others, functioning well at work, or getting enjoyment out of life, the treatment of choice is not simply to force yourself to act differently. The rigidity of particular personality traits is often the result of bruises to self-esteem, or early developmental traumas. Particular ways of dealing with tension, psychic pain, and threats to self-esteem developed as a kind of protective armor needed to deal with threats to one’s psychological safety.
Psychodynamic therapy is particularly effective in helping people access these early experiences and traumas so they can be begin to grow from life, rather than remain stuck in the need to protect themselves from it…
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychodynamic therapist in Houston, TX, who helps people get to the root of their problems. Visit my website to schedule an appointment.