Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Personality Disorder

by Tory Butterworth
In fiction, when we think about, "character," we think about the unique traits that make one person distinct from another. These include mannerisms and ways of speaking and also, on a deeper level, characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. In psychology, such traits are considered, "personality." There is an entire branch of psychology devoted to studying it.

In therapy, there is something called a "personality disorder," when a patient's personality is their basic problem. This brings up an interesting question: when does someone's personality help them and when does it get in their way?

The DSM-IV, the list of diagnoses from the American Psychiatric Association that is used by most mental health agencies, defines a personality disorder as, "An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture." In other words, it's when someone's personality does not fit with their environment.

I would take this one step further. For me, a personality trait becomes a personality disorder when it is so rigid that the person can't modify it to fit the situation they find themselves in.

Think about the trait of stubbornness. Many times this is a good thing. Stubborn people stick with problems long after others have given up, and so they may solve a problem which others don't. However, all of us have the "Vietnam wars" in our lives, times when we need to let something go. Ordinary stubborn people do this reluctantly. People with a personality disorder may never let go, even if it hurts their life and relationships.

All good traits have their dark side. A sense of humor is usually a good thing, but we all know people who take this too far, who crack jokes at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. Intelligence is valued in our culture, but goes too far when someone relies on it to the exclusion of their feelings.

I'd like you to try an experiment. Think of something you like about your spouse/ child/ coworker/ friend/ neighbor. Doesn't that trait, at the wrong place and time, annoy you? My next door neighbor is a very friendly person, but his mindless chatter with his friends on his back deck (right next to mine) can bug the hell out of me when I'm writing.

Let me know what you come up with.

The hardest traits to see, of course, are our own. Do you have any personality traits you'd like to be able to "turn off" at certain times?


Judith Evans Thomas said...

Tory: I love this subject and firmly believe that most of us behave or act inappropriately at some time or another.Take Imus. Weren't his comments an expression of a personality disorder that has earned him millions? So why all of a sudden is his disorder now a disorder. He's obnoxious and people love him.

I've been known to laugh at the wrong times...funerals, weddings, church. I also tend to speak my mind when it is not necessarily wanted or appropriate or make jokes about something that no one else finds funny.

And then of course there's W. In another life, his wife would leave him, his kids would dis him and his therapist would tell him he has a stubbornness that qualifies as a personality disorder.


Judy Schneider said...

Interesting post, Tory! I've often thought, when looking at the couples I know, that what originally attracted them to each other is also the root of many of their problems: Differences in spending patterns, sponteneity vs. rigidity, Type A vs. Type B, etc.

I need to remember to use the nature of such differences in personality to highlight the problems in my protagonist's interpersonal relationships.

Thanks for the nudge, Tory!

Tory said...

Judy: Exactly! That's the common pattern in dysfunctional relationships, you're attracted by their differences to you and then you decide you want them to change their personality and become just like you.

Judith: Don't even get me started on W.!!!