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?