If identity is how you see yourself in the mirror, personality is how you see others. It is the constellation of fears and hopes, wishes and needs, born of nurture and seasoned by nature, that you cast upon the people in your world. A healthy personality is the ability to fit into the social environment, and a personality disorder is a contradiction within itself. Let me explain.
Our lifelong experiences of holding tight and letting go lay the foundation for self in the context of others’ caring. We discover who we are by discovering how other people respond to us. What happens over a lifetime is a more or less an identity defined in large part by expectations about relationships.
Am I deserving of love? Can I rely on others? Can other people tolerate my anger? My anxiety? My neediness? How much do I have to give, in order to get?
Personality is the lens with which we perceive the social and emotional environment. This lens is shaded and colored and scarred by experience, focused and then refocused, by here-and-now influences like medications, hormones, nutrition, exercise and stress, and the social media and entertainment we consume. The Lens is the eye through which the beholder interprets not only beauty, but acceptance and rejection, self-esteem, love and loss. Like any lens, personality can become very distorted and experiences affects development. For example, experiences that have a gradual effect on personality include prenatal alcohol exposure which can induce a permanent disruption of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive functioning over time known as fetal alcohol syndrome and preschool lead poisoning can cause learning and sensory problems and even death. On the other hand, some experiences can produce an abrupt and dramatic effect on identity and personality, for example: surviving a school shooting, living through a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, neglect or abuse, a devastating car accident, a dog bite, or a profound emotional loss.
Of course, in the best of circumstances, positive experiences build a robust and adaptive personality the same way that snowflakes can be packed together to become a smiling snowman. Healthy nutrition, exercise, proper medical care, good sleep, and rewarding relationships combine to become something sturdy and coherent, but still flexible and adaptive; this is a healthy personality. The sum total of experiences from birth through the present is what makes a person able and willing to get needs met and to recognize and meet the needs of other people. Of course, this looks very different at age three versus thirteen versus thirty, but the goal is the same no matter the age. It is the willingness and ability to balance giving and getting, holding tight and letting go.
In one view, the term ‘personality disorder’ is a contradiction. Personality cannot be disordered if it grew into what it is because of its environment. If our social and emotional expectations changed in response to real and ongoing social pressures, then even the most rigid and aggressive, wishy-washy and passive, or needy and demanding personality must be okay because that particular personality works for their environment. Once upon a time every personality worked in the sense of fitting in to a particular environment. But if that person leaves that environment or if the environment changes, what once fit becomes a misfit.
The media have given us scores of dramatic examples of personality disorders and ordered personalities. For example, “Tarzan” is the story of a man who grew into one environment (the jungle) but didn’t fit in with the larger society.
The Munsters flips the script. The 1960s comedy is about a family of “monsters” who barely tolerated their stunning and intelligent niece. She thought of herself as hideous and bizarre because of her environment: a freak. When the family ventured into the larger world, however, it was always the Frankenstein-like father, Herman Munster, who scared the neighbors away.
The tragedy of misfit personality—personality disorders—is played out in real life all around us every day. Seeing people with personality disorders for who they are rather than just reacting to them takes a lot of patience and maturity. The self-centered man at the office, the angry and super-critical neighbor, the sad and self-effacing woman at the library—these people trigger strong emotional reactions, but they’re just trying to fit in.