Personality vs. Personality Disorders

Last week I wrote about the difference between personality or temperament preferences according to one’s type and moral choices. There’s no personality preference that excuses a child11 by you.person from moral, sane behavior. While working on this series, I was reminded of a family therapy group I co-led with a colleague some years ago. One of the indispensable tools in our tool box was the MBTI, which we used to help couples understand why they often didn’t see eye-to-eye, and what they could do to gain insight and change the way they related to one another.

An interesting byproduct of our work on personality types was a question raised by one of the group’s participants, Ned: what’s the difference between a personality type and a personality disorder? How do I know which is which when I’m dealing with problematic interpersonal relationships?

Ned’s Story

Ned was a single dad who attended the group because he was trying to heal a broken relationships with his son. After taking the MBTI and learning about personality preferences, he expressed concerns that his own preferences for introverted, intuitive thinking ran so far counter to his son’s extraverted, sensing personality that maybe he had alienated his son needlessly. Perhaps, he suggested, his son took after his ex-wife, the young man’s mother. They hadn’t gotten along very well, either. Were the problems and the falling out they’d had Ned’s fault, after all?

We found that as people learned about type and how it can affect one’s marriage and especially one’s child-rearing experiences, they often child4 by you.became concerned about whether they’d done their children a disservice by not fully accepting or understanding their personality preferences. Decent parents are always concerned about screwing their kids up. Unfortunately, screwed up parents are also concerned about screwing their kids up; they just can’t or won’t do what it takes to produce a healthy child, which primarily involves becoming a healthy parent first. Our work in the group was to try to separate one sort of parent from another, give the able parents the tools they needed, and get the screwed up folks into individual therapy.

I couldn’t answer Ned’s question about the estrangement with his son without knowing more details of the circumstances. Ned came in for several sessions of individual counseling so that we could try to sort things out. Ned was the adult child of an alcoholic whose early childhood was spent in a tense household occupied by an intelligent alcoholic father and dependent mother. After his parents divorced, he’d had to grow up quickly, becoming the “little man” around the house and juggling life between two households, as children of divorce must do. When he grew up, he fell in love with and married another adult child of an alcoholic, Allison, whose childhood had been chaotic and full of abuse and abandonment.

Ned and Allison believed that their love would pull them through any difficulty, and their love worked for them until Allison’s first pregnancy, which ended in a stillbirth. Ned recalled that she had never seemed to recover from the loss of their first child, and gradually developed a wine habit over the next few child2 by you.years. By the time their second child, Gabe, was born, Allison was drinking a bottle of wine every night. One evening while Ned worked late, Allison had passed out on the couch and Gabe had wandered out into the neighborhood. A concerned neighbor had taken the child home and notified Ned.

Ned had given Allison an ultimatum: either she got sober, or he would leave with Gabe. Allison agreed to stop drinking, and they attended AA and Al-Anon, where they learned about the addictive process, recovery, and mental and moral health. Allison had a year’s sobriety under her belt by the time Gabe was four years old.

Over time, however, Ned realized that sober Allison wasn’t much improvement over drunk Allison. She was intensely self-centered, had mood swings, and was also clingy and demanding of his time. She called Ned’s office several times a day “just to talk,” and regularly called him home for one emergency or another. She expressed many fears, including fear of strangers, fear of intruders, and suspicions child17 by you.about friends and family members. She was hyper-vigilant, observing and commenting on everything. Though always busy and occupied with a great many tasks that involved Gabe spending a substantial part of his time with her strapped into a car seat, stroller, or shopping cart, she was deeply lonely. She had no close friends and had alienated the few recovered family members they had. She was obsessive, driven, and tightly wound. Ned began to feel he was being choked.

In an effort to help his wife, Ned suggested she try yoga, which might calm her down, give her something to do, and expose her to other women who might befriend her. Allison loved yoga and began to practice religiously. “Emphasize ‘religiously,'” Ned had smiled wryly. Allison seemed to need an obsession to keep her from being in the present with Ned and Gabe. Though the principles taught in yoga included being present, attending to one’s breathing, and learning to be peaceful, Allison merely talked about her intentions to be present, be peaceful, and be available to others, too. No one who knew her could say that she had improved and could actually manifest her intentions, though Allison sang her own praises to heaven.

There wasn’t a single problem that led to Ned and Allison’s divorce. Rather, he explained, it was “a thousand little things, and the feeling that she was always just acting like a wife and child7 by you.mother but was never really in it.” She created chaos and tension out of thin air, particularly causing conflict with other women. She couldn’t seem to get along with her female bosses or with Ned’s mother or sisters, and regularly seemed to fabricate division in the workplace and family. I told Ned that she had probably been unable to confront her inner “bad mother” and so had to manifest it outwardly, demanding division, fractures, and abandonment in every intimate relationship because she had to externalize her ongoing self-abandonment.

I told Ned about research done by sociologist Jan Yager, who writes that healthy interpersonal relationships are unlikely to be had with people who grew up abused, neglected, or intensely criticized, for they are likely to act out the negative patterns of childhood and adolescence in all their subsequent relationships. People thus treated in childhood must get and act on good therapy or everyone around them will suffer the consequences, consequences the bewildered personality disordered never fully appreciate.

The courts gave Ned and Allison joint custody of Gabe, who hadn’t been well served by the traditional custodial arrangement of seeing his father only four days a month and on summer vacations. Steeped in Allisons’s chaotic, intense environment, Gabe had problems of his own.

We could see why estrangement was the nearly inevitable outcome of Ned’s relationship with his son. The question was, what (if anything) could we do about it?

child15 by you.

9 responses

  1. Borderline personality disorder and bipolar are often mistaken as being the same thing. They are also often misdiagnosed, one for the other. This is because the symptoms for both illnesses are startlingly similar.Borderline personality disorder is actually less common and less known than bipolar. Borderline personality disorder accounts for only about twenty percent of hospitalizations for mental illness each year, while bipolar accounts for about fifty percent of hospitalizations. Borderline personality disorder is most common in young women, whereas bipolar is equally common in both men and women, as well as all age groups.^

  2. Well, Eve, I actually did have my mind on a work of him, called ‘the abandoned man’. I had a talk with my mum just yesterday, and she is really afraid too. There is a lot here about having someone around that is unpredictable. I also suspect somewhere deep down she is also angry at him for wasting an amazing intellect.

    I meanwhile have had time to think, and realise it will be best to wait and see what comes rather than working up a mental state prior.

    I think my brother was about ten or so when he asked dad to adopt him. I’m sure this child’s emotional needs were great (as was his sister’s), and you opened my eyes to see that that is what scared dad in an unconscious way. (At a young age, my father also lost his father – he died in a motor cycle accident.) My mum blamed his decision on not wanting be responsible for her boy financially – and that was the only way he knew/knows how or feels comfortable to care. Interesting that he has a family around him who are to varying degrees emotionally needy.

    So, you are right – no blame, and lots of pain. Blame is a great escape-goat. I will be looking for broader horizons, I think, if I can. Understanding the perspective of all who surround a situation can be just as painful, though. So, I guess, a path to healing needs to be found, and it brings up for me what you spoke of a while back about the archetype of the Abandoned (lost) Child, and the possible patterns of its expression surrounding our family.

    Thanks Eve.

    • Irene, I’m making a belated response, but as mom used to say “better late than never.”

      Jung believed that every person had that lost child within and I think he was right. The Christian doctrine of humanity’s separation from God fits, as it creates a God-shaped vacuum in the individual. This is the lost child.

      I agree that looking at a situation like your brother’s is made more difficult when we consider the other people involved. Mind you, I’m not making excuses for your father; had I been in his shoes, I would have adopted the children and paid the price. The children would have gotten what they needed, I would (probably) not have, but I would fully expect to have everything restored in the end, and I having made the spiritual decision. I do fault your father, for he might have found a better way out of his own lostness than he has found since, by making people dependent on him after all.

      I’d like to know how your visit goes, or how it went.

  3. Such a sad story, so sad, and so common. For me, this is a timely reminder, as my (half) brother is coming to visit from interstate for the first time in many, many years. He is nearly 60, an alcoholic, but he doesn’t think so. As a child he was abandoned by his father (also an alcoholic) until he, and his sister, were old enough not to require child support. His second ‘father’ – mine – abandoned him in various ways, but ultimately by refusing the child’s request to be adopted. How does any man look a child in the face and deny such a request – I can’t fathom it.

    Finally, he abandoned himself. And he moved to Queensland, north, to live near his father. Its hot there, and drinking is the normality.

    So now he will stay with my mum and dad for a week, and I feel afraid, because it will hurt, and it will remind, and he will reflect to us all unpleasant things about ourselves.

    • Irene, I’m sorry about your brother in some ways, but in other ways I think this is a good thing. I hope you paint your feelings. I know you’ll get around to loving him after you calm yourself. I feel very much this way when my own youngest brother visits, and I always have to calm myself mentally (even though the agitation is emotional, go figure).

      About your dad refusing to adopt your brother. When a child is old enough to ask to be adopted, that’s a huge thing. We’ve been “proposed to” by four of our children. It’s incredibly scary to say “yes” to a profoundly wounded human being, particularly one over the age of majority (we’ve adopted two adults).

      Seen from your brother’s perspective, this rejection may well have been one of the worst of his young life. I can only imagine the pain of wanting to belong, wanting to be wanted by a father, and being denied. My sympathies are with him, of course.

      Still, I know first-hand how grueling and painful it is to adopt an older child or adult. If it does not go well on both sides, the way they cheat you out of your experience as a parent is every bit as painful as the rejection your brother must have experienced. If you keep your end of the bargain and are more-or-less the parent they dreamed of, but then due to character flaws, neuroticism, etc. they fail to keep theirs, it leaves you feeling nothing less than idiotically, robustly stupid.

      So I don’t blame your father. Though I doubt he was fully aware at the time he made the decision, there would have to be some gut instinct in him for self-preservation. Yes, even at a child’s expense.

  4. I told Ned about research done by sociologist Jan Yager, who writes that healthy interpersonal relationships are unlikely to be had with people who grew up abused, neglected, or intensely criticized, for they are likely to act out the negative patterns of childhood and adolescence in all their subsequent relationships.

    … and what pattern was Ned acting out, in being fundamentally attracted to someone so badly broken?

    • Ah, good question! The tense childhood? The division between Mother and Father? Good cop / bad cop?

      Having said that, I’ll also add (and quite fairly too, I think) that even broken people are beautiful. If Ned were intuitive, he would also be able to see much about his wife’s true self or essence. People’s real selves can be quite beautiful even in a passing glimpse. But you know that.

  5. It’s so sad because these issues keep echoing through families. My father was the son of two alcoholics, my son has an alcoholic father and my husband is the son of an alcoholic. I keep seeking this behavior out and I fear my son will do the same. His last two girlfriends have both had alcoholic fathers, one had a crack addict for a mother and the other lived with a crack dealer.

    His last relationship broke up when his girlfriend set his apartment on fire. I told my son that she had crossed a line, there was no going back. He agreed thank goodness. I asked him why he chose these women, what was it in him that was seeking out these problems. He didn’t answer me, I doubt he knows, but I hope I planted a seed.

    I’m hoping my therapy will pay off for my son as well. Hoping my children see me grow and deepen will both help and inspire them. Fingers crossed. It hasn’t done much for my husband yet, other than throw him into a tail spin, but at least now I know it’s his tail spin.

    • Deb, I suspect they echo through everyone’s family in one way or another. I know of only one family in my entire lifetime that seems to have no alcoholics, addicts, or mentally ill in it, but then I don’t have enough details to say that with certainty.

      But, yes, these patterns to live on unless we do something ourselves to change course. Any time we bring awareness into our families and set that new course, we are changing the system.

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