Person-ality Problems

The self is relatedness [. . .]. Only when the self mirrors itself in so many mirrors does it really exist—then it has roots. You can never come to your self by building a meditation hut on top of Mount Everest; you will only be visited by your own ghosts and that is not individuation: you are all alone with yourself and the self doesn’t exist [. . .]. Not that you are, but that you do is the self. The self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationship. (Carl Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, p. 795).

A friend is in the middle of a family drama in which the behaviors of a family member threaten the destruction of the entire family system. I am quick to point out that what is happening is the result of a personality disorder from which my friend and other family members hoping to return to stable relatedness must extricate themselves.

My friend’s plight reminded me that most folks from families that function normally or “as if” they’re normal lack experience with personality disorders. As a result they don’t know anything about them, nor do they consider what are acceptable and tolerable levels of conflict, drama, or eccentricity among a family members, friends, co-workers, or neighbors. People may stay involved in impossible relationships far longer than they ought, at a risk to their own happiness and health.

What is a Personality Disorder?

A personality disorder is an inflexible, unyielding, and ongoing pattern of feeling, thinking, and behavior that doesn’t work for a person relationally but is continued anyway. The pattern was probably set in motion during childhood or adolescence for survival needs, suggesting that the child had something to survive. Problems arise after the child has survived but continues the patterns anyway. Patterns designed for surviving in a sick system continue to be applied in healthy ones, with disastrous results. As Jesus said, people who are well don’t need a physician. We don’t medicate the well, but the ill. Therefore, using old methods needed in a sick system in new relationships in healthy systems can never work.

The personality disordered person doesn’t understand that new methods exist, much less that they are needed. They can’t stop their own patterns because of their unconsciousness to their own situation, so continue because they have deep beliefs in the rightness of the pattern. It helped them survive the first 20 years, therefore why not the next 20? And so the wheel turns and turns.


What did the personality disordered person survive? She survived something, because “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Research has proved that a childhood history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect is associated with personality disorder. The severity of the abuse, interestingly enough, is not a predictor of personality disorder; merely the fact of some kind of childhood trauma is a significant predictor. Based on this, we can theorize that the personality of the child also has something to do with how abuse is experienced. Two children in the same family experiencing the same abuse can (and usually do) respond differently. I know of a large family in which the father was physically and emotionally abusive and the mother had depression, and of all the children only two were symptomatic in adulthood. One child developed a major psychiatric illness and the other an addiction. This is often how it works, making it even harder to identify the disorders in the parents. “Most of us turned out just fine,” the hero child will brag, “we had great parents.”

Children who were sexually abused in some way, regardless of the severity of the abuse, are among the most likely to develop a personality disorder in adulthood. Here again, the severity of the sexual abuse is not as significant as the fact that some kind of sexual violation occurred. People often have the misapprehension that the severity of sexual abuse predicts the severity of later symptoms, but this isn’t the case according to research. A friend of mine did her doctoral research on resilient survivors of sexual abuse and discovered that the child’s innate personality contributes as much to later outcomes as does the type of sexual abuse.

A great many people who find themselves in the therapist’s office in adulthood or who are diagnosed with depression or anxiety disorders had at least one personality disordered or mentally ill parent and didn’t know it. They may, in fact, continue to be in a relationship with a disordered parent, which can exacerbate the problem. Such folks often go on to marry someone who is guaranteed to recreate for them the family of origin dynamics. The parent’s problem was foundational to the family system built on it, so building one’s own family system on a similar foundation will come naturally. The child grows up to discover that not only must she tear down her entire life, but she must dig up the foundations as well and build again. An undertaking like this is awe-inspiring because of the amount of courage, dedication, and strength it demands.

The Deeds of the Disordered

People with personality disorders usually pass for normal in everyday society. They go to the bank, shop for groceries, marry and have children, hold down jobs. Upon closer inspection, though, their relationships are not normal. As Jung wrote, “the self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationship.” A person can hide a lot and fake a lot, but they can’t stop doing deeds. Deeds are acted out in relationships with others, so the truth inevitably comes out in primary relationships: with spouse and children, boss and subordinates, friends. How does a person interact with a peer, such as a best friend or spouse? How about subordinates, such as children, pupils or students, employees? Finally, how are relations with superiors, such as bosses, government entities, or religious authorities? A disordered relationship to reality and the Self will always be seen in one category of human relations or another. A person with a Grand Romance inside the marriage is often a terrible parent or treats his own mother or father shamefully. Or, a stellar performer at work pleases his boss, but neglects his wife. A woman may be great with her kids but terrible with her husband or friends.

The personality disordered are categorized along three lines: those with odd or eccentric behaviors; those with dramatic, emotional, or erratic behaviors; and those with anxious or fearful behaviors. The main aspects of personality disorder manifest as:

  • ways of perceiving and interpreting events, things, or people differ markedly from those of other observers or from what is culturally expected
  • range, intensity, and appropriateness of emotion are unusual
  • lack of impulse control
  • inappropriate need gratification
  • dysfunctional ways of relating to others and handling relationships
  • inflexible, unyielding behaviors or attitude; there is no negotiating

The results of any or all of these behaviors or attitudes is distress on a personal and relational level: the personality disordered person feels distress, and one or more people in close relationship to the personality disordered person feels distress. The suffering caused is the second half of the personality disorder equation.

Not all personality disorders are created equal; some are easier to recognize than others. A person with Borderline Personality Disorder is easier to recognize and probably causes more immediate drama than the one with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and the latter may even be rewarded in our culture, up to a point. Even so, the end of the story is sadder than the beginning, and it usually takes years before the personality disordered begin to reap what they sow. This is because it takes time and numerous relationship encounters to establish a pattern. As Jungian analyst and author James Hollis has written, “One must have gone around a track a few times to even know if it is a circle or an oval. Patterns, with their costs and side-effects, can only be discerned as patterns when one has suffered them more than once” (The Middle Passage, p. 20).

Personality Disorder Lite

There is a sort of person who has what I call a “personality disorder lite.” This person may fall short on one or two of the diagnostic criteria required for diagnosing a disorder, or perhaps the intensity or duration isn’t there. A pattern may be developing, or the person may have just narrowly escaped a breakdown, hospitalization, jail time, or other crisis trumpeting a Real Problem. The addict, for instance, often has a crisis or three leading to the threat of jail without actually being sentenced. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief because they can now reassure themselves that, just as the addict insists, “it was just a mistake; it could have happened to anybody.”

Or maybe a person has a good excuse for the drama they’ve caused, or the boss or co-worker, neighbor or adult child or spouse or parent is the one in the wrong, and there’s just enough doubt in the situation that one finds in favor of the personality disordered person and sides with him in blaming the victim. This clever or high-functioning survivor is a “personality disordered lite,” and whether a full-blown disorder develops or not, will cause about as much pain and suffering as a diagnosable person can–he’ll just do it with more finesse.

Some other signals of possible personality disorder, many of which I have written about with regularity at Third Eve, are:

  • lack of reciprocity: you give, they take, and boy are they mad when you require them to trade
  • lack of empathy: they just can’t imagine how or why you feel as you do
  • many shallow relationships, only one or no ‘close’ ones
  • inflexibility, will not negotiate
  • cannot admit wrong and therefore cannot make amends to others
  • blame: it’s always someone else’s fault or faulty perception
  • a pattern of dishonesty, deviousness, and manipulation
  • using people like objects
  • using objects like people
  • appearances with no substance
  • inability to trust or lack of appropriate trust, and as a result…
  • suspicious of others
  • emotional detachment; lack of appropriate fondness, loyalty, and connectedness
  • restricted range of emotional expression: when a normal person would ‘blow,’ she just stares at you
  • way too much emotion: when a normal person could take a deep breath or walk away, she blows–over and over again
  • cognitive or perceptual distortions: “It didn’t happen that way,” and “You misunderstood me,” and “I didn’t mean it that way.”
  • strange behaviors or beliefs, with almost magical proportions
  • unstable interpersonal relationships: conflict, or people come and go, or last year’s idealized hero is replaced with this year’s
  • few or no long-term, intimate relationships, but possibly lots of shallow Facebook type ones
  • too much emotion or not enough
  • attention-seeking; sucks the life out of you, sucks the air out of the room
  • can’t take criticism; defensive
  • too submissive, too clinging, too needy; the couple with one head
  • can’t take turns, can’t serve others, needs to be first and get the most and the best
  • lack of empathy; did I mention that?
  • a childish need for admiration and approval
  • seductive; makes you feel special, more alive, more something; you can’t get enough (and you can’t do enough)
  • the “brand name” life to the nth degree; life is about stuff, achievements, and status
  • arrogant, proud, thinks he’s right and better than others, and will say so; snobbery out the wazoo
  • something in his or her life is much more important than you, at the same time that you’re supposed to keep them close to the top on your priority list


13 responses to “Person-ality Problems”

  1. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar


    if you didn’t get my email, thank you for point– am still wrestling with some fantastic points made there– I blame baseball (kinda like cricket but not exactly) and vodka.


    Two articles today drew me back to this post, or at least the discussion that has grown out of it. I find myself almost leery of including the first post simply because I suspect that it does not represent a majority of the psychiatrists to be found out there in private practice. Yet, perhaps grossly, if imperfectly, it exemplifies my supposition that “society” and those that work for it, are not necessarily the best arbiters of what is or is not healthy.

    I “feel” that I am or will be perceived at attacking you, which is not the case. My disagreement, to the extent that there is one, is with your argument/thesis, not you. It may be a fine point, but one that’s important to me at this point. I know you’ll understand—projection-free is such a pain in the ass.

    “When the Army Uses “Enhanced Interrogation” on an American Soldier”,b=facebook

    “Embracing a Life of Solitude”

    1. Eve Avatar

      Librarian (and all), I’ve had my computer crash this week and lost everything on my hard drive along with the ability to use email other than on my iPhone. I’m slowly rebuilding (hey, it’s up and running with Win7 now, so that’s some progress!). Unfortunately I probably won’t be able to recover email… or maybe I will be able to get to it in the next week or so. I also have a new grandbaby and all kinds of interesting info to share that I’ve learned in the past few weeks, so am looking forward to writing… as soon as my life is all organized in neat folders on my PC again. ;o) (as if)

  2. Mary Jane Hurley Brant Avatar

    Please forgive my absence, Eve, I’ve been looking for a new office and the days have slipped away but not my interest here.

    Just as one can work on a dream for a lifetime there’s enough richness in this post to seriously work on it that long. Your thought, “They may, in fact, continue to be in a relationship with a disordered parent, which can exacerbate the problem” struck me. Oh I think of how the grave can make pseudo saints out of people! We don’t suddenly become great because we are old or sick or deceased. Our lives, our relationships and our deeds are what establish our greatness as you noted with your opening quote by Jung.

    Recently, I reconnected with an old friend whose husband died of lung cancer. We were all in our early 30’s, the days when two car garage or basement made mortgage commitment decisions real. He was a great guy (non-smoker which is pertinent here) and they had stepping stone boys, three little towheads.

    His mother had a snarly disposition with little time for children playing in sandboxes or mud or Kool-Aid, probably a narcissist looking back. She also chain-smoked.

    Here comes that other side of me, Eve. When she died, I went to the wake. Standing in front of her coffin my friend asked me, “Doesn’t she look lovely, Mary Jane?” I took her hand, patted it and responded, “Well, she looks like the same sour puss dead that she did alive if you ask me.”

  3. cerebralmum Avatar


    I really just wanted to touch base now that I am back on line and let you know that I was reading again. As always there is much meat to ponder here and I don’t have my thoughts in enough order to leave a purposeful comment.

    Librarian, I tend to have the same concerns about society itself being personality-disordered. You might like to read this – The marginal and the imaginarywhere the writer talks about trauma responses as a metaphor for our societies’ centres of power. (The comment thread discusses it in more depth than the post itself.)

  4. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar


    Thank you for your considered reply.

    The only book I have read that covers the inferior function is Robert Johnson’s “Ecstasy” where he explains it in the conceptual paradigm of Dionysus, which I’m not sure is the best paradigm/symbol/myth for it; in my opinion. I don’t mean to hijack your post, which is not about the inferior function, so I’ll sit on my further questions for now.

    If I understand you rightly though, the key differentiation between the personality-disordered and an ascendant inferior function is one of persistence and timing, which makes sense to me.

    Getting back to society though: society rarely ever deems itself not worthy of emulation or inclusion; it lacks a perspective high enough to hold both itself and the individual together objectively. Put another way, it would be like water trying to objectively judge itself, water; if that makes sense. Because it IS itself, it lacks the ability to stand outside itself and judge itself. Societies may be able to grow, change, or develop, but I doubt that they will ever be able to transcend themselves. Individuals can transcend themselves (the individual) and societies but I am doubting that societies can. Does that make sense? It’s basically just a macro-version of Piaget as expounded by Kegan in “The Evolving Self”.

    To take a, maybe hackneyed, example, WWII Nazi Germany. While Nazism was not total in the German society of the time, is that the society that one wishes to bring a personality-disordered individual, or anyone, back into? Given our history the last ten years or so, is our culture/society the best one to bring pre-individual individuals back into? Are Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Enron, Wall Street, and the rampant instant gratification—just to mention a few— the society that you want to integrate an individual in to? I realize that the beliefs that led to all these are not total in this country, but they are widespread enough to be considered epidemic, or we’d be living in a very different society.

    But maybe I have it backwards, in such cases, it would be society that was personality-disordered and the individual, individuated or not, that was not. In a personality-disordered society, it would be the, otherwise normal, person who would be considered wrong or disordered. Which again, begs to psychiatry’s, non-clinical, role.

    In any case, I’m not trying to pick apart your second reply because I thought it was a very good one and helped place things in a better context for me. Thanks.

  5. MommaRuth Avatar

    I’ve long thought that my uncle is narsasisstic or personality disordered. His behavior fits your description!

    1. Eve Avatar

      Ruth, they’re not hard to spot. They suck the air out of a room, as my husband likes to say. You have the feeling that you’re hanging out with the Cullens when you’re around a narcissist. Everything is always about them–and there is a terrible lack of empathy. There are few things more remarkable than the blank look you get from a narcissist when you tell them their behaviors are hurtful or upsetting. They don’t ‘get it’ because they can’t.

      What are your uncle’s top two or three behaviors that tip you off?

  6. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar


    Two questions:

    How is this different, or is it even different, than the collapse of the superior function and the rise of the inferior function; which is what this post made me think of?

    Secondly, and I guess this is more about the “process” of psychology, from whose perspective is the personality-disordered judged? I imagine it’s some form of “collective” agreement based upon a set of societal norms—the DSM IV for example. But who judges that? I recently read an article where psychiatric disorders are appearing in countries/cultures where they never existed before because the DSM IV is the Bible of psychiatry yet takes little to no account of differing cultural values—the old, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    Would Job be considered personality-disordered for stubbornly refusing to give into the common sense wisdom of the collective? Would Daniel and his three amigos be considered suicidal for choosing the fire? Saul threw away a perfectly good career to become Paul, and suffered for it; Jesus directly threatened the society from which he arose as he did not seek to realign the religious traditions of the day but to completely change the paradigm (sounds inferior function-ish).

    I guess I’m not sure that society is the best choice to compare the individual to, particularly when it is not a society made up of true individuals but of the collective masses. And I guess the question then becomes: what is psychology’s role or function outside of the clinic, to create individuals or to integrate those who, by whatever means, find themselves outside of society’s norms?

    1. Eve Avatar

      Librarian, you should have a degree in this stuff; you’re very perceptive. I did recently happen to read something about the inferior function and how it works in the psyche when the psyche isn’t balanced. Someone with an undeveloped inferior function demanding equal time, particularly someone over, say, the mid-30s in age, may indeed have these selfsame behaviors.

      The difference between a bona fide personality disorder and an inferior function gone wild are in duration and persistence or control. A person with three well-developed personality function who ignores the fourth is still 75% able, so to speak, to handle everyday life and the vagaries of relationship. Someone with a personality disorder is disturbed in relation to self and others; there’s more suffering than there ought to be; the person with a personality disorder can’t even seem to do what’s collectively considered appropriate, such as to use his manners consistently, or to apologize when he offends someone, or to actually change a behavior that causes suffering. With a personality disorder, there’s not even the ego control that a ‘normal’ person has by the time they’re middle-aged.

      As for what you wrote about Jesus or Job, these two people are role models, not crazy people. Nobody crucified Jesus because he was mentally ill and couldn’t get along with others. The individuated person fits in to society before he goes out of it and beyond it; this is what you see with Jesus and Job. Job was at the height of his career when disaster struck, and so was Jesus.

      The personality disordered person fails in one or more areas because a bona fide disorder hinders even normal relationships–interpersonal, business, or otherwise. So, while a narcissist may be a successful actor, attorney, motivational speaker, or trophy wife, she is going to fail in some big way–as a spouse or sibling, mother or daughter, neighbor or friend. Whole people generally have whole lives and whole relationships to themselves, others, and their work.

      Collective values are an acceptable starting point, in my way of thinking, because they give us a baseline for examining where a person is. One has to at least achieve normal ego strength and functioning before taking the plunge into the wilderness in which one seeks the real self. We need all the ego strength we can get to maintain values and to doggedly stick to what we must do (take care of the kids, feed the dog, pay the bills, etc.) before we go off on the Quest of enlightenment: “Chop wood, carry water.”

    2. Eve Avatar

      Librarian, I decided to come back and address this, specifically:

      “I guess I’m not sure that society is the best choice to compare the individual to, particularly when it is not a society made up of true individuals but of the collective masses. And I guess the question then becomes: what is psychology’s role or function outside of the clinic, to create individuals or to integrate those who, by whatever means, find themselves outside of society’s norms?”

      You used the term “individual” and so I’ll begin with that. Of course from this angle you’re correct and I agree; an individual isn’t going to have a collective flavor, nor should s/he, eh? Hence the use of ‘individual.’ My answer is that psychology’s role is to do both. First, it is to help people ‘fit in’ to society, into the collective; then it is (after that) to urge them to individuate.

      It’s the entire union-separation-reunion cycle. First we get in relationship, then we separate, then we return. But (as you know), in quest mythology for instance, the hero leaves his home village, goes on his quest, has the dragon fight, gets the treasure or elixir, and then returns home. He doesn’t return home as the same person; he is much more the individual.

      The role of regular, typical therapy is to help people who don’t have normal ego functioning to attain it. Suppose you have a woman who is depressed, who can’t sleep at night because of it, who also has anxiety issues and is terrified to fall asleep. That’s not normal functioning. A normal person can go to sleep after a day’s work. A normal person doesn’t lie in bed for hours and days at a time. So the role of the therapist is to help that person get to a place where she maybe doesn’t need regular medication; or needs it and takes it and so can get out of bed, can sleep well, can fall asleep normally, can feel some happiness in her life.

      When living a normal life based on collective, soccer mom or dad values isn’t enough any more (say, by middle age), then the question of meaning comes in. What’s the point of it all? one asks… How come doing everything right still didn’t make me happy? Why do I feel so lonely? Why isn’t all this enough for me?

      A regular therapist is probably not going to help with that. This is why we need depth psychologies and true religion and other vehicles of meaning to help us live the third half of life, when the first and second let us down. This is another point of psychology, I think. At this stage, psychology’s function is to help the individual individuate, to help him create himself and to support him as he courageously stops ‘fitting in’ and stops adhering to the norms and says, “hell, no, I’m not going to keep doing this just because you all think it’s the thing to do or the way to do it; I have a different and higher value now, and here it is.”

      At that point, the role of psychology is to support the individual on his journey and to offer tools that may help him communicate what’s happened and what is happening, and to bring the magical elixir back to a collective culture that is mostly trapped in front of the television set or attending endless rounds of grandchildren’s birthday parties or playing dominos at the old folks’ home instead of doing what we’re really made to do, which is to keep growing. Psychology can help us keep growing, and should, rather than simply propping up our failures to individuate.

      So, my answer is that psychology does both things.

  7. Lee Avatar

    I see that variety of responses to trauma and chaos in my son and his biological siblings. Several seemed to “come through” remarkably well. (much as you suggest with the hero child) One sister is much more profoundly impacted by the trauma and sexual abuse. I think it likely that as the eldest female she was more often a target.

    I also see that the siblings don’t really have strong healthy bonds with each other. They are by and large doing okay in their lives as long as their lives are apart. Rob’s elder sister on the other hand, has a deep and what seems to be healthy bond, with my 5 y/o based on a shared love of art.

    I think in large part this is because they *don’t* share the trauma memories and the relationship has been written differently as a result.

  8. deb Avatar

    Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, I’m lifting my hand. A lot of what you write fits both me and my family. Both my family of origin and my own family.

    I was a very needy, emotional, inflexible young woman. I was also very depressed for much of my life. It’s very strange but since I decided to kill myself four years ago, I’ve come alive. I committed myself to getting better, to growing, to embracing life and I have. I look back at my former, younger self and feel some shame but also compassion. I was never given much in the way of coping tools from my family or origin.

    And now, I’m learning. Today on the radio I listened to a program and learned about enneagrams and capital sins. I took the personality test online and found I need to be right, need to be perfect. It’s how I thought I could protect myself as a child and it haunts me still. But the guest on the program said something else, he said your wound will lead you to your passion.

    I like nursing but it is not my passion in life and in some aspects drains me. I am a caregiver to my daughter, my mother and to my patients. It’s often too much for me. Need to think on this one.

    “One must have gone around a track a few times to even know if it is a circle or an oval. Patterns, with their costs and side-effects, can only be discerned as patterns when one has suffered them more than once” (The Middle Passage, p. 20).
    I like this passage. It doesn’t let me off the hook but it does allow me to screw up a few times before I can see what I’m doing. Seeing patterns is one of my strengths, just not in my own life, but I’m learning.

    As a young woman I could not admit that I was wrong or didn’t know something whereas now I can be kind to myself and say I don’t know because nobody taught me or nobody told me. I can’t know everything and that has made all the difference.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Deb, I think all of us can raise our hands on many of these, if not all, at one time or another. To err is human, as the saying goes. I read recently that people who worry about having a personality disorder generally don’t have them; it’s the people who think everyone else has one who deserve some scrutiny!

      I like Hollis’s books because he kindly reminds the reader time and again that a person is generally well into mid-life before realizing that a pattern isn’t working. It takes time to establish a pattern and time for it to fail. My observation is that people persist at their patterns throughout their 20s and 30s; by the 40s a light begins to shine in the darkness, if it shines at all. By the 50s, what can’t work, doesn’t–to borrow the book title, “things fall apart.”

      This is why I love being in my 50s. Though I have by no means arrived, I know what hasn’t worked. I’ve cut loose the dead weight. I’ve liberated what begged to be set free. And I’m moving on.

      Sounds like you are too, and that’s really all that matters. Press on, my friend. Life calls.

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