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The Masks We Embody: Understanding Personality Difficulties

This photograph was captured by Durga Menon


The formation of a personality comes from a myriad of influences. I experience this very construct as fluid until it becomes concrete in a way that is less flexible and malleable (when a person comes into their own as an individual with a distinct identity). The juxtaposition of qualities (that can be experienced by the person as having similarities or differences from others) puts me in touch with how implicitly relational the making up of a personality is - it is a co-created product or object that sits within the psyche of a person that helps them navigate the complexities of the human world. The nature of personality is dynamic, though there is enough information online that prescribes personality traits and predictability of behavior as watered-down categories that are meant to help a person quickly assess and interpret the behavior of a person in a dynamic.


Our relationships influence our personalities - we may evolve, dissolve, consciously edit, or purposefully reinforce ourselves to change. I think about how personalities carry an undertone of morality further categorizing personalities into ‘good ones’ and ‘bad ones’. The good ones become the golden standard, a form of model behavior that invariably reinforces a dichotomy leaving very little room for experiencing personality traits and behaviors as a spectrum. While categorization and labels have immensely contributed to solidifying the belief that objectivity helps understand people’s ways of being, it takes away from the deeply nuanced inner world of psychic dynamism.


The psychic world responds to the environment it is born into as a way to meet needs, ideally calling out to a caregiver who has created a space for them in the social world. The experience of care is extremely crucial in how the fluid nature of personality is touched - the ripples of the psyche influence how one interacts, withdraws and plays with the self and others. The circles of these ripples that are first created in the mother-child dyad create strong reinforcing links between the mother and child forming an attachment that is rooted in attunement and disruptions.


The pattern of these ripples signifies the intensity of the dyad - the gentle flitting of a skipping stone on the surface, a drop of a stone into depth, or an intentional plunk that sends waves into the psyche leaving the structure needing stability much after impact. The mother-child dyad plays a developmental role in how the child experiences containment and its predictability - it impacts the way a child understands whether they can be held, heard, and seen and if this is being registered by those who are meant to care for him or her. When the formative years of containment within the dyad or the family system are experienced as chaotic, the child begins to internalize and associate relationships in the same way eventually creating a permanent sense of chaos that begins to emerge as traits that make sense to the individual.


“I am consistently inconsistent in my being.”

“I am permanently in touch with dysregulation that feels familiar and containing in that this instability feels stable.”

“The capacity to hold and manage has been left in me and so it is left to me to be there for myself.”


Personality difficulties and traits are a by-product of early experiences and coping mechanisms that are chosen to hold one in the absence and presence of a container, mostly in the context of care that has lacked continuity and consistency outside of a crisis. Personality difficulties as a phrase, to me carries a slightly less heavy connotation in comparison to the term, personality disorder. The implicit language that is being spoken of in the word ‘disorder’ implies abnormality as if there is no conceivable path for reparation. I am reminded of how clinical psychology seeks impact through labeling and being able to ‘name it’ in the therapy room, however, the mark that is left from such a conversation isn't a carefully trained one I feel.


Dis-order as a term also implies that it needs to be corrected by structure, norms, and expectations by others who are ‘orderly’, seemingly put together people, and can extend themselves to others to take care of them because they have been experienced by others as being incapable. Disorder as a choice of description is othering leaving those who have experienced difficulty in sustaining themselves in relationships to fend for themselves outside the margin of systemic care and support, as if to say they don’t fit the right criteria to be taken care of.


I have heard a mix of anecdotes where clinical and psychiatric support is sensitive to the patient’s need for diagnostic labels, and careful assessment is conducted across sessions. More often, I have heard of patients being taken through the conversation of a diagnosis that has been communicated through a fixed and rigid language, at times through the measures deduced from the statements of a checklist.


In my fantasy, I am in touch with the shame, isolation, and self-disgust that an undiagnosed patient may feel in trying to make sense of themselves almost at the mercy of these seemingly rigid criteria that resist their imagination of themselves, putting them in boxes and treatment interventions that repeatedly tell them in a few words or none that they are ‘not healthy’, ‘not enough’, and ‘not capable or deserving of goodness’. The abrasive language and exclusion after a PD label has been given are ignored, as if care stops at the label. The imagination of clinical psychology and psychiatry is limited by diagnostic language and as a result, has left patients inheriting the same meaning-making mechanisms for their lived experiences of personality difficulties.


The term, personality difficulties sit with me better as a practitioner and someone who has found my fantasies of my clients slowly withering into a lifeless grey moldy substance when it has been listed as traits reducing the psychic dilemmas and the complexity of personality dynamism into bullet points. Personality difficulties, to me as a phrase sparks a curiosity to delve into the context and attachment style that has evolved from early caregiving, deprivation, and need management.


At the moment, I feel curious to understand the depth of it and expand my language on personality as a spectrum and so the word difficulties put me in touch with being able to look at one’s sense of self as unique, complex, and nuanced rather than problematic, needs fixing and worthy of intervention by a ‘healthier’, ‘all-knowing’ authoritarian language.









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