Friday, March 12, 2010

Applying Psychology-II

      Applying psychology (Inner Life Personality-II)

Fundamentals of life: Personality, then, is concerned with some of the big questions about the human condition. A prime example is the topic of human nature. What is it that makes us human? Do we have instincts? Do we have free will? Do we have genuine choices in what we do socially? To what extent is what we are dependent on what we inherit? It should be
said that at present there are no final answers to this question. Certainly, we differ from one another in temperament, some basic characteristics that are there from birth and that seem to endure. Many parents know that their children are quite different from one another from the start, for example, in how active they are, or how afraid they are in new situations or how easily they can be soothed or even in how much they smile and laugh. But there is far more to personality than temperament and there are huge complexities in the links between the infl uence of environment and genes. Think of the many examples you know of very different people who have grown up in the same families. To ask another fundamental question: are you you or are you the situation?
In other words, do you have your personality because of traits or characteristics that are somehow within you or because of the influences of your environment? Over the years, various theorists have taken all possible standpoints on this question, but the received wisdom nowadays (as in most areas of psychology) is that the answer lies in a very intricate mixture of both sources of influence.
There are many more such questions, but probably the most important of them is about integration. It is basic to psychology to break down or analyse human functioning or behaviour into its parts, but personality is concerned with what all the parts are like when they are put together. How do we become integrated? When considering the ‘whole’ person, does something extra merge that is somehow more than the sum of the parts? Relevant here is the idea of self. Our own notions of our selves are important to the way in which we are integrated as entire persons.

Ways of looking at personality: As might be expected in an area as huge as personality, there have been many varied ways of looking at it. What follows is a very brief introduction to a few of the major types of theory of personality. Each of them emphasises something in particular and each of them is ‘right’ – in its own way. Each provides something significant to consider about personality and would be interesting to apply to people that you know as you think about them.

One of the most enduring and important aspects of personality is the notion of trait. This is simply the name for the characteristics that make us unique or different from one another. They are stable (more or less) and can come from either our genes or environment or, more likely, from a mixture of the two. We are either born with a set of traits or we come to establish a set of traits through our interactions with the environment. The most influential way of looking at personality traits rests on the belief that everyone has the same set of traits and that we differ from one another only in the extent to which we show the various traits. Then the question becomes:
how many such fundamental traits are there? The answer ranges from three to 23, but the most widely held view currently is that there are five – called, appropriately enough, the Big Five. The traits are:
1 Neuroticism or emotional stability – calm, relaxed and stable versus moody, anxious and insecure.
2 Extraversion or surgency – talkative, forward, outspoken versus shy, quiet, bashful, inhibited.
3 Openness (intellectual/imaginative) – creative, intellectual versus uncreative, unimaginative.
4 Agreeableness – sympathetic, kind, warm, sincere versus unsympathetic, harsh, unkind.
5 Conscientiousness – organised, neat, meticulous versus disorganised, sloppy, impractical, careless.
 It might be interesting to think of the degree to which members of your family or your friends could be characterised in terms of these fi ve traits, and the extent to which this gives a full picture of them. If it doesn’t, then what is missing? It is worth pointing out, by the way, that although the Big Five have been quite widely accepted, this is only within the English-speaking world (largely the American English-speaking world). Whether they apply to the same degree in Eastern cultures, for example, remains to be seen. If we think of traits as somehow basic to personality, then an important
question concerns how consistent such traits are across a person’s lifespan. Do they last throughout life or do they change (or can we force them to change) Can I change myself from a disagreeable, closed, moody, careless, anxious creature into an agreeable, open, outgoing, conscientious, relaxed player in the game of life?
This type of question has led to a long controversy among some personality theorists about the degree to which traits are dependent on, or modifiable by,
the environment. The usual view nowadays is that of interaction. In other words, the relationships between traits and behaviour or among traits depend on the type of situation that we might be in. So, for example, you might be very agreeable when you are with your friends but much less so when you are with members of your family. You might be highly conscientious when working with other people but relatively sloppy when working alone. You might be outgoing and open to new experiences when with people that you know well but shy, diffident and unimaginative when with strangers.

When personality goes wrong?
Can personality go wrong? After all, a person’s personality is their personality, rather than being right or wrong; it just is. While this might be true in one sense,
in another sense, the idea of abnormality is again an accepted part of Western culture. In this way, personality is thought of as going wrong simply in that it differs so much from the usual patterns of personality in the person’s culture.
The DSM-IV lists ten types of personality disorder. As they are described briefly below, try to think of someone you know or have known that might tend in these directions. After having read the descriptions, again think of the people you have known who might fit them and think about what they typically do that makes you think that they fit the category.
1 Anti-social – impulsive behaviour with little or no regard for others and no respect for the norms of social behaviour.
2 Borderline – instability, of mood, relationships, and even of the idea of self; impulsive and self-destructive.
3 Histrionic – constant need for attention and approval; dramatic behaviour,dependence and being seductive.
4 Narcissistic – grandiosity, exploitativeness, arrogance, obliviousness to others.
5 Paranoid – constant, pervasive and unwarranted mistrust of others. 

6 Schizoid – emotional coldness, no interest in relationships.
7 Schizotypal – constantly inhibited or inappropriate socio-emotional behaviour, odd cognitions and speech.
8 Avoidant – constant worry over criticisms leads to avoidance of all interactions.
9 Dependent – selfl essness, neediness, fear of rejection.
10 Obsessive-compulsive – rigidity in behaviour and relationships, extreme perfectionism.

It is probably fair to say that we all experience many of these characteristics in minor form, from time to time. So it is important to remember that to be described as disordered is extreme. More particularly, they are pervasive; they are there constantly and have a huge impact on the life of the person who is experiencing them or on those around them. Another way of looking at these ‘disorders’ is to see each of them on a continuum ranging from normality at one end to severe or extreme disability at the other. So, while it might be normal to feel a bit paranoid at times or to sometimes feel moody and needy or to show an occasional lack of respect for others, if these impulses become extreme and pervasive, you or others will suffer.
There is insufficient space to consider each of the personality disorders in detail, so just three will be considered as examples – the fi rst two tend to be among the most awkward and extreme to deal with. To return to Freud’s ideas, those who have an anti-social personality disorder (also known as sociopaths or psychopaths) essentially appear to have no conscience; they appear only to consider their own desires, paying no attention to
those of anybody else. They seem to be driven entirely by the urges of their id with none of the checks and balances on this that rein most of us in most of the time. They might cause suffering but appear to experience nothing much in the way of guilt or remorse about this. They tend to be adept liars, to seek sensation in the extreme form without much thought of harm or danger and punishment does not work for them as a
deterrent. They can be attractive, charming and intelligent, and so can be good at manipulating other people. The more accomplished anti-social personalities might well be found, then, among the ranks of the con artists. The sociopath might be good at getting a new job but very poor at keeping it because their true restless, impulsive nature quickly comes to the fore, so they commit crimes of some sort. They might then con themselves out of punishment by appearing to be contrite and remorseful and then immediately go down a similar route. As well as a lack of shame, they also lack empathy – they simply cannot put themselves in the position of someone else. This leads to an extreme ruthlessness in their dealings with others. Interestingly, those with an extreme
anti-social personality disorder can appear in any walk of life, from a murderer, on the one hand, to a successful member of the corporate or political world, on
the other. One final point to bear in mind when thinking of the anti-social personality
concerns the social context. There are some contexts in which to be impulsive and aggressive and deal without much thought of others to the immediacies of life is not inappropriate. For example, if one grew up in a war-ravaged city or was born into the high-crime area of a city such as Los Angeles, then such an approach to life might be a recognised way to survive. In one sense, such an approach is still anti-social, but in another it is scarcely abnormal or inappropriate; the social context matters.
The borderline personality disorder is perhaps the most difficult and in some ways the most interesting of them all. It does not mean that the person has a personality that borders on the abnormal. Rather, it refers to instability. People with this disorder become suddenly angry or anxious or depressed with no apparent reason. They vary between extreme self-doubt and self-importance, from idealizing other people to despising them. They become extremely dependent on other people, particularly new friends or a new therapist but simultaneously seem to be looking hyper-vigilantly for ways in which they will be abandoned or rejected. There might also be a tendency to self-mutilation (burning or cutting) or even suicide. In the extreme, a ‘borderline’ person might become dissociated, losing track of time, feeling unreal, even forgetting who they are. As is obvious, any relationships for such a person will be, at the least, problematic and, at the most, extremely tempestuous. The diagnosis also, in some ways, can make matters worse, simply because the person with a borderline personality disorder is so difficult for a therapist to deal with. Their behaviours often seem wilful and so it is hard for any therapist to withhold judgement or attach blame to the person,
both of which are essential to a therapeutic approach. Interestingly, it is the psychoanalytic tradition that has provided some of the more useful insights into the borderline condition. For example, it is possible that they have parents who derive a great deal of fulfillment from their child’s dependence on them, this leading the developing child to difficulties in distinguishing self from others. This would make them hypersensitive to the opinions of others (it is as though it is their self-opinion), so if they perceive rejection, they might start also to reject (and even begin to harm) themselves. For the same reasons, they tend to see themselves and others in a very dualistic way as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ and veer from one to the other view with
no consistency. A fine portrayal of the anti-social personality is the character Alex in the movie Fatal Attraction. In fact, fiction in general, whether in the form of movies or novels, frequently gives accurate characterisations of the various personality disorders. See, for example, Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’ series for the anti-social personality.
The narcissistic personality is entirely self-centred, needs to be constantly admired and has little or no insight into other people’s feelings. In this sense, this condition is similar to the anti-social personality. They not only have a strong sense of their own superiority but also a powerful sense of entitlement – they expect things to come their way, as of right. Often, then, they choose friends who are clearly weaker and less able than themselves from whom they can expect the adulation that they need. There is an essential paradox to the narcissistic personality – although they seem to be completely self-aggrandising, their self-image is very vulnerable. They need to be recognised, to be greeted by everyone, to be warmly welcomed everywhere, and, of course, most of the time this does not happen. They therefore often reject or disdain other people because those people are not giving them the praise and recognition that they regard as their due. If this is linked with their lack of concern for others, it makes them relatively
difficult and unpleasant people to be with. The main pronouns they use are ‘I’ and ‘me’ and they have very little concern for the other person in any relationship they might have. This also makes them likely to be envious of the successes of others, believing that such successes should be theirs and theirs alone. With the narcissistic personality disorder it is useful to see such disorders in terms of dimensions. Most of us have times of self-absorption or times when we envy others their success or times when we seem to be overly concerned with ‘I’ and ‘me’. However, think of what it would be like to be in that state all of the time and in the extreme.


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