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.
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 in large part by discovering how other people respond to us. What emerges over a lifetime is a more or less coherent 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 through which we perceive the social and emotional environment. It is shaded and colored and scarred by experience, focused and then refocused by here-and-now influences like medication and hormones, diet and nutrition, exercise and stress, and the media we consume. It is the eye through which the beholder interprets not only beauty, but acceptance and rejection, self-esteem, love and loss as well.
Like any lens, personality can become very distorted. Experience affects development.The effect is usually gradual, the way that a river slowly erodes its banks. Prenatal alcohol exposure, for example, can induce a permanent disruption of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive functioning over time known as fetal alcohol syndrome. 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: 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 personality well ordered. The sum total of experiences from conception through the present is what yields a self able and willing to get needs met and to recognize and meet the needs of others. Of course, this looks very different at age three versus thirteen versus thirty, but the goal is the same no matter the age. Healthy personality is the ability to fit into the social environment. It is the willingness and ability to balance giving and getting, holding tight and letting go.
And personality disorder? In one view, the term is an oxymoron. A contradiction within itself. Personality cannot be disordered if it emerges as an adaptation to its environment. If our social and emotional expectations evolve in response to real and ongoing social pressures, then even the most rigid and aggressive, wishy-washy passive, or needy and demanding personality must be okay because it works.
Or worked. 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 ordered and disordered. “Tarzan” has become a cultural archetype, the story of a man well adapted to one environment but adrift in the larger society. A similar story is retold today in a beautiful children’s book called Stellaluna, the tale of a bat raised among birds and then returned to her own species.
The Munsters was a 1960s comedy about a family of monster-like people who barely tolerated their misfit niece, Marilyn, a stunning and intelligent teenager who thought herself hideous and bizarre; 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 disordered—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.