My personality problem

I may be guilty of rhetorical excess in my mini-battle against the term personality, but overall I believe I have a significant point worth discussing.

A good deal of my professional training is in translation. This makes me sensitive to how word-choice can be misleading.

In non-specialist situations, the word personality can be useful and doesn’t bother me at all.

Joe and Suzy have such different personalities, but they get along so well. My twins look alike but have very different personalities. Sammy’s personality hasn’t changed in thirty years.

These sorts of casual uses are often informative, economical, and well-suited to context. I might make similar statements myself.

The term personality bothers when it is reified, when it becomes a thing far more than it deserves. A basic example of this problem might be the term personality disorder.

Here is a link to a chart that shows how the definition of personality disorder has changed through the years in the USA: Personality disorder diagnoses in each edition of American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual. Notice how often it changes.

Personality disorder is defined as “enduring maladaptive patterns of behavior, cognition and inner experience, exhibited across many contexts and deviating markedly from those accepted by the individual’s culture.”

And yet there is nothing “enduring” about what the term defines or the professional culture of psychologists defining it.

And the definition itself is hugely slippery, especially when it comes to the notion of the “individual’s culture.” In the USA, does that mean “American culture,” one’s “subculture(s),” the “individual’s perception of their ‘culture’,” “others’ perceptions of the individual’s perceptions,” or what?

The term personality itself is actually very nicely defined in one place on Wikipedia as, “…personality theorists present their own definitions of the word based on their theoretical positions.”

In another Wikipedia article we find that personality “defined psychologically, is the set of enduring behavioral and mental traits that distinguish human beings.”

The term is vague in itself and based on “cultural” standards that are highly ambiguous and that change all the time. What can possibly be “enduring” about that except opaqueness?

In 1952, the DSM categorized homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disorder.” Today most in the USA think you are a bigot if you oppose gay marriage.

Not only are “authoritative” uses of the term personality and personality disorder ambiguous and protean, they are also profoundly misleading.

Unless an individual has a strong and realistic sense of how their mind works and how complex feelings and behaviors interact with mental processes, they will be susceptible to reifying their “personality,” to believing in it as if it were a real thing or their “role” in life.

Worse, they may cultivate this thing, this role, and turn it into a fetishized semiotic.

The famous Myers-Briggs personality test was originally created to “help women entering the workforce for the first time during WWII choose jobs they were most comfortable and
effective doing.” (Source)

There has been little progress or change in the field of personality testing since. They are most often used by employers to find ideal employees, most of whom (I would hope) are smart enough to figure out what the employer wants and answer accordingly.

Personality tests and metrics—as well as the simple cultural belief that an “enduring” personality exists in any of us—serve mainly to reify an impoverished way of understanding human life.

I can accept some traits as being more “enduring” than not within individuals, but even these will be highly dependent on context and what we mean by “culture.”

Shyness is generally prized in Japan and considered a mark of honesty, while in the USA it may be classified as a “personality disorder” and medicated. Strength means different things to nuns and generals. Ruthlessness was considered a fundamental virtue among Bolshevik “secret police,” who also praised terrorism. Terrorism is a crime in Russia today.

I am good with casual uses of the word personality, but often cringe when it is used as a serious analytical term. It is much better to see yourself as a complex matrix of cognition, perception, feeling, semiotics, language, and imperfect memory in a changing world than as a role-playing personality in a stable culture.

In an employment setting or a small subculture it can help to project a consistent “self,” but my advice is don’t take that too seriously. It will hinder more than help you.

If you are having mental or emotional problems, it is true that they may be roughly describable or classifiable in general terms, but I can all but guarantee you that you will only fix them when you see they are specific and very particular distortions or mistakes within the unique complexity of your own idiosyncratic life. Comparing yourself to generalities like personality will most likely only obscure the real problem and often make it worse.

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