Human Nature

Are you Normal?
A more organic take on human nature is emerging. It sees behavior as a product of distinct personality traits that we all have to a greater or lesser degree. In this new view, we're all just a little bit crazy.
 
The idea that human nature can be refracted through personality traits has been around a long time. But it is gaining new momentum. For one thing, it gives us a high-definition picture of human character and its variety. 

It also encourages renewed appreciation for the diversity of influences on behavior, from genes to lifestyles.
 
As a result, the new view of personality heralds a revolution in how we view disorder, marking a shift away from rigid categories of pathology to a more organic sense of the way individuals fit in their world.
 
After all, aren't lawyers supposed to be aggressive? Aren't, say, actors almost universally narcissistic? Aren't accountants and copy editors rewarded for their compulsive attention to detail?
 
For many years, serious problems of character and personality were believed to be relatively rare. What's more, they were regarded as virtually untreatable—and bereft of any benefit or utility. Personality disorders were sequestered on their own island of pathology.
 
But a flood of new theories, surveys and techniques is sweeping aside the old assumptions about problematic personalities. Dysfunctional personalities actually appear to be quite common, affecting more than 30 million Americans—about one person in seven.
 
This increased awareness of the prevalence of personality problems is stimulating breakthroughs in understanding and treating them, as well as a dawning realization that what we call mental illness might once have had, and may still serve, highly adaptive functions. Most surprising of all, researchers are accumulating evidence that the line between normal and abnormal personality is much more subtle than anyone imagined.
 
Which may mean that our conception of mental illness is due for a revision—and that we "normal" people are all just a little bit crazy. From Quirk to Quagmire Central to the emerging perspective is a distinction between personality styles and personality disorders.

 
Any specific pattern of thinking and feeling may be expressed as a healthy, though perhaps quirky, personality style, or it may be expressed more floridly as a clinically diagnosable personality disorder. Psychologists recognize 10 different personality types that, when manifest in intense form, represent 10 distinct personality disorders.
 
People with an avoidant personality, for example, may be homebodies who like routine and cherish a few intimates, or they may shun people for fear of rejection and avoid risk-taking or new activities for fear of the humiliation of failure. The former have an avoidant personality style, the latter an avoidant personality disorder.
 
Likewise, people with a histrionic personality may merely enjoy attention and be entertainingly dramatic, although able to cede the stage to others when appropriate. Those with histrionic personality disorder insist on being the center of attention and have emotional problems as well; their feelings are shallow and ever-shifting, and they may have difficulty intimately connecting with others.
 
So what's the difference between a personality disorder and a personality style? One gauge is, simply, extremity: The personality disordered think, feel and act in ways that are at the outer edge of what most people experience. A second guideline is inflexibility.
 
The dividing line between normal and abnormal becomes much less important in the new dimensional model, and some proponents refuse to recognize one at all. "I don't think it is useful to draw a line," declares JohnsHopkinsUniversity psychiatrist Gerald Neustadt.  
 
So when someone comes to you with a problem in the personality domain, you try to understand his traits and how they are getting him into trouble." What counts most is recognizing that the patient's difficulty does indeed lie within the "personality domain," says Neustadt.
 
Problems of personality are different in nature from other kinds of mental disorder, such as a sudden onset of depression or anxiety. Character disorders are more deeply rooted, broader and more encompassing—and more intractable, because they are so intimately related to a person's very self.
 
But the implications of the new work on personality disorders go far beyond parochial diagnostic matters. It represents a sea of change in how we view psychological health and illness. Just as we may see something of ourselves in the volatile diva or the misanthropic recluse, we may also embrace the extreme, the flagrant, the florid in our own characters.
 
The goal is to turn a personality disorder into a personality style—to help the personality-disordered patient become a functioning, healthy human being, with quirks and idiosyncrasies intact. A person, that is, a lot like you and me.

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)
 
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