Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

What Is a Dysfunctional Personality?

Disturbances in identity and relationships

When you have depression or anxiety, it is often pretty clear. You feel nervous or down and that misery is very much on your mind. But what does it mean to have a dysfunctional personality? This is a much more complicated question.

First, like so many terms in the field of psychology and psychiatry, the term personality is a complicated one. A useful working definition of personality is “the organized, developing, psychological systems within an individual”. The question that follows from this definition is what are these systems and how are they organized? One useful scheme divides psychological systems up into three broad levels; 1) temperament; 2) characteristic adaptations; and 3) identity. Temperament refers to a person’s general traits and dispositions, and five major classes of traits have been identified (extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness). Once someone reaches the age of 25 or so, their traits will generally stabilize. Characteristic adaptations refer to ways people characteristically adjust and respond to their environment. Recently, I have argued that there are five systems of adaptation, namely 1) the habit system; 2) the experiential system; 3) relational system; 4) defensive system and 5) justification system. The final layer of personality is your identity, which refers to the broad constellation of beliefs and values an individual has about herself, others and the world and how those are pulled together into a self-narrative that justifies their existence relative to others. Here is a quick diagram of the three levels, which exist in a biological and social context, as depicted.

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So what makes a dysfunctional personality? First, let’s consider what we mean by the word “functional”. An individual is functional when they are able to effectively work toward realizing valued goal states, given the stressors and affordances they face.

Now, when clinicians are considering the functioning of one’s personality, they are especially looking at two broad domains, that of identity and interpersonal relations. Thus, the question of what is a dysfunctional personality broadly comes down to questions of how does the individual function in these domains, especially when faced with stressors? There are specific things one can look for.

When examining identity, the following domains can be assessed: 1) The degree of integration and integrity in the self-concept, especially under stress or duress; and 2) the capacity for and quality of self-directedness. A healthy/resilient (AKA functional) identity is characterized by a general degree of self-acceptance and compassion, the ability to have appropriate boundaries relative to significant others, the ability to tolerate a range of emotions while maintaining a consistent sense of self, the ability to self-reflect and accurately narrate one’s experiences, and the capacity to recognize and experience different self-states but not become unglued, overly conflicted or dramatically inconsistent in response to the pressures of such different states. In addition, a functional identity is associated with the capacity to effectively set long term goals and live according to internalized standards that function as guides, but have a feeling of ownership of those standards and not be overly rigid or inflexible in relationship to them.

It follows, then, that an unhealthy/vulnerable (AKA dysfunctional) identity is associated with problems of esteem and acceptance, fragmentation, difficulty tolerating strong emotion, lack of harmony between feelings and self-concept, the presence of self-states that lead to erratic or contradictory actions, rigidity, and the inability to effectively self-direct in accordance with internalized goals and ethical standards.

When examining the functioning of individuals’ relationships, the following domains can be assessed: 1) The degree of empathy and capacity for the complex, nuanced representation of others; and 2) The quality and intimacy of relationships with other people. An individual with a healthy or functional relationship system feels valued by important others, expresses attachment and compassion, and has a portfolio of strong, long term relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. They can effectively cooperate and demonstrate the capacity to appreciate others experiences, are able to hold conflicting feelings (e.g., guilt or anger) without being overwhelmed, and are able to narrate how they are perceived by others and how their actions play a role in the social exchange.   

In contrast, someone with dysfunctional relationships has significant trouble forming lasting, intimate relationships, has difficulty empathizing with others in complex and effective ways, often lacks insight into their own roles in conflict and the responses that they elicit, have difficulty trusting or having compassion for others, and generally feel devalued by important others.

There was a strong push for the DSM-5 to replace the current categorical system of different personality types (e.g., narcissistic, borderline, avoidant, etc.) with a more dimensional system that characterizes personality functioning much in the way described above. However, at the 11th hour, the folks in charge of the DSM-5 decided to not go with the dimensional approach. Thus, the approach described above will not become as institutionalized as might have been the case. Nevertheless is important that the concept of personality functioning be spelled out, for both clinicians and lay people alike. It is also important to be aware that, as described above, functioning exists on a continuum and that, depending on the circumstances, other people, and stressors, can vary quite a bit. A person may be relatively functional in some contexts and quite dysfunctionl in others.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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