Why I Reject the Concept of “Personality”

Aug 24, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

We seek to understand ourselves

So many Catholics want to understand themselves better, and within proper limits, that is a good endeavor. Over time, people have developed various ways of trying to describe who we are -- not just collectively as the human race, but also in our individuality. There is a pull for each of us to understand himself or herself better.

Ancient Greeks

Hippocrates, drawing on even older Egyptian and Mesopotamian ideas, described the four temperaments in the fourth century B.C. to describe and predict human emotions, moods, and behaviors. Hippocrates posited that different humors or liquids in the body (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm) manifested in different temperaments.

Both Plato and Aristotle elaborated Hippocrates’ work on the temperaments, and Galen, basing his work on Hippocrates developed the temperaments into a typology in the second century A.D. This model dominated western thinking on the psyche for centuries.

Freud in the 20th century

Let us fast-forward to the 20th century when Freud argued the early childhood experience have a huge impact on personality. He introduced his model of id, ego, and superego in 1923 and modern personality theory was off to the races. You can read a brief summary of the history of personality thinking in an article by Madeline Ford here and one by Carson Sandy here for an accessible and more complete account of history.

Defining personality

Interestingly, to this day there is considerable debate and disagreement among mental health professionals about the nature of personality and there is no universally-accepted standard definition. In general, however, different definitions of personality center on relatively enduring, stable, consistent, and predictable patterns of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors found in persons.

The following definition from the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (2nd. Ed.) captures the essence of that general definition “We define ‘personality’ as relatively stable ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating to others.” (p. 71).

The DSM-5 defines personality as composed of “enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself.” (p. 826).

I have come to believe though that we are nowhere near as stable and consistent as the definitions of personality suggest – and it wasn’t for a lack of trying to make the square peg fit in the round hole.

My search to understand and describe the inner psychological world

As a young psychologist, I was very deeply committed to understanding others. I very much wanted to be able to enter the inner phenomenological worlds of my clients (and my own inner world as well).

Personality theory seemed to offer the best way to do that when I was in graduate school. I studied hard. I spent 20 years specializing in personality assessment, and eventually I became an expert in personality assessment. For a while I was a professional member of the Society for Personality Assessment and I researched and used the best personality tests, and even developed my own projective instrument to help assess the spiritual and religious dimensions of personality.

I taught personality assessment to clinical psychology graduate students in training who worked for me in my practice. I was really invested in better understanding others by more deeply understanding their personalities.

And in the end, I came to believe that the standard psychological concept of a single, unified personality lacks the power to adequately describe identity and inner experience for five major reasons.

Deficits and gaps in the personality model of the psyche

Deficits in the single, unitary, homogenous understanding of personality:

  1. Failure to capture the complexity, dynamism, and identity within the human psyche

  2. Understanding personality styles is insufficient to guide us toward health

  3. Personality labels are often used to judge and condemn others

  4. Personality styles are unable to describe one’s relationship with oneself

Failure to capture the complexity, dynamism and identity within the human psyche

Over time, my descriptions of personality in my reports became increasingly complex and multilayered as I struggled to describe the internal reality of an individual’s psyche. In my assessment reports, I would write summary statements of personality like this:

“Mr. X’s personality structure is best described as having a hysterical core, which is nearly completely submerged by his obsessive façade, with prominent paranoid defenses.”

“Ms. Y’s personality is centered on unmet dependency needs, which she responds to by manifesting both depressive and masochistic traits, frequently utilizing avoidant defenses to self-protect.”

I notice the different psychological tests would often seem to reflect different “sides” or “aspects” of a personality in ways that were difficult to reconcile beyond just a superficial understanding of a person’s thinking, feeling, and behavior.

Noticeably lacking in the definitions of personality above is a discussion of the person’s felt sense of identity, the deep assumptions about one’s own being, and of course they lack any mention of spirituality.

In some ways, the traditional diagnostic systems recognize this, at least implicitly. According to the DSM-5, Borderline Personality Disorder is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.”

Wait a minute – the same DSM describes personality as composed of “enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself” – so the stable, enduring pattern is one of instability in Borderline Personality Disorder? Hmmm.

Understanding personality styles is insufficient to guide us toward health

Why? Because modern conceptualizations of personality styles are based on personality disorders, the extremely dysfunctional and maladaptive patterns. Here is a list of the different personality styles described in the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (2nd Ed.).

Depressive, hypomanic, masochistic, dependent, counter-dependent, anxious-avoidant (phobic), obsessive-compulsive, schizoid, somatizing, hysteric (histrionic), narcissistic, paranoid, psychopathic, sadistic, and borderline.

So, which of those personality styles would you like to have? Which of those personality styles sounds really good to you? Not one of them seems positive.

Which of those personality styles would you assign to Jesus? Or to the Blessed Virgin Mary? Both were fully human, both were without sin, and both were functioning optimally in the world, and are healthy psychological models for us.

The only discussion of a “healthy personality” in either of the diagnostic systems previously mentioned is a paragraph on page 20 of the PDM-2 which emphasizes the flexibility that someone with a healthy personality has – the capacity to adapt.

What these secular diagnostic systems can offer is a description of what looks dysfunctional, problematic, or maladaptive, which offers limited guidance as to what we should aspire to in our human formation. I address how secular approaches to psychology struggle to define well-being in much greater detail in Episode 90 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcasts, titled Your Well-Being: The Secular Experts Speak.

Personality labels are often used to judge and condemn others

I do believe it is important to be able to put concepts into words, to be able to describe the psyche of a person. Nancy McWilliams, in her book “Psychoanalytic Diagnosis” describes five interrelated advantages of using diagnostic labels, including labels for personality styles: 1) usefulness or treatment planning; 2) prognostic implications; 3) a contribution to protecting consumers of mental health services; 4) enabling the therapist to convey empathy; and 5) the role in reducing the likelihood of treatment flight. I would add that it helps clinicians be able to discuss clients’ internal experience in shorthand form as well.

To her credit, Nancy McWilliams recognizes the different ways in which diagnostic labels, including personality styles, can be used pejoratively. She quotes Paul Wachtel as saying that diagnoses are “insults with a fancy pedigree.” (p. 7).

Every week, I get emails or phone calls from a distressed wife or husband summing up his or her spouse as narcissistic or borderline or paranoid or sadistic in a very reductionistic way.

There can be some benefit in using such labels to understand some of the negative dynamics within one spouse, especially when one is early in the journey of understanding problematic marital dynamics.

Often though, my sense is that such labels are often used to denigrate, judge, and condemn one’s spouse and justify failing to love the spouse, even from afar. I discuss this kind of lack of empathy in Episode 65 of Interior Integration for Catholics, titled Why Catholic Spouses Find It Hard to Empathize with Each Other, Especially about Sex – with Solutions and also in Episode 66, Acceptance vs. Endorsement: A Critical Difference in Catholic Marriages.

I want to stress that our language impacts our thinking, and if we reduce others to uni-dimensional descriptors like “narcissistic” or “borderline” and leave it there, we are not really loving them as we are called to do. (I addressed this in a recent weekly reflection titled Loving a Parent Who Doesn’t Love You, providing an action plan for loving unloving parents – most of the action items do not require direct contact with the “difficult” person.)

But let me be clear. I am not advocating that anyone sacrifice their integrity and be exploited and harmed in a destructive marriage – the Church recognizes that in certain cases, a separation is the best course of action.

I wanted to let you know about a beautiful Catholic ministry, Hope's Garden, in case you or someone you know might benefit. It is for women who have experienced trauma from a husband’s infidelity or pornography use. You can check out their introductory video. In addition, remember that we at Souls and Hearts have a course for couples who have been affected by pornography or sexual addiction called Be True: Restoring Your Marriage after the Discovery of Pornography.

Personality styles are unable to describe one’s relationship with oneself

The biggest concern I have with personality descriptors is that they are unable to capture how one relates with oneself. Our Lord commanded us to “… love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the second great Commandment, and it implies that we are to love ourselves, which means that we are to have a relationship with ourselves.

How can you have a relationship with yourself if you understand yourself as a single, homogenous, monolithic personality?

It’s impossible. There is no potential for internal relatedness within yourself with just a single, homogenous personality.

There is actually very little Catholic commentary that specifically addresses what it means for us to love ourselves in an ordered way. There seems to be an assumption that we simply do love ourselves. From my twenty years as a psychologist, I can say that it would be highly erroneous to assume that people just love themselves naturally.

Over the years, I’ve known many people who in various ways have failed to love themselves, In fact, I think most people, including Catholics, fail in many ways to love themselves. In many ways, I fail to love myself.

Let me ask you – If you loved yourself perfectly, would you sin? Sinning is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself, separating yourself from God and from others, harming or even destroying those relationships.

And some people, many people, have parts that hate other parts of themselves. For example, many individuals struggling with alcohol abuse have parts that hate the parts of them that pull them toward misusing alcohol.

Many new models of understanding the internal experience of people (especially trauma survivors) have moved away from traditional understandings of a single personality. These include Schema Therapy, Developmental Needs Meeting Strategies, Ego State Therapy, the Structural Theory of Dissociation, Somatic Experiencing, Parts Psychology, and certain forms of EMDR, such as Sandra Paulsen’s work, along with my favorite, Internal Family Systems, among others.

All these models conceptualize us as having “parts” or subpersonalities or modes of operating, emphasizing that there is a multiplicity and a unity within the human person – each individual is one person, but with several or many parts, like an orchestra is one entity composed of many musicians plus a conductor. Parts are like separate personalities within us, each with own unique prominent needs, roles in our lives, emotions, body sensations, guiding beliefs and assumptions, typical thoughts, intentions, desires, attitudes, impulses, interpersonal style, and world view.

St. Paul puzzled about his internal experience in Romans 7:15-19 when he writes: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Understanding what we do and why is made so much easier when we connect with our parts and live in a much more integrated way on the natural level.

Recent parts-based approaches to treating trauma, including complex PTSD, are proving to be quite effective. Ultimately, I believe that the traditional single homogenous model of personality will wind up with black bile and phlegm in the dustbin of historical approaches to understanding the human psyche.

You can learn much more about Internal Family Systems and parts in Episode 71 of the podcasts, titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others and also Episode 73, titled Is Internal Family Systems Really Catholic?

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Don’t forget that you can get in touch with me by phone for a 10-minute chat at 317.567.9594 during my conversation hours every Tuesday or Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time or you can reach out to me directly at my email [email protected]. None of that is therapy or counseling – I won’t be providing clinical services, but you’re welcome to bring up the themes I’m discussing in these weekly reflections and in the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast.

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