We are all so different…but so similar in some of our patterns. Especially the limiting or negative ones.
Psychiatric personality diagnosis tries to provide some order, but sometimes alienates people. Who wants to have a “disorder”? Must be something deeply wrong with me. But it’s easy to think of our personality ‘issues’ (in olden days: “neuroses”) with much more compassion and understanding.
As young people growing up in the world of our family, our schools, neighbourhoods, with all their challenges, we face certain common, human problems. Like: how will I be accepted? How can I get recognition and love? How can I get attention for what I need? How can I belong? How can I assert my independence? What do I have to do to feel safe? Where can I express myself?
Depending on the world we are in, along with the basic temperament and body we’re born with, it can be pretty tough, but not solving these problems is not an option. So we do the best we can with our little bodies and developing minds. And it is not surprising that we come up with some similar solutions to these similar problems. We try out lots of things. We’ll be good – OK, that didn’t work, we’ll be bad. Hmm, that didn’t work, we’ll be cute. No? Beautiful? How about smart? Stoned? Funny? Needy? Withdrawn? Strong? Tough? Aha! Recognition. Success. Partial solution to an otherwise insolvable problem. Now I can get the love/recognition/safety/freedom etc I need.
We try the solution out over and over. Eventually, we become it, we live it. It’s gone beyond being a strategy, now it’s a way of life, of thinking, perceiving things, of feeling. Who we are. We’ve figured out to go down a path others have followed too. So it starts to look like, even though we are unique, we share personality traits in common with others. It’s not too surprising that we came up with similar solutions to similar kinds of problems.
As we grow up, we may gradually, dimly realize that we pay a price for the early solutions. As a Nobel laureate commented (I forget the source), “what I really wanted was love, but I accepted a Nobel prize”. Work…worked. But it was only a partial solution. Or, in the case of addiction, Dr. Gabor Mate suggests addicts try to fill “a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing” (Blaise Pascal) with a substance. Leaving it unfilled is not an option, even at a huge price.
Our partial solutions were absolutely the best we could come up with at the time to solve an otherwise unsolvable set of problems. Some would call this pathology, neurosis, personality disorder, “issues”. I prefer to see the glass half full. Let’s recognize what a challenge it is to grow up and be someone, and appreciate the struggles, and acknowledge the efforts made along the way to solve these crucial and otherwise unsolvable problems. Then we can gently and therapeutically begin to find more creative, fulfilling (and adult) alternatives.
Brian Grady, Ph.D. R.Psych