What is a Character Disorder?

Personality and character disorders are not the same thing. Our personality defines the stylistic way we tend to interact, while our character is defined by the level of social conscientiousness and virtue in our personality. When personality or character traits present major obstacles to functioning in a healthy way, they might constitute a disorder.

First of all, having a disturbance (alt. “disorder”) of character is not the same as having a personality disorder, although many (including mental health professionals) erroneously use the terms synonymously. But before we can adequately explain what disturbances of character are all about, we have to define some terms.

The word ‘personality’ is derived from the Greek word persona, which means “mask.” In the ancient theater, males played all roles, including the roles of female characters. Also, the art of dramatizing situations and conveying emotion was not as evolved as it is today. So, actors used masks of various types to denote gender as well as to emphasize various emotional states. Classical theories of psychology borrowed the term “persona” because they conceptualized personality as the social “mask” a person unconsciously puts on to hide and protect the more authentic but more vulnerable “true self.” A more modern and perhaps more accurate definition of personality is the unique “style” of interaction with others and the world at large that a person adopts over time. Someone’s personality, therefore, is defined by the habitual ways they tend to see things and the relatively predictable ways they go about conducting their relationships. Their biological predispositions, temperament, and environmental factors, and predisposing mind-sets, all contribute to their unique style of interacting, which generally remains relatively unchanging across a wide variety of situations.

The word ‘character’ derives from both French and Greek words meaning to engrave or furrow a distinctive mark. The word has been used to denote the most distinguishing traits of an individual that define or “mark” them as a person. Most especially, the term has been used to reflect those aspects of an individual’s personality that indicate the degree to which his or her personality traits reflect socially desirable qualities such as self-control, ethics, loyalty, fortitude, etc. So, the term ‘character’ generally refers to the extent of one’s virtuousness and social conscientiousness.

All of us have different personality traits or attributes. It’s only when these traits cluster in both a manner and intensity that makes it difficult for a person to function adaptively that we consider designating them as having a personality disorder. Similarly, all of us have traits that reflect upon our character. When those traits cluster in both a manner and intensity that causes us to function in a licentious or socially irresponsible manner a good deal of the time, we say that someone might have a character disorder.

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Some of the well-known personality types are best described as neurotic, at least to some degree. That is, their style of interacting with people is predominantly influenced by their fears, insecurities, and the defenses they mount to protect themselves from emotional pain. Traditional psychology is adequately suited not only to explain the inner workings of these personality types, but also to help such personalities deal with unresolved emotional issues.

Traditional psychology is poorly suited to explain the behavior of or to effectively treat individuals best described as character-disordered. In fact, holding onto some of the outdated notions traditional psychology promotes with regard to why people do the things they do and how to help them function in healthier ways are some of the main reasons people get victimized by disturbed characters and also why the disturbed characters rarely change for the better when others seek help for them. Disordered characters are very different from their neurotic counterparts on almost every dimension imaginable, and they require a whole different perspective to deal with them effectively. In coming posts, we’ll take a look at some of the major differences between neurotic personalities and disordered characters.

Do you suspect that someone you know has a character disorder? If so, you’ll want to keep up with the upcoming posts.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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