Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Genuineness of “Style”

When you’re talking about a neurotic individual, it’s reasonable to think of their personality as a sort of “mask” or facade that hides their true self. But when it comes to the disordered character, what you see is what you get.

I’ve been posting on some of major differences between personalities best conceptualized as neurotic versus those best best conceptualized as character disordered. These differences have included issues related to self-image, how a person responds to adverse consequence, levels of awareness of problems, differing needs in therapy, etc. Neurotics also differ from disturbed characters with respect to the genuineness of their personality “style.”

Freud and several of his followers conceptualized personality as a social façade or “mask.” A person’s true self was thought to be hidden behind the social front he or she presented. So, a person who seemed particularly gregarious on the surface might actually be quite shy and interpersonally anxious “underneath” it all, presenting a front that “compensated” for their shyness and provided a wall of “defense” against the anxiety associated with more intimate social engagement. Classical theorists also believed that one could essentially define all of the major personality types by the kinds of defenses they typically employ to protect their true selves from the arrows and slings of social rejection and disapproval.

Whereas traditional thinking about the nature of personality appears quite applicable when we’re trying to understand the interpersonal functioning of individuals best described as neurotic, such conceptualizations have limited applicability when we try to understand the interpersonal functioning of individuals best described as character disturbed. With disordered characters, what you see is what you get. Unless they’re perpetrating a deliberate con game of impression management in an attempt to manipulate you, when it comes to their principal character traits, there is no pretense. Modern personality theories define personality as an individual’s preferred “style” of perceiving and interacting with others and the world at large. Such theories recognize the roles of constitutional predispositions, environmental factors, temperamental variables, and a dynamic interaction between these factors in the shaping of an individual’s interactive style. Such theories are better suited to both defining and understanding the personalities of disordered characters. In contrast to the superficial and false presentation of the neurotic, the characteristic style of relating that disturbed characters display is genuine. Disordered characters are who they are, and unfortunately, often to the core.

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I once worked in a residential treatment program that specialized in treating young persons who were already displaying significant disturbances of character and conduct. One day, a young man was admitted who within minutes of arrival began making a list on a notepad of improvements he thought the staff needed to make in the program. He demanded an audience with the administrator of the facility to present his plan for restructuring the program. His haughtiness naturally caught the attention of the staff, some of whom referred to him as “Mr. High and Mighty.” Yet, when this young man’s treatment plan was fashioned, the head nurse recalled this young man’s haughtiness and proposed that his first goal for treatment be to increase his sense of self-esteem. Steeped in the principles of traditional psychology, she assumed, as is common to neurotics, that this young man’s pompous attitude simply must have been a compensation for underlying feelings of inferiority. In time, however, it became abundantly clear that this individual in fact had no feelings of inferiority, only a deeply-rooted sense of superiority and entitlement common to individuals who have been over-indulged and over-valued all their lives and end up with deeply disturbed characters.

It was about this time that I began to realize that traditional notions that assume that a very different kind of reality always lies underneath the façade of personality always seem to involve a façade that’s not very appealing and a more pitiable but endearing reality underneath. In other words, the traditional perspectives always seemed to be conceptualizing egomaniacs as really having low self-esteem underneath, bullies being scared little kids underneath, and abusers being traumatized victims underneath it all, etc. I have never heard a devotee of traditional psychology claim that a shy, retreating person was really a ravenous predator underneath it all or that a particularly sensitive person really had a heart of stone. I think one of the reasons the tenets of traditional psychology have endured so long, despite their failure to adequately address the increasingly prevalent problem of character disturbance is that most of us don’t like to face the unpleasant and want to explain such things with a metaphor that makes the unnerving more palatable. After all, most of us are neurotic to some degree and denial is one of the things neurotics do best!

In upcoming posts, I’ll be elaborating on more of the defining differences between neurotics and disordered characters. My next post will focus on the role of so-called “defense mechanisms” in the behavior patterns of neurotics versus disturbed characters.

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 George Simon, PhD on .

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