Character as a Psychological Immune System

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Solid character is like a psychological immune system, helping us to cope with stressful events and keeping us from breaking down under the pressure.

I’ve written many articles on personality and character and especially about the problems that can occur when a person’s preferred style of coping is dysfunctional or “disordered.” (See, for example, “What is a Character Disorder?”.) But it’s important to remember how well a strong, healthy character can serve us in dealing with the stresses and challenges of life. Some personality theorists, including Theodore Millon in Personality Disorders in Modern Life , have likened a balanced, solid character to a psychological “immune system” of sorts that enables us to cope with stressful events and even trauma in a manner that keeps us from breaking down under the pressure or creating problems within our relationships. Over the years, I’ve born first hand witness to this many times. It is perhaps because I’ve witnessed the importance of character so often that I became inspired to examine the nature of character disturbances and to develop tools to assist folks in forging a stronger, healthier style of coping.

Early in my professional career, while working in a psychiatric hospital, I encountered a woman who’d suffered recurring bouts of depression for much of her life. Some of these depressions were severe, even requiring rare, drastic interventions such as electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). The prevailing wisdom at the time among all the professionals on the treatment team was that what appeared as a rather pervasive sense of weakness, helplessness, emotional dependence, and pattern of self sabotaging behavior on this woman’s part was purely the manifestation of her unbalanced biochemistry and proneness to depression. As I delved more deeply into her history, it became clear that she’d had problems coping in a healthy way years before succumbing to her first bout of depression, and there also appeared a distinctive pattern with regard to the kinds of events that precipitated her depressive episodes. It raised the question of which really came first: was this a woman who appeared passive, helpless and dependent simply because she was so often depressed or was she a person with a relatively dependent personality who long lacked the ability to cope effectively — and who, because she experienced so much failure overcoming situational stressors during her lifetime, became reinforced in her perception of herself as inadequate, ineffective, and therefore, necessarily dependent on others for support?

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Operating under the assumption that perhaps the ultimate remedy for her depressive predisposition lay not so much in medication or shock therapy but rather in forging a more effective “style of coping” — i.e., modifying her personality and developing a stronger character — we began working through how early life experiences coupled with her rather non-reactive and passive temperament shaped her general approach to dealing with life. In temperament, this woman was rather naturally the opposite of a fighter. She grew up in a home where her overbearing father ruled the roost. He was not abusive, but rather a strong, imposing figure and a good provider. He took care of everything. What this woman perhaps “over-learned” in the process was that if there was someone strong and reliable in your life whom you could depend upon to take care of your needs, you’d be okay. But if, for some reason, you found yourself without a bulwark of strength to lean on, life’s demands could be overwhelming. In short, this was a woman who’d never found her own strength and never learned how to fend for herself. All of her depressive episodes occurred on the heels of her losing some source of emotional support (e.g., a job she thought was secure, a strong relationship partner who left, a friend upon whom she leaned for support but who moved or passed away, etc.). So, the challenge for therapy was clear: help her acquire the strength and the skills necessary to cope more effectively and, most especially, independently, and eventually become less vulnerable to depressive episodes when stressors mounted and external sources of support were in short supply.

To the casual observer, this woman might have seemed the ideal therapy client. She never missed a session and was always on time. She was perfectly (almost disturbingly) compliant. She always did exactly as was expected and always appeared eager to be advised. But that presented a problem, because it quickly became clear how “dependent” she could become on the support she found in therapy. While at one level it was ego boosting to feel so needed and appreciated, if I were to succeed in being a good therapist, the main task would have to be helping this woman get to a point where she needed neither me nor anyone else to cope more effectively with life and its demands. So, slowly and methodically, I had to make my support for her contingent on her doing more for herself and in the process coming to realize her own capabilities and strength. Working through these issues was not easy, but eventually we did work them through, and as a result, while she never became the “fighter” some personalities naturally are in character, she did acquire both the skills and the confidence to deal with the common challenges of life without either excessively yearning for or becoming dependent upon external sources of support. For awhile, she still struggled from time to time with minor bouts of dysphoria, but they eventually became less intense and less frequent.

As a result of this experience and many others similar to it, I came to a deep appreciation of the roles personality and character play in all psychological disturbances. I made a firm commitment to myself to never assess a person’s problems based solely upon the presenting symptomatology but rather always to take personality factors into consideration. It’s a commitment that’s yielded huge dividends throughout my career and has kept me inspired in my work on the importance of personality and character. As I mentioned in a prior article (), for too long professionals paid insufficient attention to personality variables when assessing and treating psychological problems. Fortunately, that trend is reversing as the importance of personality and character has become all too clear. In fact, all of medicine is moving toward a different approach. No longer are we content merely to treat symptoms as they arise and ignore the lifestyle choices that often influence disease. Rather, “holistic” practitioners of all persuasions seek to make their patients strong and less vulnerable so that crisis interventions are less necessary. Just as a healthy lifestyle provides some immunity to various diseases, when it comes to our psychological health, there’s nothing more critical to prevention than a healthy “psychological immune system,” and that necessarily lies in a well balanced, formidable character.

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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