Character defects, as ominous and malignant as the term may sound, are merely personality traits—attributes, reactions, and attitudes—that create problems for us in coping with life as it is. They tend to emerge and become more prominent in response to stress, and emotional and physical pain. It may be more helpful to view them as character challenges. In fact, everyone, whether they struggle with addiction or chronic pain, or any other serious condition, or not, has certain personality challenges that can be problematic. We are really talking about basic human qualities and the ways of relating to oneself, to others, and to the world—that have become exaggerated and distorted, contributing to imbalance and creating additional suffering for us and those around us—as a result of the obsessive thinking, compulsive behaving, and self-centered attitudes that have become hardwired in the disease of addiction and/or the crucible of chronic pain. Personality is a psychological construct consisting of a set of characteristics that make a person uniquely who he or she is. Our personality impacts our thoughts, emotions, motivations, attitudes, and behaviors. As described in the DSM, personality traits are consistent and lasting patterns of perceiving and relating to oneself and one’s environment that are displayed in a wide range of social and personal contexts. Personality traits can be thought of as relatively stable characteristics that sway individuals to behave in certain ways. Everyone has a variety of different personality traits, some are adaptive; others are problematic. The totality of each person’s unique personality coalesces from the combination and interaction of their various traits. One of the best-known theories of personality is Erik Erikson’s model of psychosocial development. Like Freud, Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of stages. However, unlike Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages, which posits that adult personality is explicitly dependent upon early childhood experiences and largely determined by age five, Erikson’s approach highlights the impact of family and social interactions on personality development through eight stages across the entire lifespan, from infancy to old age. According to Erikson, our sense of self is constantly evolving due to new experiences and information we acquire through interactions with others, and a coherent sense of self is promoted through experiences of competence, while an incomplete sense of self and feelings of inadequacy result from developmental needs that go unmet and conflicts that remain unresolved. A sense of inadequacy and the need to avoid the distress it causes is a common contributing factor in the genesis of addiction, as well as one of its concomitant effects. Consistent with Erik Erikson’s view, the past is often present in our reactions to people and situations, tinting the lenses through which we see with residue from earlier in life, based on experiences growing up in our families of origin and from previous stages of psychosocial development. Many reactions are unconscious and automatic, like a reflex. When a doctor checks your reflexes, he or she taps you just below the knee with that special rubber hammer, and if your reflexes are working well, your foot jumps up. You don’t have to think about it, it just happens . . . instantly. Personality challenges breed reactions that are especially prone to reflex. In childhood, these reactions often served the purposes of self-protection and bolstering self-image. Come adulthood most have outlived any usefulness they had and now only interfere with the ability to respond skillfully to the vicissitudes of life. Reactions driven by personality challenges are impulsive and immediate. It is frequently not how the person intended to act, and rarely how they wanted to act. Such reactions are consistently self-defeating, and destructive, usually making the situation, and how everyone involved feels about it, worse. As described in a previous blog, using the pressure cooker analogy, uncomfortable and painful feelings always find a path to expression, and if we do not acknowledge these feelings consciously, by allowing ourselves to feel them and talk about them, they come out indirectly via our reactions, attitudes, and behavior. Personality challenges often rear their heads as if by reflex in emotionally charged situations that bring up difficult, threatening feelings. For example, arrogance—believing oneself to be better than others—emerges in reaction to feeling insecure/believing oneself to be less than others. Similarly, defensiveness is a personality challenge that occurs when people feel as if they are under some sort of emotional attack. Anger and aggression are shortcomings that frequently take place in reaction to feelings of upset, hurt, or fear. Acting out on personality challenges is frequently a signal that you are experiencing intense feelings. Being judgmental about a quality in others is a personality challenge that frequently emerges when there is unconscious discomfort with the same quality in oneself. Often, when people focus on others in negative and judgmental ways, the defense mechanism of projection is in operation. Projection occurs when we attribute to other people the unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and qualities that we have but are unable to consciously acknowledge because they don’t fit with our self-image and are too uncomfortable or painful. We see in others what we cannot see in ourselves. It’s always easier and more comfortable to focus on others than it is to focus on oneself. In the twelve-step programs, there is a saying that suggests projection is hard at work: “If you spot it (in others), you got it (in yourself).” Personality challenges are a normal and natural part of being human, and exist on a continuum for every person—from very little of a prickly personality trait to a truckload of it. Even people who are models of mental and emotional health can display some degree of impatience, intolerance, judgmentalness, insecurity, defensiveness, disproportionate frustration or anger, self-centeredness, etc. from time to time. The constitutional make-up of addicts combines with their experiences before and during active addiction to amplify their susceptibility to personality challenges. Addicts are likely to have more personality challenges, and are more likely to act out on them, as well as to evince more intense and problematic forms of them. Those who struggle with chronic pain or any serious chronic condition that generates enduring physical and emotional pain are also more likely to have more personality challenges and act out on them more frequently. Interestingly, quite a few personality traits are healthy and adaptive up to a point—until they cross a threshold, become imbalanced, and turn into challenges. They become problematic or “defective” whenever they precipitate reactions, in thinking, feeling, and/or behaving that are obsessive, compulsive, extreme or disproportionate to the situation, and cause suffering for oneself and/or others. For instance, guilt is a form of emotional distress or discomfort that occurs naturally when we believe that we’ve made a mistake, committed some wrong, or failed in an obligation. Guilt can be healthy and helpful in that it’s a signal that we have violated our own values or a more universal ethical-moral code, harmed someone, or otherwise acted inappropriately. Guilt helps keep people honest and self-aware in ways that contribute to emotional balance. In contrast, guilt becomes a personality challenge when we assume more than our fair share of responsibility for problems or mistakes, or believe that it’s somehow our fault when things go wrong for which we are not responsible. Guilt becomes unhealthy and creates unnecessary suffering for us when self-blame is blown out of proportion, and we use it to beat ourselves up. For many addicts, it is easy to fall into a pattern of guilt-driven self-blame: for being an addict; for the consequences related to one’s active addiction, including damage to relationships, health, and finances; for not being able to get a good-enough job; for not having a better living situation; for not being farther along in recovery; etc. Competitiveness can be a personality challenge, but in and of itself, being competitive is not a problem nor does it create problems. Competitiveness can be a positive quality, based on the normal, natural, and healthy desire to do well and perform at a high level in specific activities or in general. Being competitive can help motivate people put forth the effort and dedication needed to perform well and be successful in many important life areas, including school and work. Competitiveness becomes maladaptive and creates suffering when the need to be “better than” others or “the best” becomes a priority that overrides all others. It can become out of balance to the point where virtually everything is viewed as a competition that must be won, adversely affecting how we treat ourselves and others, and interfering with relationships and other priorities. Too bad perfection is an illusory objective and the epitome of an unrealistic expectation. Perfectionism inevitably rebounds upon itself, reinforcing the belief that who we are is not good enough. It’s like trying to hold onto water—we may achieve it for a few moments, but it’s impossible to maintain. The harder we try to grasp it, the more completely it slips through my fingers. We have vivid memories of this dynamic at work when sharpening my pencil in elementary school. The need to achieve the perfect point leads us to continue to sharpen the pencil past the point where it is already more than good enough—until it breaks . . . repeatedly. We might go through this self-defeating exercise four or five times before the pencil point is either satisfactory or we give in, feeling as though we can’t get it right. With each successive iteration of this self-induced torment my suffering escalated. Under the influence of perfectionism, the perfect is the sworn enemy of the good enough. Perfectionism frequently arises when significant people from early in our lives impose unrealistic expectations on us and we internalize them, effectively taking on those same expectations and making them our own. Mistakes become unacceptable and no matter what we do, it is never good enough. It has to be perfect. Phil described such negative self-perceptions as “the lies that other people have told us about ourselves,” and that their need to criticize or put others down was a function of their own emotional baggage. It was “their bag of rocks.” Whenever I buy into and start to believe the lies that other people have told me about me, they become my bag of rocks. Bearing the burden of its weight and bulk, I carry it with me wherever I go. Those of us who toil under the yoke of perfectionism do whatever we can to try to feel good enough about ourselves, while the perception that we are somehow falling short and there is always more we could have or should have done gnaws at us. The other aspect of the Sixth Step involves becoming ready to let go of our identified personality challenges. The process of letting go of the old and unhealthy is at the heart of moving from the darkness of active addiction into the light of recovery. Consistent with Taoist and Buddhist approaches, letting go begins when I become consciously aware of how I create suffering for myself and others. The letting go of personality challenges is actually a continuation of the process that occurred in each of the previous steps. It is the process of surrendering the things that separate me from others so I can move beyond what no longer works:
- In Step One, Let go of the belief that we are not an addict; Let go of using and thinking that I could control it and that our lives are okay as it is.
- In Step Two, let go of the belief that we can recover from our addiction without the help of powers beyond ourselves.
- In Step Three, let go of the need to control other people and situations, as well as to be “right,” by establishing a conscious connection to that which is beyond ourselves.
- In Steps Four and Five, we let go of the dishonesty and secrets that we hold onto and guard closely, and begin to shed some of the shame that comes with them. Many people naturally act out on the problematic features of their personality in situations that are stressful, uncomfortable, or painful because that is what they have always done. Even if they’ve made a commitment to themselves and others that they won’t act that way any more, like a reflex reaction it happens automatically, and continues to happen. While conscious awareness is extremely important, knowing that something isn’t working is not enough to change behavior. If the awareness that specific reactions and attitudes create serious problems was all that was necessary, changing them would be a hell of a lot easier.The only way to make those kinds of positive and healthy life changes is to act differently. If we want different results, we have to do things differently.
- The work of Steps Six and Seven is designed to counteract the habitual impulses people have to act out on their personality challenges. And just because someone has multiple years of recovery doesn’t mean that they are beyond acting in ways that cause suffering for themselves and others. It can be deceptively easy to fall back into operating on autopilot, where the re-emergence of those problematic aspects of personality just sort of happens. The quality of someone’s recovery is evident in his or her actions, rather than in his or her words. This is especially true with regard to the work people have done (or not done) on their personality challenges. For example, some people are very impressive in twelve-step meetings, speaking about spiritual principles in ways that are inspiring and seem inspired. But, when the meeting is over, they might engage in petty gossip, pass judgment on others, or display arrogance, among other common shortcomings. Spirituality has always been a fundamental component of twelve-step philosophy and practice. Scientific research has demonstrated that higher levels of spirituality and involvement in spiritual practices are linked with measurable improvements in specific quality of life areas. There is a positive correlation between the practice of Step Eleven (with its emphasis on meditation and prayer) and generally higher spirituality levels among twelve-step program members and life satisfaction, among other outcomes. Moreover, other aspects of spirituality, including a sense of purpose, gratitude, and forgiveness, as well as the belief in a higher power were correlated with a higher quality of recovery as measured by the degree of inner peace, degree of personal growth, and ratings of relationships.
- Step Seven involves identifying the specific spiritual principles that represent the opposites of our personality challenges. As noted previously, accepting our feelings and allowing ourselves to feel them takes less energy than avoiding, suppressing, or displacing them by acting out on the personality challenges they drive. Genuine acceptance of feelings frees up energy to practice spiritual principles in response to whatever life throws at us. The dialectical dynamics of acceptance and change are active in the Seventh Step. The work combines the acceptance of my feelings with improving conscious contact with spiritual principles—through practice applying them to dislodge my personality challenges. The most effective path to personality renovation is to practice the spiritual opposites of one’s personality challenges. Personality challenges and the spiritual principles that oppose them cannot operate at the same time. If the treatment for the disease of addiction is actively working a program of recovery (often in combination with some level of formal professional treatment), the treatment for one’s personality challenges is the active application of spiritual principles. The antidote for our inclination to judge others is compassion—for others and for ourselves. The antidote for our arrogance is humility. The antidote for our resentment—old anger kept alive by the reliving of past perceived injustices in my mind—is forgiveness.
This blog post is an excerpt from Some Assembly Required – A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain by By Dan Mager, MSW; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).