A lot has been written about normal personality or normal behavior on the Internet. But I have never seen an extensive model about personality that can be readily recognized by everyone. Furthermore, rarely any connection is made between brain damage, the brain and personality. That encouraged me to try to present an extensive model about the normal personality. A model that can be used by normal lay people and health care professionals. A model that has scientific credibility as much as possible.
Of course I do not know everything, I do not own Truth. Some parts of ‘my’ model will be more speculative, because a lot about personality development can and has not been proven yet. Still, also a lot is already known as well about normal personality and normal behavior. And I think it is certainly worthwhile to explain what is known already as clearly and concisely as possible. I am convinced some personal tragedies can be prevented when more and more people really recognize abnormal behavior much sooner than right now. I state this especially with the last horrific shopping mall shooting incident in the Netherlands in my mind. A very clear example of insufficient knowledge in people and professionals about abnormal personality.
The personality model I will present is based on all the books and scientific literature I have read. However, it is also based on the feedback I have gotten from hundreds of patients and their families I have ever treated as a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. Because, a model can partly be checked by predictions it makes in daily life and to see whether those predictions do become reality. Because of the input of all those patients I at least know that the model can be very useful in clinical practice, in supporting patients who really want to learn to balance their emotions and thoughts. I surely hope some readers can use this model for their own personal growth and development. And ideally, I hope that this model will contribute to making this world just a little bit better and safer. How this can be will gradually be made clear while reading on.
To present a model of ‘normal’ personality, first of all I have to make clear what normal literally means: ‘according to the norm’. This norm represents an average and by definition is dependent on a certain time and a certain culture. For example, in certain cultures it is perfectly normal and accepted to become fully hysteric during a funeral and to show your emotions like that. Everyone knows those television news scenes in which grieving Arabic women are shown who very dramatically shout their sorrow. In our western culture such kind of expressions are much less accepted, even seen as ‘abnormal’. In the mean time, going completely berserk on pop music in a disco and dancing your buts off is relatively accepted in Western society, but not in China or India. Most there would think you have used some drugs.
Secondly, I do not want to become dependent on rather subjective cultural or group specific norms when presenting my personality model. The personality model I will present will be more universal: applicable on every living healthy human being on this planet. It will be based on something every healthy living human being has, namely: a normal brain. That will be the common element of this model, just like any human being has red blood and one heart. In this way I hope to avoid subjective and culture-specific values and norms. This personality model will be valid for a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, a Buddhist, you name it.
Thirdly, I want to relate this personality model to the field of ethics. Why ethics? Ethics is a special branch of philosophy and studies the way we ought to live, what is good and what is wrong. It is about values and norms. It seems very risky to associate a normal personality model with ethics, because everyone has an opinion about this. And some will have quite a different opinion about it as well. However, that risk I will have to take. Not that I am that brave or courageous. Not at all. But because I really do believe that a normal healthy personality is fully related to our conscience and ethics. Just as I am fully convinced that there is one universally valid personality model (because we all have a largely common brain), I do think there is just one univeral ethics, valid for all people whatever the culture or religion. There is enough evidence to corroborate this claim.
On another page about emotions, stress and brain damage, I have already explained something about our basic emotions and our cognitions (thoughts). I want to repeat that here but go much deeper into the matter. Furthermore, I want to explain how psychologists and/or psychiatrists or other therapists can help someone with emotional or personality problems. This explanation will especially targeted at family members, partners, friends or acquintances of people who do have emotional or personality problems.
A couple of fundamentals assumptions I will have to make here. All humans do have common features. As well as we all have a common heart or brain. Not just an assumption, there is a lot of evidence around. Furthermore, I state that áll that we do and think is completely regulated by our brain. Thirdly, all things in nature do work rather simply, all can be explained rather simply as well. Nothing is really complicated. The thing is: we do not know everything yet (thát’s also the most interesting part, wouldn’t you agree?).
A normal brain is responsible for a fundamental emotional memory system that develops between our first and 3rd year of life. We tend to remember (unconsciously) all kind of unconscious things like our basic emotions such as fear, sadness and anger. But also parts of our motor behavior. With that we relatively quickly learn to walk upright, how we can grab things and how we can eat with our hands and mouth. Brain parts like the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, the amygdala, the pituitary, the hypothalamus are rather far in their development at the age of 3 (although they still develop after this age). Also our hippocampus (memory system) is largely developed then and fully functional. It is at that age that we actually can remember consciously several events. This has also to do something with our self-consciousness that develops then as well. Having a Self has a lot to do with having a normal and fully functional memory system. Damasio has written some very interesting books about this (The feeling of what happens and Self comes to mind).
Now back to the personality model. Our personality consists largely of 3 fundamental building blocks:
1. our basic emotions: fear, sadness, anger and joy. Our so-called instincts like lust do fall under these basic emotions as well. 2. our thoughts (cognitions), ideas, images, especially expressed in our language but also in pictures. 3. our behavior: all visible and observable behavior.
To keep it simple: instincts like lust or sex, hunger, or aggression will be considered here as just being part of our basic emotions. They all can be traced back to one of these basic emotions (sex to joy, hunger to joy, aggression obviously to anger). These basic emotions are highly interconnected in our brain. For example, recently scientists found that Sex and Aggression were related to each other…in our brain. Well, that was understood already more than 4000 years ago! Science has only now caught up with wisdom we already had (as it usually does). Nowadays we can ‘prove’ it by making it really visible in our brain. But everyone even remotely interested in nature could have already noticed that sex and aggression go hand in hand in most higher species.
Our personality is built upon our sensory experiences and our basic emotions, and eventually on our thoughts. In an extremely complex network of thoughts (images or words), emotions and behaviors, our personality becomes a whole. In the first living years you can see this in the behavior of the child. For example, we all say: “jee, what a dynamic son you have!” or “Jee, how delightfully calm your daughter is”. Just because such toddlers do not know that much words, their personality or character features are clearly shown in their behavior and emotions. The emotional brain, where all emotions and temperament are stored, is there already from the very start (even before the actual birth). And emotional outbursts are defined by us as being part of our ‘temperament’. But this is just an expression of our basic emotions, residing in our so-called limbic brain. Actually, it is a complex of several different brain parts like the amygdala, hypothalamus and pituitary (regulating our autonomic or vegetative nervous system with hormones), gyrus cingularis, hippocampus (memory) and the orbito-frontal cortex. Especially, the development of the hippocampus, gyrus angularis and orbitofrontal cortex will extend far beyond the age of 3. For a schematic overview of all this written explanation see Figure 1: Personality.
Now, a fundamental part of our normal personality is our so-called Self-image. It is made up of our thoughts or ideas about our Self. During the first 2 years these ideas are essentially in a non-verbal format, simply because our verbal capacities are still small. For example, an idea like “hey, I can hit something” is already present at 1 or 1.5 years in this Self-image. Such an idea is usually not learned very consciously, not put into words so to speak. However, when language capabilities are growing and the verbal dictionary is expanding, more and more thoughts are coded into words and stored in our Long Term Store (LTS).
The Self-Image (also called Self or Ego) becomes larger, more complex and expands continuously. In Figure 2 Self-Image, I have tried to show you in a schema how this Self develops and what it is built of. For the sake of simplicity, I deleted all possible details. This Self consists of all our experiences with our own behavior and its consequences, our emotions and our thoughts (also called concepts). Some theorists like the famous Aaron T. Beck believe that our Self consists of 3 large layers: 1. the Core-beliefs, always starting with “I…” e.g. “I am smart”. 2. Rules and Predictions; 3.Automatic thoughts. See Figure 2 below.
In Figure 2 I have tried to show that the number of concepts (=thoughts, images, experiences) is continuously growing whenever our memory system is getting better and better to store everything. Logical reasoning and the thinking process is expanding as well, so even more connections (either logical or illogical) are made between all thoughts. That increases the chances of making false associations or erroneous reasoning processes.
Furthermore, with every thought or concept a certain basic emotion is always present and stored, of a specifid intensity. Sometimes even more basic emotions are coupled with just one thought. To the idea Hitler a basic emotion like Anger can be related (quite easily), but also Sadness and even Fear…and in some also Joy (unfortunately).
In drawing Figure 2 I hope to have made it very clear that our brain (our LTS) is a gigantic database of all sorts of images, thoughts and emotions. It can be truly described as an extremely complex and large associative network. See the amazing and wonderful book “Networks of the Brain” by Olaf Sporns. The strength of the connections is not only determined by our learning experiences but also by our emotions. Probably these emotions are the so-called weights in network models of the brain.
What I haven’t told yet is that the newest theories of our brain assume that our brain is especially made to guarantee our survival. They do that by predicting their environment. The better they can predict something, the higher the chances of survival. Predicting something can be put differently as well: maintaining control. A fundamental characteristic of humans, but also that of most higher species, is keeping control, about ourselves, the other and the world around us. By being in control we feel more relaxed, we are more at ease, we are less anxious. It does not really matter that such kind of control is only illusionary, mostly existing in our mind/brain. As long as our brain thinks we are in control, no fear is around and all sorts of spontaneous actions can be initiated. I will return to this fundamental concept of Being in control later.
It is important to realize how our SELF-image probably looks like. Probably, because psychology only assumes a certain model of personality. In this field we still can not prove everything, just as the field of physics can. However, we can find some prove of such a personality model by investigating its predictions in clinical practice. Just as I have done by treating a lot of patients. But it still remains just a model, NOT reality.
A very common and much used personality model is the Big Five personality model. An interesting personality model because a lot of research has backed up its key ingredients. With the help of the Big Five model I will explain more about our personality and our SELF-image.
On Wikipedia you can read how the Big Five model has been created. And to be honest, I am not very impressed. Basically, it has been a statistical trick or game, based on how other people labeled one another. When it became clear that with statistical analyses everytime 5 factors emerged from all those descriptions of people, they (scientists) thought that it would be wise to keep these 5 factors. To construct a personality model on this basis I find a little bit…unscientific. It is not based on any thorough or logical reasoning, no real theory underlies this model. However, these 5 main characteristics of a personality do show up everytime, in many different cultures, in other models and in research. It seemed that every human being could be described with these 5 personality characteristics. Because I am fond of simplicity I would like to support this Big Five model, for now. However, I agree with the critics in Wikipedia that there are moral or social connotations to this model, and different authors give different names to the dimensions and neither is there complete agreement about these five dimensions. However, just because the Big Five model wants to be universal its descriptions are broad.
These 5 basic personality dimensions will be mentioned now and presented as being a continuum. Because that is more like reality than just a ‘black-or-white’ description. Every personality characteristic has a certain intensity, a certain strength with which it is part of someone’s personality. The 5 dimensions can easily be remembered by this simple acronym: OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Let’s see whether each dimension can be found in neuroscience or neuropsychology.
Openness: Openness for new experiences, by some authors also described as Intelligence or Creativity. In Wikipedia the dimension describing this feature is: curious versus cautious or conservative versus innovative. It’s the personality characteristic that you are open to new experiences, curious, adventure seeking, high fantasy and high creativity. The more I read this, the more I feel that I possess this feature in a large extent. In neuropsychology creativity and curiosity are well known concepts, represented by the highest cognitive functions: the so-called executive functions. Mental flexibility, being able to consider different viewpoints and ideas, the initiative to investigate new things and doing new things, all this is Openness. And it really has a basis in the brain, in neuroscience.
Conscientiousness, unfortunately a more difficult word. But it represent the continuum efficient versus easy-going, organized versus careless/sloppy. This is a tendency to show planned, self-disciplined and dutiful behavior. SELF-control is another word to describe this feature. Being in control of your own life, others and your environment. Preferring clear rules and agreements, law and order. Such people emphasize their conscience, a clear ethical system. In neuropsychology discipline and self-control are – again – aspects of the executive system. Being more organized and planning ahead are the higher executive functions, more developed in people with self-control. Self-control is a fundamental human (and also in primates) trait, evolutionary emphasized. Clearly because losing one’s self-control is usually very life-threatening in nature.
Extraversion as opposite to Introversion. It is the tendency to be outgoing versus reserved, energetic versus solitary. Extraverts clearly seek other people to relax with, they seek more energy or stimulation outside themselves. Introverts can generate their own energy or stimulation from within, often preferring to be in a quieter environment. In neuroscience we now know that people differ in being sensitive for stimuli. Introverts are much more sensitive to loud noise and many stimuli, they will feel overwhelmed much faster than extraverts. Their arousal-levels are already higher than that of extraverts, more external stimulation will lead much easier to an overload.
Agreeableness or Friendliness versus Cold or Unkind. It is the tendency to being compassionate for anyone and this is dependent on trust. If you do trust another human being, you will be likely to be more open en friendly towards him or her. Being friendly has no clear roots in neuroscience, however, having fear or mistrust has been researched more. In certain kinds of brain damage such fear is very prominently there, such as in temporal lobe damage. And in the Theory of Mind models fear or mistrust has a place because not really being able to understand someone’s mind does easily lead to anxiety and mistrust (just like in the autistiform disorders).
Neuroticism Unfortunately a very unclear and non-descriptive word. It should really be replaced by a much more clear terminology like Emotional stability. That is the tendency to be secure or confident versus nervous or (too) sensitive. People differ largely in the capacity to remain calm under stressful conditions. Some become very emotional and almost hysteric, others seem to show no emotion and are fully in control. In neuropsychology, certain forms of frontal lobe damage do cause erratic, highly emotional behavior, whereas in others only flat emotions exist (actually not a form of emotional stability but a serious disorder in which all emotions are absent).
In summary, all 5 dimensions of this personality model sound right to me. They make sense intuitively, are found in all human cultures and a neuroscientific basis can be found for them. Of course, who’s to say that there are only 5 main personality features, and not 6 or 12? Raymond Cattell says there are 16 factors but that is too much for me. All 16 factors can be traced back to the 5 dimensions of the Big Five model.
Let’s assume the Big Five personality model is correct. How is this model related to the SELF-image, the rules and predictions and the automatic thoughts of someone? Well, first of all you will have to know that the Self-image starts being formed from the moment of birth. At first, most images and concepts of one’s Self will be non-verbal. Later on, more and more the Self will contain verbally coded information. In the development of personality only 2 fundamental dimensions are important: Control and Dignity. This idea comes from Aaron T. Beck, a famous psychiatrist and psychotherapist who can be considered the founding father of cognitive therapy. With this cognitive behavior therapy large successes are made each day to treat people with emotional and personality problems.
Beck, and later his daughter Judith Beck, suggest that every human being has to learn to control himself and his surroundings, such that his behavior is the most optimal for himself and others. It is funny that neuroscience has shown that every living (higher) organism is ultimately focused on controlling his environment, to survive. The latest neuroscience models of the brain do postulate that predicting one’s environment is the most important goal of the brain. Being in control results in happiness due to less fear. Of course, this seeking of being in control is very self-centered, even perhaps ego-centered. Beck realized correctly that in order to develop a normal personality it is also of vital importance to relate to other human beings. This social aspect of normal personality development Beck represented with the concept of Worth. Everyone yearns to be respected and valued for what he or she is. This is also what a parent should teach its child: that it’s being valued no matter what. It has a lot to do with what is called in psychology: safe attachment. It is the safe and warm bonding with another human, usually in the first years of life, with your caretaker (parent). This kind of deep affective bonding is warm, secure, eases your mind and is full with compassion. Without such attachment we know that children beyond the critical age of around 10, will have serious difficulties in forming close relationships with other human beings.
These 2 dimensions Control and Worth can be found in the Big Five model. Control is represented by Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness. Worth is represented by Agreeableness and Extraversion. Wanting to be valued is more likely in extraverted people who are more focused on what others have to say about them.
The SELF-image is built in the first living years by the type of upbringing a child has. It quickly learns how to control its own emotions, his surroundings and others. It also quickly notices how it is loved and cherished, no matter what. The kind of love it receives should be unconditional and then it automatically learns that he is worthwhile. And this is good for its self-confidence. When it encounters things it can not do, for example he is not a star in cycling or building something, then such an unconditional love can stimulate the child to overcome such failures and frustrations. And therefore to build its self-confidence even more (“I can do this, if I just keep on trying”). It learns also even more to control itself and its environment. However, when this child is raised a little bit harsher, with more ‘conditional’ love (“when you’ll do this then you’re cute, if not, you’re stupid”), then it can be that its self-confidence is lowered because with failures it will not learn to persist in a safe environment. Also this child will relate Being worthwhile much more with performance (“you are only good whenever you really do something good”).
The Self-image is built up of course on the basis of your own successes to control your environment and to achieve things you desire. The more success stories, the more the idea is strengthened that you can do anything. And if others around you reinforce your successes, your idea “I can do anything” grows bigger and bigger. Of course, the risk is that this idea is getting too intense, that it moves further away from reality. You simply can nót do anything. You’ll need failures to respect reality. That you’ll have to learn. Otherwise, you’ll never learn to deal with failures and frustration. People who never have been sick in their lives and suddenly suffer from a stroke, usually can not cope effectively with this disaster. They can not adapt because they have never learned to adapt to misfortunes. I will explain more about how you have to grow personally to become a stable and healthy (normal) personality on my pages about the personality disorders.
It is for now enough to say that our Self-image can NOT be built up without any human or higher mammalian contact. We know of cases in which children were raised under emotionally deprived conditions, and such children never developed to stable or normal personalities (Genie is a famous example). Both the cognitive (intellectual) and emotional development of such children was severely reduced when there was no normal emotional contact with another human being. Please remember this: our brain can not develop normally without normal human contact.
Now I gradually come to the conclusion of a personality model that also incorporates ethics. Because…without a specific warm human contact you can NOT develop a normal personality. Fortunately, this is one outcome of our evolution, both set in our brains and our genes. In fact, when you stop and think of it, it can be explained rather simply. Just imagine what would have happened to our human species when we had developed into a species with full blown autism: our species would not have survived very long in nature. To survive we need solidarity, oneness, intelligence to fight together your natural enemies. Natural enemies who are usually much quicker and stronger than we are. That is probably why we survived as a species known for their solidarity and togetherness. To live so long in such communities you need a structure of rules, a norm and values system, behavioral rules: ethics.
Someone who has figured this out in a pretty ‘cool’ way is Steve Pavlina. A very successful and now famous blogger who has developed a model for personal growth, very cleverly specified with the extra words: “for smart people”, thereby attracting all those people who find themselves pretty smart (and of course, most people do). This model is not only pretty cool, it has had a very high impact on me (and many others). The reason is…simplicity. Searching for a common thread in all personal growth models all around the world, he has studied and read all sorts of models of normal human personal growth. He wanted to find some fundamental rules for such a growth and he did this by demanding specific criteria for these rules: A. they had to be universally valid, valid for all cultures. B. the rules had to be collectively complete, no other rules had to be missed or added. C. the rules had to be irreducible, basic. D. The rules had to be logical consistent, non overlapping and not in conflict with each other. E. The rules had to be very practical, ready to generate real world results. And I think he has found the fundamental rules.
The nicest thing is: his basic 3 rules overlap the model of personality of Aaron Beck to a large extent ánd incorporate ethics as well. Steve found 3 core principles of human personal growth: Truth, Love, Power. With these 3 principles he manages to extract still 4 other principles: Oneness, authority, courage and Intelligence. I have drawn his model in Figure 3 and I want to explain every principle here shortly.
Truth: this represents Reality, as it is. Not as we would like to see it, but just as it is. As seen as objectively as possible. To be able to see reality as such, you need several cognitive and emotional capacities. For one, you need a correct perception not hindered by too intense emotions, a good planning and predicting capacity so you can predict reality effectively, a high degree of acceptance of your own failures and successes and a high degree of self-consciousness. Seeing the Truth has a lot to do with a highly developed Self-image. For example, thinking too much that you can do anything, or that you know everything, will lead to failures in seeing and predicting reality around you.
Love. In essence this is the seeking for contact, connection with another living being. But it is more than contact alone, it is what all religions have in common: Compassion. Compassion is the ability to empathically feel what another being feels or experiences. The deeper connection you have with one person (i.e. your partner) is an example of an intense expression of love. Intimacy and sexuality have all a place in this. In this fundamental principle Love, the factor Agreeableness or Friendliness of the Big Five personality model is represented.
Power. Largely misunderstood and equated with power to rule and manipulate people. In Pavlina’s model it is a strength within yourself to grow, to know yourself even better, and to change yourself and the world around you with confidence. However, this change is full of responsibility, focus, self-discipline and the realization that true power has nothing to do with doing harm to others. Power is represented with Being in Control or Self-control in the Big Five model.
Four principles deducted and composed of these 3 basic ones are also very interesting. First of all:
Oneness: this is the combination of Love and Truth. Pavlina believes, just as I do (and a lot of spiritual and religious cultures) that we can not consider ourselves as different from other human people, or even other living sentient beings. Of course we have differences but the number of commonalities is much higher. And that when we consciously feel, we can feel the emotions of others as well.
Authority: perhaps a frightening word but here Pavlina means true knowledge, of your Self, of the world and the others around you. With Power and Truth you’ll become an Authority, on whatever field you are specialized in. It makes you become more powerful and more successful in reaching your goals. People around you notice as well that you have the auro of wisdom, knowledge and inner peace and strength. Without being arrogant.
Finally: Courage. A very nice one I should think. It’s the combination of Love and Power. The courage to look beyond short-term goals or wishes and to look at longer term goals. Love is needed to connect and commit yourself to others, to their well-being. Without such connection no heroism is possible. Courage has also a lot to do with the absence of too much fear and that has a lot to do with sufficient Power.
Steve’s last principle he has called ‘Intelligence’. It is not the same meaning that psychology usually relates to it. In his explanation he sees Intelligence as the total sum of all principles: in fact, it seems to represent Wisdom: using all your capacities as optimally and wisely as possible, in full Love and in full realization of the Truth with as much Self-confidence and inner strength as possible.
Let me be very clear here: I am not a simple ‘follower’ of some kind of guru, even if it is Steve Pavlina (). However, his model about personal growth meets my criteria as well: simple, irreducible and very practical. What I would like to do is to relate his model with the Big Five Personality model. I am not sure whether this is possible but the Big Five model is largely based on scientific (statistical) research and it would be interesting to see if some link between the 2 models can be made. Perhaps they complement each other. Clearly, the Big Five model hasn’t been given much theoretical thought. Furthermore, there is no connection with ethics. Pavlina’s model hasn’t got these two disadvantages. And it is highly intuitive, so a lot of people seem to recognize themselves in this model.
In Figure 3 I have tried to combine Pavlina’s model and the Big Five model. Of course, this is not based on research, it is largely based on my simple logical reasoning capacities. It can’t even be considered ‘combining’ but I just wanted to make clear how the 2 models can be fit together. From within this ‘fit’ I want to further explain how a normal personality SHOULD be growing, under ideal circumstances. Using some examples of Self-images that belong to this normal growth. With Pavlina’s principles you can guide yourself to grow to a higher consciousness, and eventually to a better world. Although this seems a bit too vague and spiritual I would like to explain this later on.
When everything would be ideal in the upbringing of a human being, in his physical growth of his brain, then you would grow in all 3 basic principles of Pavlina’s model. But it is very important to realize what exactly is needed for this kind of ideal growth. That is what I want to make clear here from the knowledge I have about the development of a normal brain.
You will need a healthy brain and the right kind of upbringing and education that teaches you from the beginning to acknowledge reality as it really is. According to the Big Five personality model you need the character feature of Openness: being able to open yourself constantly for new things and experiences. Emotionally you’ll need not too much fear, your fear has to be moderate enough not to be paralyzed by new things. So you can step forward, encountering new things, exploring them. Being able to step into a dark forest and searching for new adventures is just one example. You’ll need enough curiosity as well, to overcome the fear you might have. Your self-confidence should be sufficient as well to counter any threats you might face.
An upbringing that has made you clear that you can quickly become sick and weak, will not stimulate you much in being open. In essence, your upbringing should have taught you “I can do or handle this, whatever happens”, “I do what I can, so not much will harm me”. The feature of the Big Five model Conscientiousness or Self-control is very important here as well. Self-control is necessary to know that you can control your emotions under stressful conditions. Which has everything to do with Emotional Stability as well. Being able to face confrontations, also about your strengths and especially weaknesses, is fundamental for Openness as well. This kind of attitude: being Open to everything you will encounter can indeed be trained from your birth on. The natural curiosity of a innocent child is a fine example of such a mindset or attitude.
When you learn to encounter Reality as it really is, then the second key factor of a normal personality growth is Love. This happens automatically when being raised by loving, caring parents. In psychology this is called Attachment: the safe and warm bonding of a child to its caretakers (it does not really matter whether these are your parents or other people). This bonding or connecting to someone is very much stored and stimulated in your brain. The basic emotion Joy is strongly coupled to this kind of connection, representing body warmth, safety, inner rest, the absence of fear or sorrow, soft words or sounds, songs, soft tones and music, gentle touch. All this is stored in your brain under the concept of Love. Later in your education you will learn that you are connected to others and that you matter to others as well. It is the form of unconditional love: no matter what or how you do certain things, some folks will also love you unconditionally (not to confuse this with granting everything you do!). Of course, now and then you will make mistakes in doing things and in your behavior, but this will be corrected in a loving and caring way. You, as a Person, will never be rejected by your caretakers, you are worthwhile just as you are. In later pages about abnormal personality development, the personality disorders, I will explain more about the wrong kinds of upbringing and why they can lead to abnormal personalities.
For example, being corrected too harshly increases the risk that you will become more fearful of punishment and more fearful of others. You can learn that others can have their bad ways, their bad manners, that others can not be trusted much. Especially, when the others are quite different than you are. The chances are that you will not feel connected to them very much, increasing the risk of for example racism and discrimination.
To easily and fearlessly connect to others, several Big Five features like Extraversion and Friendliness are quite handy. Being more focused on the needs of others and their emotions (extraversion) gives you more goodwill so that connecting to them will become easier. However, becoming focused too much on others will hinder your own desires and personal growth, it will lessen your self-confidence, risking becoming a slave to someone else. It has to be a balance between giving and taking in a relationship.
The third key personal growth factor in Pavlina’s model is Power. The Power to influence the world and the others around you. This may sound very frightening, even negative, but it is meant to be positive. It requires a high amount of self-discipline and responsibility. Being able to take responsibility for your life, your actions and your body. The better you realize that you are the one fully responsible for your own actions and its results, the better that is. You will need discipline, perseverance, energy and will power for this. In the Big Five terminology: sufficient Self-control, Openness and Emotional stability is essential here.
Now I finally reach something that I consider a key ingredient of a normal personality model: ethics has everything to do with personality development. Although sometimes more or less stated in several personality models it is not much mentioned in newer personality models. So I will state it here very clearly: a normal personality automatically entails or requires a healthy ethical conscience. Put it more bluntly: you can recognize a normal and healthy personality by its gentleness or kindness. Although there are some exceptions (see my pages on the anti-social and narcissistic)!
In psychiatry and/or psychology we have definitions for a rather controversial concept: personality disorders. It seems to mean something like deviating too much from the ‘normal’, ‘mean’ population standard. The large problem is: what is to be considered ‘normal’? In the past (in the 1950s) the western world psychiatry (in the United States) realized that there had to be a classification system that could be used by any culture to describe the emotional disorders people all over the world might have. So at least psychiatrists all over the world would largely speak the same language and to stimulate coherent research into mental/emotional disorders. So a bunch of psychiatrists (nowadays around 170) formed a workgroup and came up with a classification system that is still used today: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Mental Disorders (DSM). It is currently in its 4th version (the 5th version due in 2013). Although it meant a major breakthrough in the (more) consistent reporting of emotional problems all over the world, it still remains a rather random classification system, not really culture-free and by far the most serious criticism that it is not theory-driven. Focusing on the personality disorders you will find about 10 personality disorders nowadays and the boundary between normal and abnormal is quite vague. Research shows that the most commonly diagnosed personality disorder is Personality Disorder Not Otherwise Specified! Although I do not think DSM-IV is worthless, it is put together rather randomly, without much theory and it would be nice to rethink fundamentally the chapter about personality disorders.
Because DSM-IV exists and it is used in psychiatry and psychology I will follow the classification system here as well. But I will present here a THEORY about normal and abnormal personality that will make clear how and whén there really is a personality disorder. Because the concept of ‘disorder’ historically evolved out of medical (simplistic) thinking, I do not think it is respecting the real Truth. It suggests that there are more or less 2 kinds of people: with and without personality disorders (the healthy and the sick, or if you will: the good and the bad). Unfortunately, life is more complex. Therefore I want to explain a cognitive model of personality (of Aaron T. Beck and his daughter Judith Beck) that is more reality based ánd very practical and useful to treat people with ‘abnormal’ personalities. Furthermore, I want to show that what distinguishes a personality from being abnormal and normal is ethical behavior. And I will prove this with what we know from neuropsychology.
Aaron T. Beck, the godfather of Cognitive therapy, has written a very interesting book in 1990 titled Cognitive therapy for personality disorders. It was the first time that personality disorders were introduced within a coherent and concise, very practical theoretical framework. A second edition in 2003 is even more interesting and much more up to date with a lot more research backing up the theory. Beck builds upon a model of the Self-image consisting of 3 layers: Core beliefs, Intermediate beliefs and Automatic thoughts (see Figure 2: Self-Image schema). By focusing on ideas, thoughts or more technically called ‘cognitions’ Beck and all cognitive therapists acknowledge reality more in saying that there is continuum in ideas: believing something very strongly or not. In this way, the division between ‘abnormal’ and ‘normal’ thoughts is much more difficult to make; exactly how it is in reality.
Because this border between a personality disorder and a normal personality is rather vague, psychiatrists and psychologists working for the DSM must have thought that a ‘disorder’ should be a. clearly deviating from what is common in a specific culture, b. behavior should be around for a long time originating in the early years (to be a personality disorder this makes sense indeed), c. the abnormal behavior should be pretty nasty and irritating for others. Although referring to a common ground of behavior because we all have two arms, one heart and one brain, is intuitively correct, it still is rather tricky and culturally and time-biased. So it happened that homosexuality was once thought of as being a disorder! Due to the other criteria one cannot say that every aberrant and deviant behavior is simply a personality disorder.
What I especially want to emphasize is that a personality disorder simply means that someone’s personality has developed rather poorly, suboptimal. And…very importantly…it has led to suffering to others and…ultimately to the person himself (although not always appreciated like that). And this very specific hallmark of a personality disorder – suffering or inflicting harm to others – is why there is a direct relationship with ethics. A person with a deviating personality development has not learned to behave correctly. This sounds very socially restricted and narrow-minded but I will explain it more. It turns out that in neuroscience we now know that the brains of socially maladaptive persons like psychopaths (sociopaths is the newer terminology) is quite different than the brains of most normal people. They do not have much fear, neither much conscience and lack the ability to empathize with someone. Their prefrontal lobes do not function normally: in these regions all the rules for social conduct are stored and learned. Also our ability to compassion, empathy and pity is situated here. It takes about 20 to 25 years before the frontal lobes are fully developed, so these capacities should be learned in early adulthood, or else it seems too late. Also impuls control and the control over our emotions is situated in the prefrontal cortex, and this is disturbed as well in several personality disorders.
So, one of the simple tests to detect people with personality disorders is to test them on their ability to be compassionate. To being friendly. And not being friendly when it suits them, but álways being friendly. Very easy to test: just provoke them a bit and when they show a relatively large aggressive reaction, you know something’s wrong. The more defensive the reaction, the more suboptimal grow in personal development, the more a personality has been stuck in a lower level, the more rigid someone really is. And when this kind of aggressive reaction is consistent, hardly controllable by the person, then there almost certainly unethical behavior is present. Meaning: behavior that harms other people. That is the reason we all learn to recognize personality problems much quicker than we do now, to fight against injustice and unethical behavior.
It is true that with this simple criterium – unethical behavior – I go much further than the handbook of a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists. However, looking more carefully to the described personality disorders in the DSM-IV, a clear majority of the personality disorders result into behavior that is harmful for other people. It is even a hallmark for the description of the disorder in most cases. Just because it is harmful to others, it deviates seriously from the mean. Although DSM-IV does not stipulate an underlying personality theory, most psychiatrists and psychologists do seem to have picked up a seminal hallmark of a personality development gone wrong: harmful behavior, in other words: unethical behavior. And really, this to me does not come as a surprise. When looking carefully at studies into ethology, biology and neuro sciences, all evidence points to the fact that deviating unethical behavior has a direct relationship with brain injury or brain dysfunction. Furthermore, more and more studies do show that a deviant and unhealthy upbringing full of emotional and physical abuse changes the brain in an abnormal way. That simply explains why a personality disorder is so pervasive: it is literally wired into the brain. And that is a second very simple hallmark of a personality disorder: usually such people simply can not undo their basic and rigid styles of reacting to specific triggers. In that sense, people with a personality disorder are very easy to predict: they simply are not flexible enough to show diverse reaction patterns on the same provocative triggers.
Very interesting: Patricia Churchland has just written a book about exactly the same topics I discussed here. She, as a brilliant neuroscientist (and philosopher), shows evidence of exactly my assumption that a normal personality is strongly related to ethical behavior. Because our brain is wired like that! Her book is surely a must read for everyone interested in ethics, moral behavior and what constitutes a normal personality. The name of this book: Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (2011).
I find it simply shocking to see how bad we as ‘normal’ human beings know how someone looks like with a personality disorder. This lack of knowledge causes so much suffering in this world. In relationships, at school, at work, at home, in politics. If we would all know what to see and what to look at when searching for someone with a personality disorder, we would correct this deviant and harmful behavior much quicker and reduce suffering much quicker than we do now. We would also offer help for those people much quicker. Therefore it is really paramount to know what IS abnormal and not. And the criteria have to be universal (across all cultures), non-religious, non-racist, non-discriminative. Therefore we need clear ethical guidelines as well to distinguish between normal and abnormal. Whenever your own personal development is at a higher level, following the Pavlina principles of Truth, Love and Power in a balanced way, you can detect the presence of a personality disorder much easier in others. Because they have harmful behavior, constantly: rigid and inflexible, more or less standard reaction patterns that show disrespect and less empathy for others. That is also the reason to focus more on personality development and personality disorders to improve this world. Because these patterns are so pervasive and so rigid that they are automatically transferred to children and next generations. That also explains that a whole country or culture having experienced a terrible war can have a lot of people with personality disorders, making it very hard to develop that country into a stable and safe country for all inhabitants. In my pages on the 10 different personality disorders I want to explain per disorder how they think, behave and how to recognize them in real life. Hoping you will learn to spot them earlier and to do something about those people, before it is too late, before they have damage your business, your friends, your colleagues.
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