Friday, December 11, 2009

Personality, or Disorder?

Update: well worth reading the comments below by bourach, who blogs at, on their experience of personality disorder, and of what aspects of church life and community they find helpful.

Thought-provoking piece by the BBC's Mark Easton from a few days ago, looking at the effects of personality disorders, and the moral questions they raise.

We don't know. Research is thin. And there are some who argue that doctors' attempts to find a therapeutic label for it are in danger of simply medicalising bad behaviour.

...But the dilemma remains. Not every trauma victim goes on to abuse. Not every neglected child self-harms. Society cannot easily forgive or excuse those that commit appalling crimes on the basis that it is a consequence of a troubled past.

The question is still unanswered. Where does personality end and disorder begin?

It's quite a long piece, but raises all sorts of issues: when is a diagnosis an explanation, and when is it an excuse? What's the effect of culture: we've become a society which is much happier about giving free reign to self-expression, but do we have the self-control to know when this is appropriate and when it isn't?

When we did the Myers-Briggs personality test at training college, one wag at the college revue coined the line 'it's not a sin, it's just my personality'. God has given us life to richly enjoy, and to live to the full, but living life to the full isn't the same as self-indulgence, and I wonder if those two ideas have become confused somewhere along the line. Jesus teaches that the two are mutually opposed.

But you can only give your life away if it's yours to give, so if a personality disorder means that you're not fully in control of your life in the first place......I'd better stop there......


  1. I have a personality disorder and its really not as simple as it appears. Ninety percent of the time I'm in control and I cope with my life doing a normal responsible job, spending time with my friends, worshipping at my church etc etc. The other 10% is a horrible mixture of overwhelming emotions that are horrendously self destructive and just horrible.

    I don't see my personality disorder as being responsible for my behaviour. I am responsible for my behaviour but my personality disorder is a reflection of how difficult I find it to deal with the emotions that I experience.

    Yes I was abused, that doesn't mean that I am not responsible for what I do. Of course I am. Having a personality disorder just makes it more difficult to control what it is I do. Whether it would count as legal insanity or not I have no idea. I wouldn't imagine it would do because unless I'm actively psychotic (which happens very rarely) I know what I'm doing, I just can't control it.

    At least primarily my behaviour is self destructive and not destructive to others although it does impinge on them. Yes it is sinful and I'm enormously remorseful for what I do and hugely grateful for the sacrament of reconciliation.

    It's difficult to explain what its like to have a personality disorder except to say its horrible.

  2. Bourach - thankyou for commenting, this is one of those areas which I guess most people are in the dark about. It sounds a bit like mental illness, where people have thoughts they can't control (e.g. with OCD), but in the case of personality disorder it's actions too. It's not something I remember hearing much about until I read Mark Eastons piece.

    If you're able to say, I wonder what aspects of faith/church you find most helpful, and what is least helpful? I'm partly asking with my vicars hat on, wondering if I'm doing/saying things which are making people's lives more difficult, without knowing.

  3. Thats an interesting question. I find a lot about church thats helpful and useful and having a supportive church and priest has made a massive contribution to an improvement in my condition.

    I think the thing that is most important is understanding. There are things I don't do because I can't handle them. For example, I hate being touched by people so avoid the peace. There are times when my emotions are utterly out of control when I sit and mass and cry but have no real reason for being distressed just the fact my emotions are just to overwhelming for me to cope without being distressed. The congregation used to be all stressed by this but now they just ignore it which is much more useful than otherwise. They recognise the turmoil is inside me and that I am unable to control it at the time.

    Another thing that has been really helpful is my priest having contact with my mental health workers so he knows whats going on and they know I have someone reliable I have contact with. It's a lot to ask of a priest to be in such contact but he has been willing to do so.

    When I get overwhelmed I tend to self harm quite badly and get extremely self destructive. Sometimes I phone up the priest and he tells me to come round and I just sit there in a safe place where I can't hurt myself while he and his wife get on with things around me. For me that safe place without any particularly 'vicary' going on has been hugely important.

    I realise that thats a lot to ask of a priest and congregation and when I'm well I try to be this supportive of them but just having people who are safe and non judgemental has made a huge difference to me.

    Also just to let you know personality disorders are mental illnesses as described in the DSM. for more information

  4. Many thanks Bourach - if my theological training is anything to go by, this is something (along with a whole raft of other mental illnesses) which many vicars won't really be aware of.