The Habit of Identity

Uploaded 6/9/2011, approx. 4 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

In a famous experiment students were asked to take a lemon home and to get used to it. Three days later they were able to single out their lemon from a pile of rather similar ones. They seemed to have bonded with a lemon.

Is this the true meaning of love, bonding, coupling? Do we simply get used to other human beings, to pets, to objects? Habit forming in humans is reflexive. We change ourselves and our environment in order to attain maximum comfort and well-being.

It is the effort that goes into these adaptive processes that forms a habit. A habit is intended to prevent us from constant experimenting and risk-taking. The greater our well-being the better we function and the longer we survive.

Actually when we get used to something or to someone we get used to ourselves. In the object of the habit we see a part of our history, all the time an effort that we had put into it. It is an encapsulated version of our acts, intentions, emotions and reactions. It is a mirror reflecting the part in us which formed the habit in the first place.

Hence the feeling of comfort when we have habits. We really feel comfortable with our own selves through the agency of our habitual objects, traits and behavior patterns.

Because of this we tend to confuse habits with identity. When asked who we are most people resort to communicating their habits. They describe their work, their loved ones, their pets, their hobbies, or their material possessions. So who are they? They are their habits. They are their work, their loved ones, their pets, their hobbies, or their material possessions.

Yet surely all of these do not constitute identity. Removing these things does not change one's identity. They are mere habits. They make people comfortable, they make people relaxed, but they are not part of one's identity in the truest, deepest, most essential sense.

Still it is this simple mechanism of deception that binds people together. A mother feels that her offspring are part of her identity because she is so used to them that her well-being depends on their existence and availability.

Thus any threat to her children is perceived by the mother as a threat to her own self. Her reaction is therefore strong and enduring and can be recurrently elicited. The truth of course is that her children are part of the mother's identity in a superficial manner. Removing the children will make the mother a different person but only in the shallow, phenomenological sense of the word.

Her deep sense, true identity, does not change as a result of the removal of the children. Children do die at times and the mother goes on living, essentially unchanged.

But what is this kind of identity that I am referring to? This immutable entity which is who we are and what we are and which ostensibly is not influenced by the death of our loved ones. What can resist the breakdown of habits that die hard? It is our personality. This is what we call personality. This elusive, loosely interconnected, interacting pattern of reactions to our changing environment.

Like the brain, the personality is difficult to define or to capture. And like the soul, many believe that it does not exist, that it is a fictitious convention, a construct. Yet we know that we do have a personality. We feel it. We experience it. It sometimes encourages us to do things. At other times it prevents us from doing things. It can be supple or rigid, benign or malignant, open or closed. Its power lies in its looseness and lack of definition, in its fuzziness.

Personality is able to combine, recombine and permute in hundreds of unforeseeable ways. It metamorphoses.

And the constancy of these vicissitudes and changes is what gives us a sense of identity.

Actually, when the personality is rigid to the point of being unable to change in reaction to shifting circumstances, we say that this kind of personality is disordered.

One has a personality disorder when one's habits substitute for one's personality and one's identity. Habits are rigid. Personality and identity are always in flux.

Such a person, a person with a personality disorder, identifies himself with his environment, taking behavioral, emotional and cognitive cues exclusively from his environment and from his habits. His inner world is, so to speak, vacated. His true self, merely an apparition.

Such a person is incapable of loving and of living. He's incapable of loving because to love another, one must first love oneself.

And in the absence of a self, that is impossible, of course. And in the long term, such a person is incapable of living because life is a struggle toward multiple goals, a striving, a drive at something. It's a process. It's change. Life is change. Nothing fixed. He who cannot change cannot live.

And people with personality disorders cannot change.

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Normal Personality and Personality Disorders

Personality is a complex pattern of deeply embedded psychological characteristics that are expressed automatically in almost every area of psychological function. Personality traits are enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to and thinking about the environment in oneself that are exhibited in a wide variety of social and personal contexts. Our temperament is the biological genetic template that interacts with our environment. Our character is largely the outcome of the process of socialization, the acts and imprints and edicts of our environment and nurture, and how they work on our psyche during the formative years, 0 to 6 and in other lists. Personality disorders are dysfunctions of our entire identity, tears in the fabric of who we are.

Antisocial Psychopath and Sociopath: Antisocial Personality Disorder

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that is characterized by callousness, ruthlessness, extreme lack of empathy, deficient impulse control, deceitfulness, and sadism. It is frequently ameliorated with age and tends to disappear altogether by the fourth or fifth decade of life. Psychopathy may be hereditary and has a strong genetic, biochemical, and neurological component. Psychopaths are abusively exploitative and incapable of true love and intimacy, and they are irresponsible, unreliable, vindictive, and hold grudges forever.

High-functioning Autism: Psychopathy? Narcissism?

High-functioning autism (HFA) is often misdiagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder or psychopathy due to similarities in behavior, such as a lack of empathy, brain abnormalities, and criminal behavior. However, there are key differences between HFA and these personality disorders, such as language skills and social functioning. While HFA is a brain disorder with no intellectual disability, narcissism and psychopathy are personality disorders that can be linked to early childhood experiences and trauma. It is important not to make snap judgments when observing someone's behavior, as the distinctions between these disorders are complex and nuanced.

What Is Acting Out? (and Covert Narcissist)

Acting out is a way for individuals to discharge conflicted mental content through action, often as a result of being unable to verbalize or communicate their internal struggles. It is commonly associated with personality disorders and can lead to self-destructive behaviors. Acting out can be seen as a form of somatization, using the body to remember and process repressed memories and emotions. It is important to distinguish acting out from other concepts such as acting in, passage à l'acte, and bad behavior, as they have different implications and meanings.

MMPI-2 Psychological Test: Controversial, but Hard to Fake

The MMPI-2 test booklet has 567 items, but a rough assessment can be made based on the first 370 queries. The items are arranged in scales, and the responses are compared to answers provided by control subjects. The nature of the deviation determines the patient's traits and tendencies, but not their diagnosis. The test results place the subject in a group of patients who reacted similarly, and the validity scales indicate whether the patient responded truthfully and accurately or was trying to manipulate the test. The clinical scales measure various mental health issues, and the interpretation of the MMPI-2 is now fully computerized.

Children Psychopaths? Conduct Disorder

Children and adolescents with conduct disorder are budding psychopaths who repeatedly and deliberately violate the rights of others and breach age-appropriate social norms and rules. They are socially, occupationally, and academically dysfunctional, and their diagnosis changes to antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy beyond the age of 18. These children are in denial and tend to minimize their problems and blame others for their misbehavior and failures. Adolescents with conduct disorder are often embroiled in fights, both verbal and physical, and many underage muggers, extortionists, hearse snatchers, rapists, robbers, shoplifters, burglars, arsonists, vandals, and animal torturers are diagnosed with conduct disorder.

Psychosis, Delusions, and Personality Disorders

Psychosis is a result of severely impaired reality tests, where the patient cannot tell inner fantasy from outside reality. Psychotic micro-episodes are common in certain personality disorders, most notably in borderline and schizotypal personality disorders, but also in narcissistic personality disorders. Delusions are entrenched and very hard to eradicate, while hallucinations are merely a sensory perception that has a compelling sense of reality of a true perception but that occurs without external stimulation of the relevant sensory organs. Hallucinations are common in schizophrenia, affective disorders and mental health disorders with organic origins.

Psychological Tests and Structured Interviews: Introduction

Personality assessment is an art form that uses psychological tests and structured interviews to render it as objective and standardized as possible. Most tests restrict the repertory of permitted answers, and the scoring and keying of results are automated. Interpretation is arguably more important than data gathering, and most practitioners administer a battery of tests and structured interviews. Projective tests are far less structured and thus a lot more ambiguous, and the scoring is done exclusively by humans and involves judgment and bias.

Morally Insane Psychopath: A Brief History of Psychopaths and Antisocials

The concept of personality disorders began less than a hundred years ago, with the French psychiatrist Pinel coining the phrase "mal de son" to describe patients who lacked impulse control and were prone to outbursts of violence. The term "moral insanity" was widely used for almost a century, but physicians sought to replace it with something more objective and scientific. The diagnosis of psychopathy has been expanded to include people who harm and inconvenience themselves, as well as others. Today, most practitioners rely on either the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or the International Classification of Diseases to diagnose personality disorders.

Abuse Victim's Body: Effects of Abuse and Its Aftermath

Abuse and torture have long-lasting and frequently irreversible effects on the victim's body, including panic attacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, intrusive memories, and suicidal ideation. Victims experience psychosomatic or real bodily symptoms, some of them induced by the secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Victims are affected by abuse in a variety of ways, including PTSD, which can develop in the wake of verbal and emotional abuse, in the aftermath of drawn-out traumatic situations such as domestic divorce.

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