HEALTH: How Mad Are You? ; It's Not Just Psychopaths Who Suffer from Personality Disorders " We All Have Character Flaws. but the Good News Is That Once You Know What They Are, You Can Turn Them to Your Advantage
Feinmann, Jane, The Independent (London, England)
He's a man with everything going for him. He's bright, good- looking and supremely self-confident. Tipped for corporate stardom, at 38 he already has a high profile in the computer industry and a six-figure salary, as well as a beautiful wife and child, top-of- the-range car and fabulous house.
If Alex sounds too good to be true, that's because he is. As well as being excessively charming and competent, he's also arrogant, deceptive and devious. His dark side shows most clearly in the string of affairs and one-night stands in which he indulges that 'seem to have little to do with the sex itself and more to do with his need for control, risk, attention and power'.
That's the view of the psychologist who is currently helping Alex to understand the good, the bad and the ugly about his behaviour " and specifically to accept and learn to cope with the fact that he has a personality disorder. The diagnosis is chilling, associated in most people's minds with violent psychopaths and 'worthless worms... who are existentially dead' (as one media psychologist put it recently) rather than with successful businessmen.
There are 10 major personality disorders, each of which causes problems as a result of what psychiatrists call maladaptive coping " unhealthy responses to emotional demands such as stress, including depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and an inability to maintain relationships. And because a personality disorder is the person's very self, it is widely seen as untreatable by psychiatrists.
But that was in the past. Today, research is showing that treatment in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy allows people with personality disorders to live normally. As a result, the Government's National Institute of Mental Health, in a report titled Personality Disorder: No Longer a Diagnosis of Exclusion, has ordered psychiatric services to treat the condition.
'By helping people to face up to their personalities, they can stop seeing themselves as automatically a bad person and build a life for themselves,' says Homerton University Hospital psychiatrist Dr Trevor Turner. 'It's about putting a positive spin on what seems like negative characteristics. A leopard may not be able to change his spots but he can get to understand how useful they are in a shady jungle.'
More significantly for the 90 per cent of us unlikely to end up at a psychiatric appointment, there is a growing consensus that personality disorder is only a matter of degree. 'There's increasing recognition that there is a spectrum of behaviour, with personality disorders at one end and 'normal' personality traits at the other,' says Gill Graham, a chartered occupational psychologist and principal consultant at Cargyll Consultants, a company that works to increase the effectiveness of people in their working lives. 'Behaviours from both ends of the spectrum are present in almost everyone " they just differ in intensity, appropriateness and the extent to which we can control them.'
For Stephen Palmer, professor of psychology at City University in London, stress also plays a key factor. 'Many people are slightly paranoid but the more pressure you're under at work, the more likely you are to suspect that other people have got it in for you.'
Inevitably, as it becomes clear that finding the right fit between our natural abilities and a career that works best for the employer as well as the employee, there's growing corporate interest in personality traits. 'Context is crucial,' says Graham. After all, being at least a tiny bit histrionic and narcissistic is essential for today's celebrities, while an obsessive-compulsive personality will suit accountancy or engineering.
'Dependent people who are naturally anxious and inhibited can work well in a supportive team environment where there are no surprises, while they would flounder in an environment where they were challenged or had to make tough decisions,' says Graham. …