altDifficult Personalities:  A Practical Guide to Managing the Hurtful Behavior of Others (and Maybe Your Own) by Helen McGrath and Hazel Edwards (The Experiment, 2000, 2010)

When I was in college, I remember this complaint from the psychology majors:  taking the required Abnormal Psychology course convinced them that they—and all their friends—were abnormal and psychotic.  Reading Difficult Personalities is like that, or like reading a list of symptoms and convincing yourself that you have some deadly disease.  The book is an exhausting, if not exhaustive, description of difficult personality types, and it's impossible not to think, "Oh, that's just like him," "She does that all the time!" and "Oh, no!  Is that really what I'm doing to others?"  Worst of all is the section on the sociopathic personality, which will have you seeing sociopaths around every corner and looking askance at those you think you know best.  That may be a slight exaggeration, but it's pretty scary to realize that most sociopaths are hard to identify before it's too late and they've done extreme damage.

What makes the book more useful is realizing its limitations.  In this I was saved before the page numbers got into double digits, since the section on signs of extroversion includes that extroverts "tend to think out loud.  In talking, they find out what they think," and "often interrupt without realizing that they are doing it."  That is such an accurate description of dyed-in-the-wool introvert me that I wasn't a bit surprised to find that not only I but nearly everyone I know has some characteristics of most of the personality categories the authors analyze, even those that appear to be polar opposites.

Although meant to be accessible to a lay audience, the book reads more like a textbook:  quite technical, and frequently referencing the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  I think it might be more useful as a reference book than as one borrowed from the library for casual reading.  There are many suggestions for (1) dealing with someone who exhibits difficult personality traits (especially in the workplace), and (2) controlling one's own quirks and minimizing the damage done to others.  If I knew that I, or someone else, was clearly struggling with a particular problem, I might find the suggestions useful, but short of that I find the content far too broad—even contradictory—and overwhelming.  The authors do give some real-life, specific examples, but the book could use a lot more of them, and more examples of successful ways of dealing with problems, rather than just delineations of the problems themselves.

Traits covered include Extroverts and Introverts, Planners and Optionizers, Thinkers and Feelers, Negativity, Superiority, Bossiness, The Anxious Personality, The Inflexible Personality, The Demanding Personality, The Passive-Aggressive Personality, The Bullying Personality, and The Sociopathic Personality.  Each is discussed in terms of how normal people exhibit these traits, what is typical of someone for whom this is a significant pattern of behavior, what the person is thinking as he acts in that way, reasons behind such behavior, strategies for dealing with someone of this personality, and strategies for changing your own behavior if you see the trait in yourself.  Sometimes the authors point out the positive side of a particular disordered trait as well.

Here are a few quotations, in no particular order and of no particular importance other than they were the ones I typed up before getting tired of the exercise.

Some people prefer a relatively decisive lifestyle in which events are ordered and predictable.  ["Planners"] prefer to have closure and structure in their lives and make reasonably speedy decisions in most areas..  Deadlines are kept.  They like structure, routine and order, and they plan to make their lives reasonably predictable.

Others have a preference for a less structured and ordered lifestyle, characterized by keeping their options open.  ["Optionizers"] are reluctant to make decisions, always feeling they have insufficient information and that something better might come along.  An optionizer prefers a lifestyle that is flexible, adaptable, and spontaneous, and not limited by unnecessary restrictions, structure or predictabillity.

I sent the following quote to Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids, who is always berating "worst-first thinking."  Turns out it has a psychological category all its own.

Protective pessimism can take many forms, but essentially it is about always assuming the worst will happen and behaving accordingly.  Protective pessimists believe that if something can go wrong, it will.  If something bad can happen, it will happen, and it will happen to them.  Rarely do they expect good outcomes.  So they miss out on the joy of anticipation and dwelling pleasurably on the "nice" aspects, in case the gap between pleasurable "dreams" and the reality is too great. They are not game to tempt fate by hoping, dreaming, or wanting, in case they get caught unprepared by negatives.  They prepare for disillusionment, sadness and tragedy by protecting their projections with pessimism so they will not get caught by future disappointments.  Instead of living up to expectations, they live down, and are often negative in other ways.  Other people don't like being around pessimistic people because they can be contagious.

Mistakenly, bullies are often perceived as poor souls with a marked inferiority complex and low self-esteem who bully others because of inadequacy.  Research, however, suggests that few playground or workplace bullies are like this, although domestic bullies may be.  Bullies were once believed to be socially inept oafs, but research now confirms that they are more likely to be highly skilled people capable of sophisticated interpersonal manipulation of others.  They can send a victim over the edge without anyone seeing the "pushes" they use.

Only about 5 percent of the population has such severe problems with anxiety that their behavior would meet the criteria for a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. ... However, research suggests that maybe up to 30 percent of the population has an anxiety predisposition, that is, a mild to severe tendency to magnify threat and, too readily, release adrenaline and other fear hormones into their bloodstreams.  They often feel stressed all day with no real justificaton.

Early experiences of fearful situations can then create minds that are biased toward exaggerating the potential for danger.  They remember every frightening experience and, on being exposed again to similar situations or reminders of those situations, retreat from the threat or freeze in fear. ... [W]e have termed these people flooders as they are often flooded with fear.

  • Flooders have a hair-trigger response to any situation that they perceive to be threatening, even if sometimes they are not verbalizing to themselves that a situation is actually threatening.
  • They experience fear reactions to a great many situations that others would not interpret as threatening.  Because their body is often awash with fear, they train their brains to retain fearful memories, to selectively attend to potential threat, and to overinterpret situations as threatening.
  • They tend to be less able to "turn off" the fear hormones once they are discharged into the bloodstream.  It can take up to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal after a strong adrenaline surge, and flooders have often had several surges in a row without realizing it.

That hit home to me more than anything else in the book.  Most of the authors' suggestions for dealing with the problem, such as "focus on facts and statistics to reassure yourself that the likelihood of a particular danger is less than you believe it to be," I don't find to be of much help.  I know that.  But in the fraction of a second it takes my body to react to the ringing of the phone, a loud noise, or even the quiet but potentially painful words, "we need to talk," there is no room for rational thought.  I know that it's only a very small portion of phone calls that bring me news of death or disaster, that most loud noises are harmless, and that few conversations actually require me to make difficult decisions or accept painful criticism.  But that knowledge only allows me to begin the process of calming the fear reaction after it has begun; it's not preventative.

["Successful sociopaths"] are no less sociopathic than the "unsuccessful" type, they just do it differently.  There is often no violence involved, although some pay others to be violent on their behalf.  They differ from the "unsuccessful" category in that they are adaptive, that is, they have enough skills and advantages to be successful by honest effort if they choose.  But they don't.  Out of greed, an overwhelming drive for power, and a thrill-seeking orientation, they choose deceit and dishonesty instead.  They are more likely to get away with their sociopathic behavior for a long period, as they are often charming, well-networked, and know how to exploit the system.  Their associates often cover for them, not realizing the extent of their antisocial and exploitive orientation. ... Sociopathic patterns of behavior are found in many powerful individuals who achieve political, entrepreneurial, sports, and business success.  But their behavior threatens the safety, well-being, and security of individuals, businesses, and our overall society.

One other thing I learned from Difficult Personalities:  As I had suspected, psychologists think we're all crazy, and the line between normal and abnormal is only a matter of degree.  It reminds me of a brain developmental specialist who said that everyone is brain-damaged, but it's more obvious in some than in others.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 6:53 am | Edit
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Sorry it was so depressing and not so helpful. Thanks for the review!

Posted by Janet on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 11:15 am

Not depressing so much as a difficult read. I can shake off the idea that all my family, friends, and neighbors are sociopaths....

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 11:25 am