Conforming Personality Disorder (CPD) is one of a number of personality disorders identified in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)-IV. Past labels for CPD are “obsessive-compulsive” personality disorder and Sigmund Freud’s “anal character.” (Note: In this essay, CPD is used to refer to both the disorder and the person afflicted with the disorder.)
What are personality disorders?
The word “personality” may be defined as an individual’s “lifelong style of relating, coping, behaving, thinking, and feeling.” (p. 3) A longer definition is “a complex pattern of deeply embedded psychological characteristics that are largely nonconscious and not easily altered, expressing themselves automatically in almost every facet of functioning. Intrinsive and pervasive, these traits emerge from a complicated matrix of biological dispositions and experiential learnings, and ultimately comprise the individual’s distinctive pattern of perceiving, feeling, thinking, coping, and behaving.” (p. 4)
Recognizing that personality exists on a continuum, psychologists maintain that “no sharp division exists between normality and pathology.” (p. 7) Personality traits nevertheless can become a disorder when they are rigid and unbending. A “personality disorder” thus refers to ingrained, inflexible, and maladaptive patterns of behavior that cause discomfort and impair an individual’s ability to function.
Given the above, at least three main differences between “personality” and “personality disorder” can be discerned:
1. The personality traits of a disordered individual are inflexible.
2. The rigidity of an individual’s personality renders her maladaptive, i.e., she is unable to adjust herself to changing circumstances, both external and internal.
3. Personality traits being “pervasive,” the disordered personality creates problems in the individual’s life—at home and at work, affecting the individual as well as others. The problems may include unhappiness, alcoholism, drug addiction, psychosomatic symptoms, actual physical ailments, and interpersonal conflicts.
Differences between conforming “style” (CS) & conforming personality disorder (CPD):
Anyone reading this is probably well-educated and, therefore, an achiever. Such an individual probably has a mild variant of CPD—what psychologists call a “conscientious” or “conforming style” (CS). Simply put, CS individuals are high achievers who respect tradition and authority, and conform to societal morality and standards. Having strong moral principles, they behave in a highly principled manner with an unusual degree of integrity. They are responsible, proper, and conscientious; loyal to their families, their causes, and their superiors; and may be religious. They are hardworking, persevering, disciplined, and organized—all of which makes them efficient and successful in most of their endeavors, and are perceived by others to be dependable and industrious. Being morally principled, however, also means that CS individuals tend to be judgmental of those who do not abide by conventional rules and standards. At the same time, however, CS individuals are prudent and restrained, and strive to act in an objective and rational manner.
How CS differs from CPD:
A conforming style does not mean a conforming personality disorder (CPD). The main difference lies in the fact that the CS individual does not have the severe cognitive distortions of the CPD—distortions that come from the CPD’s repression of thoughts and feelings, and her psychological mechanisms of defense and denial. That is why, unlike the CPD, the CS individual can act prudently, objectively, and rationally, and exercise restraint. Simply put, the CS individual’s rationality enables her to learn and adapt. In contrast, the CPD is inflexible and maladaptive. That rigidity, together with her repression and denial, accounts for the CPD’s self-destructive behaviors and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.
The CPD Syndrome:
Etiology: Psychologists maintain that in childhood, the CPD’s parents (or other primary care-givers) were “demanding, perfectionistic, and condemnatory,” (p. 517) holding the child to extremely high and exacting moral standards. More than being exacting, the parent is punitive when the child violates or fails to conform to those rules. The punishment can be physical (extreme physical abuse can produce a child that is rebellious or, worse yet, a psychopath or sociopath) or emotional (the parent may withhold affection or gives the child the silent treatment). Whatever form the punishment takes, it is so unbearable and psychologically painful to the child that she learns to avoid punishment and gain parental approval by completely conforming herself to the parental standards. But the child’s compliance is excessive because it is achieved at a cost in that the child represses her legitimate anger and resentment at having been so harshly punished. The result of that repression is CPD—a complex syndrome comprised of cognitive distortions and the deployment of psychological mechanisms of repression, defensiveness, and denial, all of which damage the person’s health as well as her interpersonal relationships. In effect, in Freudian parlance, the CPD’s “superego” is over-developed because, even in adulthood, she remains enslaved to the parental standards and rules of childhood, at the price of developing a genuine self-autonomy and moral understanding.
The CPD syndrome includes the following attributes:
Perfectionism: The CPD has so internalized her parents’ high standards that she becomes her parents, which explains her conformance to social rules and conventions and, if religious, her orthodoxy. She is perfectionistic, hardworking, disciplined, organized, responsible, tidy, and meticulous. Fearing that others might view her as less than perfect, she drives herself hard and minimizes the importance of recreational and leisure activities.
Moralistic: Having an over-developed superego, the CPD is moralistic, absolutist, and dogmatic. Her moral code being rigid and unbending, the CPD sees the world in black and white, without shades of grey.
Self-righteousness: More than being moralistic and righteous, the CPD’s perfectionism and fear of being seen by others as lacking make her self-righteous and sanctimonious. Convinced that virtue, rightness, and (in the case of religious CPDs) God are on her side, the CPD is always right and never wrong. She is demanding and harshly judgmental of others, seeing moral and religious issues in stark black-and-white terms, instead of nuanced complexities of shades of grey. Not only does her self-righteous moralism buttress her perfectionist self-image, it also functions as a sanctioned outlet for her suppressed anger and hostility, which explains why CPDs are attracted to occupations such as dean, soldier, surgeon, or judge. (p. 517)
Repression: The CPD allows only socially acceptable thoughts, feelings, and memories into her conscious awareness. The rest is either suppressed (i.e., highly regulated and tightly bound) or repressed (i.e., being consigned to the unconscious). Suppression and repression result in denial, the outright refusal to countenance something or accept its legitimacy. Denial can take the form of:
· Taking great pains to avoid recognizing the contradictions between the CPD’s unconscious impulses and overt behaviors.
· Avoiding to look into themselves by devaluing and refusing to undertake self-exploration and -examination. As a consequence, CPDs exhibit little or no insight into their motives and feelings.
Defense mechanisms: To keep a tight rein on her contrary feelings and dispositions, “more than any other personality,” (p. 516) the CPD engages in many defense or regulatory mechanisms. Those mechanisms are “more varied...than any of the other pathological patterns” (p. 517) and include:
1. Reaction-formation: Putting a positive spin on their thoughts and behaviors.
2. Undertake socially commendable actions that, in fact, diametrically oppose their deeper forbidden and contrary feelings.
3. Public display of a mature reasonableness when faced with circumstances that frustrate, dismay, irritate, or anger other (i.e., non-CPD) people.
4. Rigid compartmentalization of the CPD’s inner world—of memories, feelings, and dispositions—to block or neutralize feelings that are normally aroused by a stressful event. The compartments are tightly sealed to preclude any open channels of interrelatedness.
Cognitive Style: The CPD’s cognitive style is constricted because she thinks in terms of conventional rules and regulations, as well as personally formulated schedules and social hierarchies. The CPD’s cognitive characteristics include:
1. Work diligently and patiently with activities that require being tidy and meticulous.
2. Easily upset by having to deal with unfamiliar customs and novel ideas.
3. Concerned with matters of propriety and efficiency.
4. Contemptuous of those whom the CPD perceives to be frivolous, impulsive, and emotional.
5. Morally self-righteous.
6. Perceived by others to be industrious, efficient, but also stubborn, perfectionistic, officious, legalistic, uncreative, and unimaginative.
7. Judge others in accord with rules that they themselves unconsciously detest, which accounts for the CPD’s resort to psychological projection when she is harshly judgmental toward others.
8. The CPD’s ambivalence and her unconscious desire to defy authority blocks her from significant achievements and from attaining her public aspirations.
Self-Image: The CPD sees herself as:
1. Devoted to work, industrious, reliable, meticulous, efficient, perfectionist, prudent, and disciplined.
2. Having a strong sense of duty to others.
Outward appearance or expressive behavior: Due to an over-developed super-ego, the outward appearance of the CPD is characterized by the following: (pp. 513-514)
· A “grim and cheerless demeanor”: Although the CPD is not always glum or downcast, her characteristic air however is one of austerity and serious-mindedness.
· Tight posture and movement that reflect the CPD’s tense control of her emotions.
· A tendency to speak precisely, with clear diction, and well-phrased sentences.
· Formal and proper clothing that is restrained in color and style.
Interpersonal conduct: The CPD’s conformity to tradition and authority extends to her social conduct, which is governed by social conventions and proprieties. She is generally polite, formal, and correct, although a distinction is made between her superiors and status inferiors. Specifically, (pp. 514-515)
1. With her superiors, the CPD is more than just correct and polite. Since she enjoys the protection and prestige of her superiors, she is deferential, ingratiating, and even obsequious, eager to impress them with her efficiency and serious-mindedness.
2. Toward subordinates, however, the CPD is “pompous,” “uncompromising,” “demanding,” “haughty,” and “deprecatory.”
3. Toward those who fail to live up to the CPD’s standards, she is reprimanding and condemning.
4. In her treatment of subordinates and “transgressors,” the CPD is self-righteous. She cloaks her behavior behind regulations and legalities, always justifying her conduct by invoking rules or authorities higher than herself.
5. In effect, the CPD is quite aggressive toward subordinates and “transgressors.” This exertion of power over others acts as a sanctioned outlet to vent her suppressed hostile impulses.
Despite all the CPD’s repression, suppression, denial, defensive mechanisms, and proper outward conduct, psychologists maintain that “At some level,” CPD individuals “sense the pretentiousness and insincerity of their public behavior.” (p. 518) More than that, the CPD’s tight control and outright repression of thoughts and feelings take their toll. She is tense and unable to relax, with a grim, stern, and joyless countenance. More seriously, her repressed emotions and energies dispose the CPD to somatic complaints and psycho-physiological disorders, especially “immobilization” (p. 518).