Recognizing personality disorders in candidates

Recognizing personality disorders in candidates

By Raymond F. Dlugos O.S.A.

Personality disorders wreak havoc on religious communities. Nearly 80 percent of all those requiring long-term residential treatment at the Southdown Institute were diagnosed with some kind of disordered personality dynamic as at least a contributing factor to their difficulties. In this article I hope to offer vocation and formation directors some tools to help recognize disordered personality dynamics so as to reduce the possibility that a person with a personality disorder will be admitted to formation or be allowed to be ordained or make final profession.

Trust your gut

I invite directors to consider themselves and their own inner, gut reactions and responses to candidates as invaluable assessment instruments. By that I mean that our intrinsic intuition may be the most reliable, yet underrated and underutilized assessment tool available to us. By no means will this vitiate the need for good, thorough psychological assessment. It will help directors to more carefully attend to warning signs from those assessments, as well as warning signs that appear during all of their experiences with candidates. The process that I am proposing will ask directors to engage in a rigorous process of honest self-awareness regarding their experience of all candidates. Through this process, directors will be better able to avoid being hooked, manipulated or controlled by the dynamics that will dominate a relationship with someone with a personality disorder.

Disordered personality dynamics may be dominating a director’s relationship with a candidate when he or she has intense feelings of rage toward a candidate while generally knowing him- or herself as compassionate, understanding and caring toward others. Other signs include strong feelings of guilt when attempting to challenge or confront a candidate’s behavior, chronic helplessness, exasperation, and frustration in response to overt and covert oppositionality, and unease with overly enthusiastic compliance, clingy dependence, or approval seeking obedience from a candidate. Directors who are reasonably secure in their own vocational identity may find themselves becoming overly defensive when trying to work with candidates’ perceptions of the community’s shortcomings and flaws. In a similar fashion, disordered personality dynamics may well be at play when a candidate’s need to overly idealize the community blocks the director’s efforts to present a realistic picture of the community. These disordered dynamics will gain a foothold that will be increasingly difficult to dislodge when the director is unable or unwilling to trust his or her emotional reaction and so gives the candidate “the benefit of the doubt.”

Further complicating this process is the fact that the entire community, not just the vocation or formation director, is included in the relational field between the director and the candidate. In addition to the inherent difficulty that personality disorders present to any relational system, I would like to explore the possibility that the values and relational matrix of religious communities themselves may render them more vulnerable than most human systems to be trapped in a disordered relational dynamic with a person with a personality disorder. I would also suggest that each particular community may be especially susceptible to attracting and enabling particular kinds of personality disorders.

Communities exert both subtle and overt pressure on vocation and formation directors to accept and pass along candidates that appear to meet their own unacknowledged needs. Communities carry collective chaos and confusion, insecurity, shame, fear, and anger and are powerfully drawn to personalities that give voice to these emotional experiences or provide opportunities to alleviate these uncomfortable states in illusory ways. Therefore, it is important for vocation and formation directors to be as conscious as possible of their own emotional dynamics as well as the emotional dynamics of their communities. (See the table below.)

Personality disorder

Inner experience evoking
disordered dynamics

Director’s inner experience
in response to
disordered dynamics

Possible trigger for
community collusion

Borderline personality

Chronic chaos evoking
frantic, unsuccessful efforts to
create stability

Helplessness and guilt at
inability to relieve distress

Caretaking tendencies and
inability to tolerate the suffering
of another

personality disorder

Rigid inflexibility in response to
overwhelming fear of annihilation

Guilt at any moral laxity, permissiveness
or deviation from ultraorthodoxy

False sense of safety from
greater control and conformity

personality disorder

Seething anger at perceived
powerlessness, hopelessness
and futility

Anger toward individual’s
dismissiveness of personal

Anger arising from experience of
powerlessness and perceived

Disordered personality dynamics

A personality disorder is a long-standing pattern of behavior that significantly impairs a person’s social and occupational functioning. Personality disorders develop as protective, defensive strategies designed to ensure that one’s needs will be met when there is no guarantee that others are willing to meet those needs. These maladaptive behaviors work effectively in situations of desperate fear, danger, and existential aloneness as ways of exerting power when one feels powerless. They develop into everyday behaviors because they have enabled one to survive traumatic experiences against insurmountable odds.

Yet, these over-learned, highly reinforced behavior patterns are inappropriate for normal circumstances. Persons with disordered personalities have not developed a repertoire of behavioral skills for ordinary life and ordinary interpersonal interaction. Rather, they interpret all their experience as potentially threatening and so are unable to relax and enjoy others who are benevolent and caring toward them out of genuine concern for their well-being. A person with a personality disorder is always responding to his or her experience as if it is dangerous, traumatic and life threatening. A person with a personality disorder perceives the world as threatening to a sense of self that was formed in a hostile environment.

Consequently, he or she perceives all environments as hostile and threatening and will behave in ways that have worked to keep the hostility at bay. Disordered behavior will evoke hostile responses from others even when those others are not particularly hostile by nature. Consequently, others experience personalitydisordered behavior as manipulative, controlling, seductive and threatening. When one is not prepared for a person with a personality disorder perceiving them as dangerous and threatening, the power of the personality disorder is immense. Consequently, personality disorders can exert an inordinate influence within the relational matrix of a religious community. Psychologically healthy members of communities tend to see the relational dynamics as anxiety ridden yet generally benevolent. Unable to grasp the terror that motivates personality disordered behavior, they find themselves powerless to respond without what would feel like an inordinate and inappropriate anger, a debilitating guilt, or an overwhelming desire to rescue. The whole group thus becomes possessed by the need to stave off the terror being experienced by one single member who cannot help but distort his or her perceptions of the relationships with other members of the group as threatening his or her very survival. Possessed by this need and yet powerless to quell the terror at its root, the community becomes utterly paralyzed in its mission.

The nature of a personality disorder is such that no setting, no matter how perfect, can sufficiently communicate enough security to assure the person that normal behavior will result in sufficient satisfaction of their needs. Furthermore, it is the nature of personality disorders to so disrupt any setting or circumstance that even the most functional and mature setting will become disorganized and stressed when a personality disorder is introduced into it. Once engaged in a relationship with someone with a personality disorder, the relational field becomes so dominated by maladaptive patterns that it is difficult to see them objectively. The pain, chaos, and distress that we fear will ensue if we dismiss a person with a personality disorder is so enormous that it will appear to be less difficult to ignore the daily stress of trying to manage and absorb the toxicity of disordered behavior on a daily basis. The fear of that distress may fuel hope that a person will grow out of their disordered dynamics or the belief that the “right” ministerial or communal setting can be found to meet their inordinately unreasonable demands and expectations. That fear will also motivate decisions to pass a person onto to succeeding levels of formation so that they can have the chance to thrive and grow under the direction of a more competent and compassionate director or superior.

For example, a community may receive a candidate who has difficulty responding to the demands of the formation program. The candidate is highly skilled at manipulating sympathy from others for her suffering due to the unreasonable demands of the formation director (who was expecting only what formation for religious life requires). Not only is the candidate able to frustrate the director to the point of anger, but is also active in pleading her case to members of the community at large who join her in criticizing the formation director for being too harsh, demanding, and unreasonable. The director begs to resign his or her position.

Treatment during formation?

Treatment of personality disorders is very difficult, and there are no quick fixes. Frequently, substantive change in the instinctive patterns of behavior requires very long-term attention and must withstand the enormous power of the distorted perceptions and beliefs that experience threat where none really exists. A commitment to a person suffering from a personality disorder is necessarily perilous. A commitment to engaging in a healing relationship with someone with a personality disorder demands enormous selfawareness and willingness to constantly be aware of the manipulative pressure being exerted by the personality disorder struggling for survival. The kind of treatment necessary is not really the agenda of religious formation. If undertaken during the formation process, it will so completely dominate that process that little or no formation into the lifestyle, values, culture, and mission of the community will be possible. Therefore, I strongly recommend against accepting anyone into a formation program who shows signs of a serious personality disorder, unless that candidate is able or has already demonstrated some ability to growth toward a healthier relational style across a variety of situations. As difficult as it may be during these days of few persons interested in religious life as a vocation, the benefit of any doubt about a candidate should go to the community rather than to the candidate.

It is very difficult to imagine the depth of terror at the core of a person exhibiting disordered personality dynamics. Therefore, the place to start recognizing these dynamics is not in efforts to understand the experience of the other, but in efforts to accurately judge our own responses to our experience within the relationship. Individuals and communities are most susceptible to the power of disordered personality dynamics when the candidate’s anxieties connect with some unintegrated aspect of themselves. Therefore, if a director is first able to identify what unconscious or unacknowledged needs of his or her own or of the community’s the relationship with a candidate promises to fulfill, he or she will be in a position to more objectively assess the source of the emotional response to the candidate. The following examples illustrate this process by describing how a few personality disorders exert a paralyzing power over those with whom they relate.

How disordered dynamics succeed

Borderline personality disorder

Persons with borderline personality disorders (BPD) are frequently experienced by others as simply maddening. Their ambivalence, their unpredictability, their insatiable need for reassurance, their relentless punishing of those who attempt to help, along with constant threats of self-destruction, leave anyone in relationship with a person with BPD in a constant state of disequilibrium. These relational encounters are dominated by efforts of the person with BPD to share the inner chaos that is their constant experience. Without awareness of this dynamic, one is likely to make efforts to order that chaos. This, in turn, will likely evoke even more desperate attempts to share the turmoil. If my life also has some chaotic elements to it that are irritating and frustrating to me (and whose life doesn’t?), then my experience of the chaos of Borderline Personality becomes fused with my experience of my own. Collusion then arises from the hope that if I can order the chaos of the other, then I can order my own. If I cannot order the chaos of the other, then it is futile to try to order my own. Individuals and communities that are driven to alleviate the suffering of others are easily hooked by the dynamics of BPD unless they are sufficiently aware of how much they are motivated by a desire to alleviate their own fears of abandonment.

Narcissistic personality disorder

The grandiosity, excessive self-centeredness and entitlement that typify the behavioral dynamics of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are generally assumed to be efforts to hide profound shame. While appearing to be more competent, charismatic, selfassured, and assertive than most, the reality of the experience of a person with NPD is that of a wounded, humiliated weakling with severe doubts about his or her adequacy and competence. The overvaluation of the self that frequently occurs at the expense of the dignity of others is overcompensation for a profoundly damaged self. Often shame is the dominant emotional experience. Rather than risk further humiliation by acknowledging this shame to others, persons with NPD share the shame through the denigration and humiliation of others. In a relationship with a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, one can expect to become acutely aware of one’s own inadequacies, failures, incompetence, and incompleteness. NPD disarms any threat to its false but exalted view of the self by projecting its inner experience of shame onto another. Anyone they perceive as a likely threat to expose the reality of their inner experience will be the most likely target for their efforts at humiliation.

While encounters with persons with NPD are generally uncomfortable experiences, collusion is likely when those in relationship with them first experiences shame at their own inadequacy, rather than anger in response to the narcissistic attempts at humiliation. Individuals and communities struggling with selfdoubt, loss of confidence, and loss of an exalted status in the eyes of others may find the false bravado and confidence of a narcissist appealing. This can be particularly dangerous when narcissistic personality dynamics are accompanied by good looks, intelligence, entrepreneurial success, and a charismatic personality. Community members may find themselves saying, “If someone this good wants to be a part of us, we must be doing okay,” while overlooking the destructive and domineering behavior being carried out at the community’s expense.

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

Persons with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) may exhibit an inordinately rigid and inflexible approach to life. Their futile attempts to be perfect in some if not all things are behavioral expressions of an inner drive to exert control over the uncontrollable. Motivated by an intense fear that the only possible consequence to surrendering control would be utter annihilation, OCPD can have a multitude of manifestations. For the purpose of this article, I suggest that candidates for religious formation who exhibit highly scrupulous behavior and espouse rigidly conformist ideologies are manifesting behaviors associated with OCPD. Their power over others comes from their innate ability to communicate to others the same panic and fear that they experience within themselves. In the presence of someone with OCPD, it is easy to believe one is, in fact, a despicable heretic who deserves to be consigned to everlasting punishment or that all of the chaos in the world is due to a laxity in sexual morality.

Persons with OCPD are terrified of change since change can only result in unpredictability and lack of control. When change is in the air, the fear emanating from individuals with OCPD will engender doubt in even the most optimistic and enthusiastic supporters of change. Communities and individuals who are experiencing fear in the face of a precarious and uncertain future (and who isn’t?) may be susceptible to the false sense of certainty and safety found in obsessivecompulsive personality dynamics. Rather than trusting and continuing to risk, they are drawn to the safety that comes from conformity to rules and the reestablishment of authority outside the self.

Passive-aggressive personalities

Persons with passive-aggressive personalities are seething with anger, yet never actually admit to being angry. Instead of allowing their anger to energize them toward change and growth, they suppress that anger under a blanket of hopeless futility and choose to wallow in negativity and cynicism. By doing so, they are able to have others bear the burden and responsibility for their anger as their passive hostility very effectively evokes intense anger in anyone attempting to call them forth from their hopeless resignation. Expressing anger toward a passive-aggressive individual only serves to convince him or her that there is something very wrong with someone who loses his or her temper so easily. Their projected anger and futility convinces those around them that action toward any kind of positive change is just a complete and stupid waste of time. Repressed anger and the futility that accompanies it is a misery desperate for company. Individuals and communities that have not acknowledged their own anger in response to experiences beyond their control will resonate with the unexpressed anger brought by a passive-aggressive individual. That resonance will forge a connection, engender sympathy for the hardship encountered by the individual, collude with the dynamics of externalized blame for all of the misery and oppression suffered at the hands of unreasonable others, and so be sucked into the mire of helplessness, cynicism and latent hostility.

Honest self-awareness

I suggest that vocation and formation directors engage in the following process when assessing candidates for suitability for religious formation. First, attend carefully to your emotional response to the person and avoid passing judgment on that emotional response. Ask yourself, “What was it like to be me when I was with that person?” The best route to this heightened self-awareness is attention to the connection between one’s emotional response to the needs being communicated by another and one’s own unmet needs. Attending carefully and examining fully one’s emotional response to every candidate one encounters is essential to good discernment and good direction. Those emotional responses primarily reveal the director rather than the candidate, but that revelation is necessary in order to recognize when and how the personality dynamics of a candidate are influencing the judgment of the director.

Examine the feelings closely and ask what was it about that person that stirred those feelings in you.

Certainly attend to experiences of anger and shame, futility and despair. If those emotions are present, be genuinely curious as to why you experienced those feelings in the presence of this person. Strong feeling of this nature will indicate the presence of some unresolved and unintegrated issues in one’s own life and the life of the community. As such, these relational encounters are certainly invitations to continue and deepen one’s own work of integration. However, for the purpose of assessing a candidate, such selfawareness will then allow a director to judge how much of the emotional intensity belongs to him or her and what is being projected by the candidate.

After encountering a candidate, a director needs to first examine his or her actual experience of the candidate by asking, “What did that person do to me?” Answers might include things like flattery, accusation, interrogation, a guilt-trip, sexual excitement, affirmation, sense of hope, sense of despair. The next step would be to ask what came from me in response to this person. This involves an examination of my emotional response to the experience they just had. Emotions include anger, joy, sadness, fear, shame, curiosity, and disgust. It is important not to judge any of these emotional responses as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, as that act of judgment is the ignition key for the power of disordered personality dynamics. If I am genuinely disgusted by a candidate and believe that I am a bad person because of that response, I may stop attending to real issues and behaviors that would be a cause of great concern. These emotional responses to a candidate’s behavior reveal the needs of the director rather than the behavior of the candidate and so allow the director to consider what needs of his or hers this candidate is promising to meet or failing to meet.

Be especially curious about persons with whom you feel good. Good feelings usually accompany an experience in which our needs are met. Consequently, we may feel good when encountering a narcissist whose defensive arrogance allows us to feel powerful when we are really powerless. We may feel good when we receive the seductive compliment from a borderline that we are the first person who really understood and accepted them. It is important that we engage in this process for every candidate, not just candidates that seem problematic. The most dangerous candidates are those who appear too good to be true. They probably are.

It is generally best not to rely on oneself for this assessment and examination. The assistance of someone trained in understanding personality dynamics, such as a psychologist or well-trained spiritual director, would be very useful. However, rather than looking for a second opinion about a candidate through this consultation, first seek assistance in understanding your own reactions to a candidate. This makes it possible to discover what in the relational matrix belongs to you and your community and what belongs to the candidate. While it may not seem necessary to do this with each candidate, the relational dynamics that occur between a candidate and a director within the intense intimacy of vocational discernment and religious formation are so complex that the objectivity provided by ongoing consultation is essential to doing these ministries in the most responsible fashion.

In summary, one’s emotional response to a candidate will be revelatory in the following manner. If I feel good, content or happy as a result of an encounter with a candidate, at least some of that emotional response is due to the reality that somehow this candidate is meeting some of my needs. Attending to just what needs of mine this candidate is meeting can tell me whether or not I am pleased because this candidate has clear potential to significantly contribute to the mission of my community or because a relationship with them allows me to satisfy my own or my community’s need to rescue or be rescued, express unresolved anger, calm fears, or find affirmation for an unrealistic image. If the former, then I have evidence that this candidate is genuinely seeking a community within which to express his or her vocational awareness in the service of its mission. If the latter, greater attention is required to discern whether the relationship being established between the candidate and the community will serve the community’s mission or serve the disordered personality dynamics of the candidate.

If, on the other hand, I find myself feeling angry, frightened, smothered, inadequate, humiliated, or excessively guilty as a result of an encounter with a candidate, it will be important to examine what needs of mine this candidate is not meeting. Rather than respond with some shame, guilt or censorship about having a negative emotional reaction to a candidate, I can allow these emotions to reveal something of the relational dynamics that occur in any relationship with this particular person. Assuming that the vocation or formation director is him or herself a reasonably mature and integrated person, it will be a good bet that his or her experience of any candidate will eventually be everyone’s experience of the candidate.

I am certainly not suggesting that a director’s selfawareness of emotional response to a candidate is infallible or even sufficient to assess the presence of a personality disorder in a candidate. I am suggesting that those responses could be invaluable in understanding the impact that a candidate will have on the community. Rather than dismiss or diminish the director’s experience of a candidate as limited and untrustworthy, giving it a more prominent role in the process of discernment will increase the effectiveness and accuracy of all other aspects of the assessment of candidates for the good of the community.

Religious life in the 21st century is becoming an ever more intimate experience for those attempting to live and minister in it. As communities grow smaller and the demands of mission grow, it may be tempting to receive and tolerate anyone willing to commit themselves to this lifestyle. This temptation needs to be challenged by the reality that persons with serious personality disorders will contribute little if anything to the life of the community, while draining the energy of those healthy enough to participate fully in its mission and ministry. Consequently, vocation and formation directors may serve their communities best by effectively recognizing the potential for destructive personality dynamics in candidates. Good, sound, and honest self-awareness on the part of directors, along with a realistic sense of their communities’ unmet needs and unacknowledged feelings, will go a long way toward attracting persons who are genuinely called to the mission of the community, rather than persons who need to be the mission of the community.

Raymond F. Dlugos, OSA is the chief executive officer of Southdown Institute in Aurora, Ontario, where he has been a member of the clinical staff since 1999. He holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and is a registered member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario. A member of the Villanova Province of the Order of St. Augustine, he served as vocation director for his community from 1990 to 1994.


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