Social relationships and personality : Social Development

Social relationships and personality

Dysfunctional helping often enables another’s underachievement, lack of responsibility, addiction, or poor mental or physical health. It tends to breed false dependence. It’s unsustainable in the long run due to its consumption of our physical, emotional, or financial resources.Instead of bringing us desired respect and strengthening our relationships, it often leads to disrespect, relationship strain, and conflict. In this blog I consider how two personality traits, “agreeableness” and “conscientiousness, ” sometimes predispose people to experiencing dysfunctional helping relationships, including codependent relationships.Before we go there, though, note that personality is only one of many influences on dysfunctional helping relationships and dysfunctional helping relationships vary (not all fit the pattern described here).

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Psychologists have synthesized the many personality traits identified by research into five basic dimensions (known as the five-factor model of personality, or FFM). Many dysfunctional helpers probably score high on the FFM factor of agreeableness (“A”), which includes such traits as empathic, generous, kind, forgiving, sympathetic, trusting, considerate, and willing to help others.

People with a consistent pattern of dysfunctional helping are often strong empathic responders and experience intense feelings and emotional arousal when they perceive that someone is in need (they are “high-A”). Because they feel the other’s pain and want to alleviate it, they impulsively rescue and help. They also have trouble setting boundaries and terminating assistance because they feel badly about the hardship they may cause the other. The high-A person’s forgivingness means they can forgive broken promises, underperformance, and accept excuses. Due to their kindness and generosity, they are comfortable with relationships where they give more than they receive. In this way, their high-A traits can contribute to the development of dysfunctional helping relationships.

This may be especially likely when they meet up with “high-maintenance” individuals that are “low-A” (self-centered and largely indifferent or oblivious to other’s difficulties). A desire for independence and autonomy, along with not wanting to be a burden to others makes most of us are uncomfortable with long-term dependency and one-sided relationships. But “low-A” people may be different, especially if they have features characteristic of certain personality disorders. For example, some of the most difficult dysfunctional helping relationships include a low-A taker that meets criteria for personality disorders like anti-social personality disorder (tends to act impulsively, has little regard for others, deceitful, has an exaggerated sense of self-importance); borderline personality disorder (requires others to soothe them, tends to feel victimized, has extreme emotions, tends to see problems as catastrophes); or personality disorders involving narcissist traits (feels entitled, has little empathy, blames others for their problems, arrogant). Researchers have linked low agreeableness to these personality disorders.

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