September 22, 2019

Character and Personality—Know the Difference

personalityWhen Jesse first met Mariah, he was smitten. Who wouldn’t be? Mariah was bright and successful as a large animal vet who worked at a nearby university’s veterinarian school. He said to me once, “I mean she dedicated her life to animals. I thought for sure that meant something!” She seemed to feel as he did about things like politics and religion, her obsession with Thai food was as intense as his, and she made him laugh. They started dating right after Thanksgiving two years ago, and from there things went south. But slowly.

It was hard for Jesse to reconcile this great woman he had found, with the fickle, selfish person she turned out to be on the inside. After letting him down more than once on big promises—once leaving him holding the bag for two pricey airline tickets to Ireland that they did not use because “something came up”—Jesse started to realize that Mariah’s inner moral compass was not as true as her smiling blue eyes made him believe.

I’m going to cut to the chase. Personality and character are not the same thing. Both are important. But one cannot “sub in” for the other in a pinch.

What we see when we first meet someone is personality. The easiest way to think about personality as its own separate thing is with babies. If you’ve ever watched a baby grow up, you know what personality is. You’re born with it. I mean, circumstances and experiences definitely affect personality as well, but the seed of personality is there at birth. Like the seed of a tree, it is what it is. So a baby can be loud, jolly, playful, active, quiet, contemplative, tentative, serene, fragile, curious, and the list goes on and on. As we grow from infancy, our personalities emerge more and more, and our characters develop.

Personality is the energy you sense when you are around someone. The more tuned in you are to a person, the more their personality can affect you, for good or ill. Thus we want to be around people whose personalities we like and enjoy, and that “suit us.” I have often thought about the spouse or partner of a friend, “He’s a nice guy, but I could never live with that X” with X equaling a number of things. Like the way he plays practical jokes all the time. Or his focus on acquiring things. Or his obsession with watching sports on TV. Whatever it is that, for me would be a no-no, but that for my friend is perfect. Their personalities click. We are all drawn to those folks whose personalities click with ours.

Jesse and Mariah clicked. On that level, at least. But there’s more to it.

Too easy to overlook, character is harder to figure out—it doesn’t “hit” you the way personality does. It takes time and multiple experiences in different situations to really begin to understand a person’s character.

The skinny on character:

* We develop character as we grow, learning from observation of those who have influence over us (typically our parents, relatives, teachers). Character can be molded—many who serve in the military or are devoutly religious would say their characters were molded by their experiences within an institution. Society as a whole has a huge effect on character. The recent focus on rape culture is because we are finally starting to understand that a society that overlooks certain behaviors as “normal” can skew the moral compass of a great number of people.

* Character has to do with our morality, our ethics, our values. Traits such as honesty, kindness, loyalty, courage, or the opposite—dishonesty, cruelty disloyalty, or cowardice—reflect our character.

* Character is hard to disguise for very long. You’ve heard of “true colors?” Eventually they emerge for the world to see.

* Character defines us. In a way that personality doesn’t, character is what makes us “who we are” if you will. How often do you hear it said of someone, “He’s a good person?” That doesn’t mean, “He’s fun to play foozball with” or “He makes great guacamole.” It means he is a person of good character. We will be remembered for our character and our personality, but it is our character that people must depend on.

What about personality?

* Personality traits are (largely) inborn. Whether we are social, introverted, analytical, irritable, mellow, high-strung etc. Certain personality traits are more affected by life experience than others. A naturally sunny person can lose her optimism if her life is full of tragedy, for example.

* What you see is what you get. Personality is typically outward and easy to recognize. Our personality is the way we are experienced—friendly, witty, fun— by others on a daily basis. That coworker you love to sit with at lunch—probably because of his personality. (The coworker you want to sit in on a tough meeting with the boss? That is probably due to character.)

* Personality does not tell the whole story. As Jesse learned with Mariah, personality is not a predictor of character. We all know people with good character and delightful personalities, but if you are like me, you also know folks who may be fun at a party, but if you need someone to have your back…they are not the ones you call. And then there’s the really good person you know you should want to date, but—eh—there’s no spark. That person of good character maybe has a not-so-great personality.

* Eventually personality will share the stage. That’s when true character will show its face. Given time, it is inevitable. If you are patient, you will see past what is just personality and really get a feel for a person’s true character. With luck, the person you are drawn to (personality) will also be the person you can trust to do the right thing (character).

Why is this important?

You could fall in love with a personality only to later experience the character pit-falls which could be anything from lack of loyalty, commitment, honesty, etc. Basic advice? Don’t rush things.

Caveats: beware false personality or false character

A narcissistic person, for example, can present a false personality. Because he or she is adept at knowing what you want or need, there is a time when a narcissist can give you exactly that. The projected personality will lure you in. Not only will it not necessarily jibe with character, but even that false personality will eventually fall away like a rotten screen. The loving, attentive, jolly person you were drawn to may turn out to be grouchy, selfish, and withdrawn, once you have been won over.

Sometimes people can even project a false version of character. This pretense cannot last long, but it can be very convincing. A friend of mine, Danielle, was deeply moved when her new boyfriend helped her and her brother move all their mom’s belongings into storage when she suffered a crippling breakdown and had to be hospitalized. This was a very hard time for Danielle and when Derek spent days packing and moving a lifetime’s worth of stuff, Danielle thought, “This guy goes out of his way to help those in need.” It was the last time she ever saw him do anything like that for anyone. They’d been married for a few years before Danielle realized that Derek knew exactly what to do to impress her family and make inroads with Danielle. It worked.

How to avoid the personality trap

It is important to be aware of the difference between character and personality because in some cases, as with Jesse and Mariah, personality can be a trap. Take your time to experience someone in different situations. Time is the only thing that will help you avoid situations like Danielle’s, where a false projection of character seems so convincing, or Jesse’s, when personality is so alluring that character is not even a blip on the radar of love.

Wait and see. Watch and listen carefully, especially around people with whom your new flame is comfortable, or, on the other hand, people who “don’t matter.” They say a good test of character is to see how someone treats the waiter or waitress, the pool guy, the cab driver. 

Pay attention to your intuition and do not ignore red flags. If you see him/her lying easily, short changing a purchase, being rude or disrespectful to others, criticizing friends behind their backs… these reflect character. And one of my favorite sayings is “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”

I’m not suggesting you become paranoid. You have instincts and intuition that are at work all the time. Make use of these skills. Trust them. But also be wise, and keep your eyes and ears open. The “good man” or “good woman” you deserve is out there.


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