Disorders vs character flaws

November 22, 2020

Something to try during self-examination

I won't claim to know the best process for introspection overall, but I have repeatedly found and seen value in one particular approach to self-examination that has been highly effective at providing some major insight for those who have tried it (myself and my friends included). And that advice is the same advice that I would give my younger self (and to anyone who'd listen).


If you are diving deep into introspection and closely examining a particular person flaw or weakness in your life (also known as: beating yourself up, ruminating on mistakes, and wishing you were better), then take a moment (or several) and research the science behind this personal flaw or weakness.

This approach applies more broadly as well: if you have anything that's causing major stress in your life, take time to research the science behind it.

If you feel extremely abnormal or ostracized for an odd peculiarity about yourself, study it and learn about it.

But why? What are you looking for? What might you find?

Classify and differentiate

You just might find out that your personal problem isn't just some character flaw — you might discover that it originates from a neurological, psychological, or physiological disorder.

What's the big deal with this differentiation? What's the difference between a personal character flaw and a neurological, psychological, or physiological disorder?

Different problems = different solutions

The sooner you can determine whether the origin of your personal problem is either a personal character flaw or a neurological, psychological, or physiological disorder, the sooner you can start to appropriately address the problem with the proper strategies and solutions.

The solutions that address a personal character flaw may never successfully resolve a problem that originates from a disorder, and vice versa.

Typically a personal character flaw may be resolved through the path of introspection, reflection, understanding the causes, a desire and intent to change, understanding how to change, constantly choosing to make the change, and maintaining the change. (It's more complicated and nuanced than that of course, but that's a general example of a simpler character flaw.) The change required is usually mental and behavioral, and thus just needs shifts in lifestyle, mentality, and routine/habit. (Again, this is an oversimplification.)

Unfortunately, disorders aren't so simple to resolve (and character traits aren't even close to be easy to resolve in the first place). The introspection, reflection, desire and intent to change, and attempts to make the change might all be there for a person, but sometimes those things are not enough. And worse yet, a little misunderstanding in the causes of the problem (as in not understanding that the problem is caused by a disorder) or a little misunderstanding in the ideas on how to make the change (as in thinking that the problem will go away with a lifestyle/habit/routine change) can actually exacerbate the underlying disorder, making it worse or triggering comorbidities. It's very possible that a well-intentioned attempt to resolve the problem could cause the disorder to "blow up" and become much more disruptive.

The true solutions to disorders begin with understanding the disorder, recognizing it, and learning its disruptiveness. Without that solid foundation of understanding, you could be directly working against the grain of your core mental and physical functioning. With all that friction, you'll only cause yourself more stress and more impairment, making you less and less capable of actually getting to resolutions. Instead, the solutions often lie in adjustments to your life that go with the disorder's tendencies when appropriate (think: flow like water and find harmony) and only fight against it when the outcomes would be detrimental or harmful to you or anyone else. That fight might just be behavioral changes with a strong willpower, but other times the fight might require outside help, such as aid from loved ones or even medication.

Obviously it's virtually impossible to generalize the solutions and steps to all types of disorders, so I won't bother trying to divulge ideas further. Disorders can range from neurological struggles with circadian rhythms to gastrointestinal struggles with foods to psychological struggles with intrusive thoughts, etc, etc, etc. The diversity is nearly endless. But what remains consistent across the board is that disorders and their disruptive impairments can't magically go away if we just have the perfect mix of determination and discipline. Disorders are traceable and measurable in the body or brain. Their effects are evident on mental or physical systems. And therefore, the solutions must target the underlying systems in the body and brain. If you don't start addressing the problem on the level it exists, you may only ever scratch the surface of bandaging symptoms and effects, neglecting to go to the root and work through the causes.

Primary difference

The primary differentiating factor between a disorder and a personal character flaw is intention and willfulness. With a disorder, the daily disruptions to the person's capabilities of being "normal" mentally and physically are neither intentional nor willful. The person with the disorder did not choose to have the disorder and does not have full control over their own mental and physical functioning due to the disruptions of the disorder. On the other hand, a personal character flaw is often one that the person has a conscious awareness of, that may result from continual deliberate decisions, and may result from choices that the person has full control over. The character flaw doesn't necessarily occur against the person's wishes and as a consequence of a disruption or impairment. Instead a personal character flaw is often a trait that is capable of changing and remaining changed indefinitely by sheer resolve and willpower. The solution to changing a personal character trait is to make a series of conscious decisions to replace the trait and prevent its effects. The character trait does not have to be a core part of the person's life and personality if that person truly doesn't want it to be. A character trait is capable of changing, adapting, and adjusting. So by this definition, the person has the power to control their own character.

Disorders do not have an off switch that is just waiting for the afflicted person to flip. Oftentimes disorders are chronic, and thus the afflicted person may forever struggle to handle the consequences of their disorders' disruptions and impairments to their daily attempts to maintain "normal" behavior and normal mental and physical functioning.

The difference is in power, control, conscious choice, decision making, and the capacity to change by willpower and discipline.

What does a disorder explain?

By defining a personal problem as a disorder, you classify the problem as one originating from the unique foundation of your body and brain and not as a problem stemming from a willful, conscious decision. You realize that it isn't something you've done intentionally; instead you see it as a personal battle with your constitution. You can remove it from your personal character and see it as something that, while it is a part of you, doesn't define you, your personality, or your personal traits and can exist outside of those things as a separate condition.

Diagnosing a disorder helps explain your problem as the result of an underlying disruptor in your daily life that causes you difficulty, distress, and impairment. If you didn't have this disorder, you wouldn't have this disruption of your normal physical or mental function, and if you didn't have that disruption, then you could truly attain resolve with your personal problem through sheer means of willpower, discipline, and dedication. Without the disorder, you could be "normal" (much more easily).

This should hopefully help explain to others that the times when your personal struggle leads to a disruption in your daily life that negatively impacts them as well do not come from a place of willful, deliberate, intentional doing. This isn't a question of character; it's a problem of impairment. The negative, unfortunate consequences of your daily disruptions come from a disorder that you never signed up for, never wanted, and never asked to stick around. Those negative effects are frustrating to you, because you see them and deal with them regularly. You wish they didn't happen, but you're constantly facing the unfortunate outcomes. You didn't choose this. And if it was a simple choice, you would've changed it long, long ago. This is a disorder, and it is a personal struggle. Instead of offering criticism, I hope that others in your life offer help, understanding, and kindness.

"One size fits all" solutions

There is a rarely discussed problem with one of the most common approaches people take to giving each other well-intentioned advice. This habitual interaction between people involves one person or group self-disclosing struggles and problems, and the other person or group prescribing the most popular recipe for success — the solution you hear about the most, the one that has the highest number of success stories, and the one that worked best for you and most everyone you know. On average, statistically speaking, this is generally the best thing to do, and basically everyone who is doing this does so with the best of intentions. However, when this approach doesn't deal with the average, it can go bad. Real bad.

We all are often inclined to relate our own experiences and stories to those we find ourselves in conversation with who are sharing their experiences and stories.

"The insula, an area of the brain deep inside the cerebral cortex, takes in the information that people tell us and then tries to find a relevant experience in our memory banks that can give context to the information. It’s mostly helpful: the brain is trying to make sense of what we hear and see. Subconsciously, we find similar experiences and add them to what’s happening at the moment, and then the whole package of information is sent to the limbic regions, the part of the brain just below the cerebrum. That’s where some trouble can arise — instead of helping us better understand someone else’s experience, our own experiences can distort our perceptions of what the other person is saying or experiencing." — Celeste Headlee

And as Celeste is saying, this tendency can usually be good, but we have to be cautious with it. The times when this inclination for exact relatability can be most problematic is when you don't realize that the other person is far from being exactly like you and maybe even distinct from everyone you know personally. For example, you may not be aware of the fact that the person you're interacting with has a disorder that is only shared with 5% of the population, and maybe you've never interacted with anyone before who has that particular disorder. Whatever experiences and stories you find while searching your memory banks for the perfect relatability key will never equate to the other person's experience. And trying to equate the experiences disregards the reality of the disorder and its effects.

The worst thing we can do in this type of situation is to start prescribing a recipe of success that works well for the average person (maybe you included). I call these catch-all and often too-easy-to-be-true solutions a "one size fits all" solution. (It gives false hopes and promises and would better read "this size fits the statistical average and central tendency.")

If there's something fundamentally different between two people's physiology and psychology, then what works best for one person may not work at all for the other. The solution to one person's struggles and stresses might seem to be based in simple willpower, resolve, and character trait growth. However, if someone else were to apply that very same solution to their own problems, without recognizing a key underlying difference in their own physiological and psychological makeup, the consequences may actually be detrimental or harmful.

For example, when looking at the most common self-help solutions, there are a wide range of regularly prescribed daily routines and practices around healthy sleep, exercise, nutrition, etc. We've heard them all before: "eat salads and leafy greens", "run a mile every day", "get at least 8 hours of sleep", "master your emotions with […]"

But believe me, when you have tried for years to do exactly what the age-old wisdom suggests and still have no results, there are few things more irritating and frustrating to hear than the same repeated, canned advice prescribed by every caring person. This is where the people who don't fit the average feel ostracized and extremely abnormal. They can manage to maintain the same healthy lifestyle for months, yet they still find themselves struggling with their personal issues just the same as before they started trying that latest lifestyle solution. They buy into the self-help advice everyone is repeating to them again and again until they just can't take it anymore and just assume there's something fundamentally wrong with themselves. "Why can't I be just like everyone else? Why doesn't this work for me? Why do I feel the same even when I've made all these lifestyle changes?"

In this example, the people who don't fit the average probably have a disorder of some type that is preventing them from seeing the benefits of those recipes for success. Their disorder is impairing them and disrupting what would normally be a wonderful lifestyle. The worst scenarios are when the "one size fits all" solution prescribed to the person with the disorder actually exacerbates the disorder and makes its conditions much worse. For example, if someone is struggling with a neurological circadian rhythm sleep disorder and they try to follow a good-willed person's advice to force themselves onto a specific sleep schedule, they might end up increasing their risk factor for comorbidities like depression or ADHD while going directly against their body's natural (but flawed) attempts at homeostasis.

Not everyone is the same. If a person has a disorder, they need to stop trying to be just like everyone else. If a person is commonly prescribing the "one size fits all" solutions, then they need to recognize the nuanced possibilities and stop treating everyone as if they must be just like everyone else. No "recipe for success" is guaranteed to work in all circumstances and conditions. So if we ever want to share a recipe for success, we need to attach a warning label to our recipe that says, "this worked for me and just might work for you if you're extremely similar to me and share an extremely similar situation."

Life is nuanced — doubly so our personal problems.

Judgement and blame

If you are struggling with a disorder, don't let yourself deal with the harsh judgements of people (you included) who would criticize your personal character for things they (you included) don't fully understand. If you share something in common with only 5% of the population, then it's extremely likely you may never know or meet anyone else like you, and it's just as likely that the people in your life don't know anyone else like you either. To you and the people in your life, you're the odd one out. And with so little understanding and a lot of unfamiliarity, the whole situation is easily chalked up to be your personal character flaw that you just need to stop doing.

That's an awful way to go through life, and all that harsh judgement is totally preventable if anyone gives the situation reasonable scientific analysis.

Sometimes the situation is the result of a disorder that you can't just demand to be totally done with overnight. But some personal character flaws can be changed overnight. And that's the deceptive part of the problem, because they both appear identical on the outset. A neurological or psychological disorder doesn't make you limp or turn your skin blue. No one can just look you up and down and know for certain if you have a disorder of that nature. Instead it requires a thorough examination of your life, analysis of your tendencies, and careful consideration of the patterns of your experiences.

That's not to say that I want to encourage myself and everyone else to just start blaming all their problems on disorders. No no! Overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis are far more problematic in their own rights. (They are their own dilemmas of misjudgement.)

Instead, I want to encourage everyone to frame each of their problems with the right perspective so that they can address those problems with the proper mindset, seeking solutions that make sense for the situation as it actually is in reality. I want to encourage better accuracy in analyzing our personal problems to make sure we know how to resolve them.

If you blame all your problems on your personal character, you might misjudge a problem that cannot be solved with sheer resolve, as if it's just a phase in your life you need to break out of. If it's a problem originating from a chronic neurological, psychological, or physiological disorder, you need to seek lifelong strategies to address this problem in the long term, knowing you may never "cure" this disorder and will thus forever need to keep it in check.

On the flip side, if you blame all your problems on your disorders, you might misattribute a personal character flaw that might be better addressed by making deliberate and intentional changes to your values, virtues, behaviors, and maybe even your personality. Those things are plastic and malleable. They literally can change overnight, unlike a chronic disorder that originates from distinct differences in the makeup and operation of your brain and its neurosystems (or your body, more broadly).

We cannot be too quick to assume anything. That's why we need to set aside time to deliberately research and educate ourselves on our brains and bodies. We need to know the root causes of our problems and understand the nature of each root cause. We cannot afford to keep misjudging ourselves and those around us, perpetuating misunderstandings.

Assumptions, judgements, and quickly-jumped-to conclusions are the antithesis and enemy of understanding.

Be understanding

My last words of advice to everyone, whether you're a parent, an authority figure, a boss, a friend, or whoever: please remember to be understanding. Try to understand where others are coming from. Try to understand that not everyone else who is different from you or cannot take your advice or follow your recommendations may not even be doing what they tend to do deliberately, intentionally, or willfully. They might just be fighting with a disorder. (Maybe they don't even know it themselves yet.)


Overall I'm advocating four things:

  1. Know yourself and learn yourself by tuning in and listening to your body and brain.
    • By their nature, your body and brain will always provide detailed signals and information about your physical and mental systems and the well-being of their functioning. If you listen closely, your body and brain will tell you exactly what you need. The only trouble comes down to insightful discernment after you've gathered all the bountiful messages your body and brain are sending. That is a skill we all will continue to learn throughout life. Keep practicing.
    • Sometimes we have blindspots where we cannot catch or understand the messages and signals our bodies and brains are sending. This is where we need the help of loved ones to give us guidance and show us what we might be missing.
    • Take time to examine yourself. Reflect on whatever you learn. Seek out further insights. Strive to understand your body and brain. Discuss your findings with loved ones who can help you process and comprehend yourself.
  2. Pair your introspection and reflection with ample research.
    • Spend just as much time striving to study human bodies and brains in general to better understand yourself among humanity. People have been researching our bodies and brains since basically the dawn of civilization in various capacities. There is so much to learn.
    • The more informed and knowledgeable you become, the better and more accurate your insights will be. For example, you'll be less likely to mistake a symptom as a root cause, and you'll be more likely to recognize the nuanced possibilities of causes.
  3. Seek understanding above all else.
    • Understanding will provide you with the wisdom to acknowledge the complexity, intricacy, and nuance of each person's neurological, psychological, and physiological systems.
    • With that wisdom, you'll be less likely to criticize or judge others and more likely to empathize and aid instead.
    • And with empathetic and nuanced thinking, you'll be more relatable and more in touch with reality, empowering you to effectively help yourself and others.
  4. Help others do likewise.

End note

Honestly, this whole thought process came from the fact I just learned this week about a neurological disorder I've had since I was a teen (and I'm 26 years old). I still cannot believe how crazy this feels to suddenly try to process your life from a new lens and perspective that is explaining everything so simply. I had to write these principles down for my future self at least. Hopefully others find this helpful as well.