As an undergraduate student attending NYU, I have had my share of roommates. All came equipped with their own, distinct personality styles and idiosyncratic behaviors. Perhaps my most memorable roommate experience came my senior year when I lived with two young women who had starkly different ways of relating to, conceptualizing, and experiencing the world.
A typical day for Molly would start off with her organizing her emails into folders based on: who sent it, the time it was sent, its length, whether it had a subject heading, and whether or not it was sent to multiple respondents. Although she dedicated an inordinate amount of time towards this process, she often overlooked the very essence of the emails themselves. For instance, one semester, school-wide emails were sent informing the students that one of the university’s most popular and beloved professors had passed away, and a memorial service would be held to commemorate his life. When the memorial service came and went, Molly, who had taken many classes with the professor, stated that she was never informed of his death. She was confounded as to how she could have missed the emails bearing the news of his passing, and immediately began devising a new and improved, fool-proof, email organizational system.
This example serves to illustrate the cognitive and defensive styles of the obsessional personality as marked by an over-reliance on thinking, a devaluation of feeling, and a reliance on isolation of affect, undoing, and reaction formation. Freud proposed that the obsessional character structure derives from a fixation at the anal phase of development, where issues of control and shame can emerge. According to Shapiro (1999), the obsessive-compulsive (o-c) cognitive style is characterized by rigidity, lack of cognitive flexibility and mobility, and a hyper-focused attention to extraneous detail. Affect is generally concealed, with the exceptions of shame and rage; these are considered “acceptable” emotions in circumstances that warrant righteous indignation and guilt over not living up to one’s standards. Shapiro also sees the subjective experience of the o-c as being characterized by concentrated effort and tense deliberateness. Consequently, the experience of true joy and fun is unattainable, impossible.
In contrast, my other roommate, Tanya, had more of a hysterically organized personality. When she found out about the death of the aforementioned professor, she was much more emotionally reactive than Molly. Her reaction was one of overly dramatized sadness and shock (even though we had known that our elderly professor had been ill for some time). When I asked her about her memories of him, she couldn’t distinctly recount anything, and instead gave me a sentimental, though vague and impressionistic account.
Such kind of an affective and cognitive style is typical of someone with hysterical personality organization. Their general mode of cognition allows for repression, the dominant defense for hysterics (though regression and sexualization are also typical defenses). Shapiro proposes that hysterical cognition is general, diffuse, and lacking in clarity and attunement. Their tendency to rely on impressions and vivid environmental cues facilitates their ability to repress discomforting and painful affects and memories, and can serve to recreate their factual world. When their unconscious anxiety and guilt manifest in the form of outbursts, they tend to dissociate the experience as being one that is ego-alien, further supporting Shapiro’s assertion that hysterics lack a sense of genuineness.
Gender inequity issues seem to be at the heart of the hysterical personality make-up. Typically, femininity is associated with powerlessness with which the hysteric identifies. During the oral phase, Freud believed, the mother is seen as inept by failing to make the child feel safe and secure. Later, during the oedipal phase, the child goes on to devalue her mother and direct her object-cathexis at the powerful father. Power, though, will go on to be regarded as an exclusively, male entitlement.