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How Your Personality Can Impact How You Manage Your Lupus


If you were asked to "describe your personality," what would you say? Are you more open or cautious? Impulsive or a planner? Outgoing or quiet? Are you a “people-pleaser" or do you

"tell it like it is”? Are you a bit intense, or fairly laid back? Perhaps you've already stumbled across the "Enneagram," the "Myers-Briggs," a "Cosmo Quiz" or other assessments to find out "who you are." No matter what "type," imagine if you discovered that changing your personality was actually possible (and that it could make your life better if you did). Would you be curious enough to try?

A few years ago, my husband was rummaging through an old box of school records, when he found a note from his second grade teacher. It said something like, "Jeff is very skilled at challenging authority." That made us laugh, because while he is one of the kindest people I know, he is indeed "skilled" at "challenging authority" when warranted, to this day.

From the "Big Five Personality Traits" theory (a prevailing, well-researched model for better understanding our unique personalities6), Jeff's pattern of "speaking truth to power" would be considered "disagreeableness" (which is actually a strength when used wisely). To balance this trait, Jeff makes every effort to be helpful and conscientious. And over several decades, I've watched him continually adapt his "disagreeableness" (along with other traits) into a veritable superpower. Like Jeff, many leaders are discovering how "personality" can impact and transform our physical and mental health (for better, or for worse). While learning about "personality" can benefit anyone, it may be especially meaningful for those managing lupus, other chronic conditions, and mental health challenges.

As a counselor who specializes in trauma, I've long been fascinated by "personality" especially when it comes to the qualities, practices, and patterns that contribute toward wellness and resilience. And as a mother, daughter, and friend who lives among those managing lupus, chronic pain, and mental health challenges, I would do anything to see my loved ones experiencing more relief and joy.

Perhaps understanding "personality" (and if possible, working to change certain traits), could be a key that many of us have been missing.


What is "personality"? Generally speaking, "personality" describes a unique pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; a combination of qualities and actions that distinguish one person from another.18 While a "personality" initially develops within both biology and environment, a popular opinion is that "personality" remains somewhat consistent as we get older. For something viewed as so "permanent," it seems curious that the origin of "personality" stems from "persona," Latin for a theatrical mask worn to perform a role or disguise identities.19 So, which is it? Is a "personality" innate and permanent, or is it something we may have a hand in creating? Even psychologists can disagree.

In psychology, Humanist theories emphasize the importance of "free will" and "individual experience" in developing a personality, while Behavioral theories suggest it's a "result of interactions between the individual and the environment," largely ignoring internal thoughts and feelings.5 But there is one particular framework that continues to gain traction, drawing from Trait Theory and others: the "Big Five Personality Traits" (often referred to as OCEAN), consistently supports a better understanding of these five unique personalities, and their potential impact in our lives.

What's so special about the "Big Five"? The earliest attempts to curate a list of common human traits and behaviors dates back to the 1800's, and has been refined by research over time from 4,000 traits to 171, eventually distilling it to just the "Big Five." Originally developed in 1949, "Big Five Personality Traits" is a theory established by D. W. Fiske and later expanded upon by many other researchers. It's been studied by psychologists, and is considered to have the most scientific validity and reliability: with proven, precise, and accurate measurements for traits. While the "Big Five" model still lacks consensus when it comes to using individual assessments (the shortest one currently approved is called NEO FFI-34, 7, 12), if you're curious about your "type," there are also many informal and free "Big Five" assessments available online.7


How might this apply to you and I? The "Big Five" model highlights five common types of qualities and behaviors: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Take a look at how the different personality traits may impact our physical and mental health, especially for those managing lupus, chronic conditions, and mental health challenges. The research continues, but many studies have already shown:

  • openness to new experience: those with chronic conditions tend to score higher in openness9

  • conscientiousness is generally seen as being protective in many areas of health3

  • conscientiousness is positively associated with problem-solving and coping2

  • conscientiousness and extraversion are positive predictors of subjective wellbeing2

  • extraversion and openness indicate "optimistic control", linked to better health outcomes9

  • extroversion appears linked to more active and positive coping strategies2

  • agreeableness and openness may mean weaker advocacy, and worse health outcomes9

  • agreeableness and conscientiousness appear linked to positive medication adherence3

  • higher neuroticism seems related to poor coping, and a lower sense of optimism and control9, 12

  • higher neuroticism appears to intensify negative reactions to stressful life events.14, 17, 20

  • higher neuroticism appears to be more common among those with chronic conditions9

  • healthy neuroticism, with conscientiousness, appears linked to better health outcomes22, 23

  • all five traits combined can predict up to 34% variance in health-related quality of life16

If you're anything like me, you're now "gulping" a bit at the list above, and wondering where your personality stacks up (perhaps, this list itself is contributing to stress). Bear with me, because it matters. Many studies have explored the role personality plays in coping and managing stress.1, 2, 3, 9, 12 This information may be particularly meaningful to those with lupus and other chronic conditions because:

  • lupus points to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, sleep issues, physiological and psychiatric distress8

  • the prevalence of psychiatric disorders is as high as 75% among women with lupus8

  • stress plays a critical role in the severity of symptoms of distress and our immune response17, 22

  • strengthening effective coping strategies in those with maladaptive traits should be considered a crucial component of prevention and managing stress12

In short, the "Big Five" appear to have a significant impact on our physical and mental health, especially for those with chronic conditions and mental health challenges.


Let's briefly break down the "Big Five Personality Traits", which again, are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Before we consider changing anything though: where do you see yourself (higher or lower), among the descriptions below?


"Openness" refers to the willingness to try new or novel ideas. Folks who score highly in "openness" tend to have active imaginations, prefer variety, and love to learn new things. Those low in openness generally prefer routine, order, and stick to a comfort zone.

Is this me?

- I love to try new/unique activities.

- I understand things quickly.

- I am creative and "out of the box," full of ideas.

- I'm super interested in abstractions.

- I'm not particularly fixed on rules or routines.

- I'm fond of complicated words (perhaps a Sesquipedalian).


"Conscientiousness" refers to how we get things done. Folks high in conscientiousness spend time preparing, finish tasks quickly, attend to details, and prefer to plan ahead. Folks with low conscientiousness prefer spontaneity, dislike schedules/routines, are often messy, and procrastinate. Is this me? - I like to write lists and adhere to them.

- I generally enjoy helping others and am the first to "step up." - I am well-organized, prepared, and dislike procrastination. - I like to plan ahead with a schedule, rather than do something spontaneously.

- I value "exactness" and am particular about details.

- I usually remember where I keep things (such as keys or papers).


Extroversion refers to how someone draws energy and interacts with others. Someone scoring high in extroversion often feels energized from socializing, starts conversations, enjoys many friends, and easily meets new people. Those lower on this scale prefer alone time, may be "deep" thinkers, dislike small talk, rarely start conversations, and feel exhausted from too much socializing.

Is this me? - I am often the life of the party, and love getting attention. - I enjoy striking up conversations.

- I'm more comfortable around others.

- I'll often speak in large gatherings.

- I'm often energized by being social.

- I don't mind doing several social things in one day.


Agreeableness refers to how someone interacts with ot