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.
DEFINITIONS AND HISTORY
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
SCIENCE AND APPLICATION
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 others, and the tendency to feel
compassion and cooperate with others. A highly agreeable person enjoys helping, and often feels empathy. A person low in agreeableness doesn’t care as much about managing someone else's feelings, and tends to disagree or challenge people or policies often. Is this me? - People might say I have a "soft heart."
- I tend to trust others and assume the best intent.
- I am sensitive and may "take on" other people's feelings. - I like to "help" and to make folks feel comfortable.
- I'm often more interested in others than myself.
- I rarely insult people, and tend to make people feel at ease.
Neuroticism refers to the ability to remain balanced and stable, especially when facing stress. Those who score higher in neuroticism typically experience higher anxiety, and may worry about things easily. Someone lower in neuroticism may appear more emotionally stable, and doesn’t worry too much.
Is this me? - I am easily irritated, and tend to worry a lot.
- I get stressed easily. - I tend to have frequent mood swings.
- I appear to be more anxious than others.
- It's hard for me to "come down" after a stressful experience.
- I tend to lean on others, or avoid stressful events and places altogether.
GOALS FOR CHANGE
Take a breath! If you're paying attention, you may already be noticing some "less adaptive" (less helpful) traits in the mix. If so, you may already be wondering, "is it really possible to change our personality, if we wanted to?" While all personalities have strengths, thankfully (because certain traits appear to lead to positive health outcomes), the research says yes, we can change. And sometimes, in as little as four to six weeks.9, 21 Additionally, some studies suggest that, with a little effort, those changes can be long-lasting and transform many aspects of our lives.9, 15 But some personality traits appear easier to change than others.
In one study, participants were able to encourage their neuroticism to go down, their extroversion to go up significantly, and their conscientiousness and agreeableness also rose incrementally. Openness was the only trait that didn’t appear to change much, despite the effort.18
In another study, researchers found that "emotional stability" was the most common personality trait that people wanted to improve, with "extraversion" second most common, followed by "conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness." 21
If all personalities have strengths, then what traits do certain people hope to change?18, 21
More Openness: seeking creative activities and interests, being more curious, spontaneous, social, accepting, or outgoing (or, for less openness: exploring core beliefs and values, and better asserting and communicating personal boundaries and needs).
More Conscientiousness: using organizational skills, less procrastination, being more responsible, healthy, and creating more opportunities for success (or, for less conscientiousness: working toward acceptance and allowing for less rigidity in details and plans).
More Extroversion: more socializing, being more assertive, engaging in activities (or for less extroversion: better listening, "enjoying my own company," and more awareness and appreciation).
More Agreeableness: better listening, greater acceptance and compassion, appreciation, providing more help or care (or for less agreeableness: more assertiveness and prioritizing needs and goals).
More (Healthy) Neuroticism: Increasing conscientiousness, practicing positive self-talk and acceptance, releasing shame, differentiating between feelings and "Self," learning to worry less, relax, increase self-motivation and belief, engaging in therapy or talking to others, working toward adaptive health, sleep, and fitness routines, and turning empathy into action.
TOOLS FOR CHANGE
Let's say we did want to change some of these traits for the better; where might we begin? One place to start is expanding our communication skills.6, 10, 11, 15, 18 Successful communication can help us "better understand people and situations ... overcome diversities, build trust and respect, and create conditions for sharing creative ideas and solving problems."10 Some common skills to look for when improving communication include: listening and empathy, speaking up, preparing what you're going to say, and be ready for different answers.10 While we can all benefit from expanding our communication skills, here are some tips for putting change in motion as it relates to specific personality types:
Listening: People "low in agreeableness" or "high in extroversion" may benefit from practicing "active listening," subtly reflecting others' tone and body language, and asking open-ended questions without interrupting. This may improve overall coping skills and resources by contributing to stronger relationships and support in times of stress.
Speaking up: People "high in agreeableness or openness" might consider opportunities to "speak up" and say "no" when the stakes are lower (for example, correcting a coffee order or declining an invitation), which can help build confidence in speaking up when the stakes are higher (for example, during a medical appointment, or when setting a personal boundary).
Preparing: people "low in conscientiousness," or "high in openness," or "high in neuroticism" may particularly benefit from planning and practicing mindfulness, breath work, and journaling, taking time to slow down and notice/track thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and needs. If this is you, you might try "box breathing" (breathing in slowly for 4 counts, hold for 4, out for 4) to slow the heart rate and decrease stress in the moment. Another great option is taking a walk or dancing before/after a stressful conversation. With increased awareness and self-soothing skills, we can better plan ahead to communicate those needs more confidently with loved ones, caregivers, and providers.
Being ready for different answers: people "low in openness," or "low in conscientiousness," or "high in neuroticism" or "disagreeableness," may struggle to manage emotions or reactions when faced with stress, such as upsetting news or opposing opinions. In reality, most folks can benefit from reading or watching inspiring stories about people with different lifestyles, opinions, abilities, and cultures. Better yet, seek out relationships not only with similar folks, but with the different ones, too, and remember to practice "active listening" to make space for those varying perspectives and points of view.
Stand strong and kind: Last but not least, for all personality types, explore ways to boost your confidence while remaining kind. Try to watch your own tone and body posture when engaging with others, doing your best to express yourself assertively (for example, "I feel __ when __ happens, I need __ to happen next to resolve this"). Practice extending openness, compassion, curiosity, and warmth for better experiences with communication overall. (Even lobsters have better posture and health outcomes when they are feeling confident, according to acclaimed author Malcom Gladwell, and if they can do it, shoot, I'm sure we can try.)
All in all, I've been impressed in seeing Jeff and others positively adapt traits such as "disagreeableness" through learning, active listening, mindfulness, conscientiousness, therapy, and other practices. Personally, as a recovering "people pleaser" and counselor, I'm actively working to be "more disagreeable" in my life (for real), and trying to say "no" to more things, while keeping my compassion and conscientiousness intact.
If you're curious about other ways to grow and adapt your unique personality traits, or struggling to manage your own conditions or stress, consider finding a qualified mental health professional, coach, or trusted faith leader. They are typically trained and have many other resources to help take you and your awesome personality to the next level!
The science is in: your mind, body and ever-expanding "personality" will enjoy the benefits of these efforts, for years to come.
Teresa Jansen, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor
*All resources provided by this blog are for informational purposes only, not to replace the advice of a medical professional. MTL encourages you to always contact your medical provider with any specific questions or concerns regarding your illness. All intellectual property and content on this site is owned by morethanlupus.com. This includes materials protected by copyright, trademark, or patent laws. Copyright, More Than Lupus 2023.
**The author has protection under these copyrights; however, the words belong to the author and can be used for other creative purposes or for personal archive's. May 2023
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