WHAT IS PERSONALITY?
Personality is a word we often use in describing ourselves or others, but what exactly is it?
I like this description from psychotherapist, Beatrice Chestnut:
“The term personality generally refers to the part of our character that develops to interface with the outside world. Our personalities are shaped through the intersection of our innate qualities and our early experiences with parents, caregivers, family, and friends, as well as other influences in our physical, social, and cultural environments.”
When working with clients, as well as in understanding my own inner world, I have always found it useful to hold in mind some person-ality distinctions. Therapy, it might be said, consists of one person paying close (and hopefully caring) attention to another person’s personhood. Factoring in the person’s personality, or ‘blueprint’, can enable both therapist and client to toggle switch from the specific contents of the suffering, to more big picture thinking. Or to use different language: holding the personality in the background can support the move from the left hemisphere part of our brain (Suffering Radio 24/7), to the right hemisphere – a quieter, more peaceful and connected place.
Personality isn’t the only ‘big picture’ force in our lives. We are each operating within specific socioeconomic conditions, have access (or non access) to certain relationships, not to mention the different ways that we each have experienced trauma. However, our personality blueprints are the lens through which we experience life. Having a notion of what our blueprint is, also helps us to see what we are not, and can act as a doorway back to our essential experience.
This is why, following an initial consultation, I usually ask clients to complete a personality test. Although landing in/on our personal blueprint is not always an entirely happy affair, knowing what kind of “animal” we truly are, as opposed to the animal we believe we should be, can alone be generative of more self-acceptance and understanding.
HELLO, MY NAME’S STEVE, AND I’M A SQUIRREL
Imagine a squirrel goes to see a therapist and talks about all the areas in their life where they perceive themselves to be failing.
It turns out they’re totally useless at catching balls, scaring off cats, and cuddling up to humans.
“But hang on,” says the therapist. “Isn’t that ‘dog’ behaviour you’re describing, rather than squirrel stuff.”
“Squirrel-shmirrel,” the frustrated squirrel replies, “Let’s do dog!”
Well of course a squirrel can be trained how to be more like a dog (there are videos on YouTube for this sort of pursuit). The therapist might help the squirrel to interact with the world in a more “doggy” fashion. But wouldn’t it be kinder to the squirrel, more interesting, self-compassionate, as well as a lot less bloody (inner) work to help this squirrel become the very best squirrel they possibly can be? Shouldn’t therapy be about helping us to grow and flourish in our own imperfect squirrel-tude, rather than everyone becoming dogs? I think so.
To do this however, three factors need to be in place:
- The squirrel needs to have some understanding of their squirrel-nature, as opposed to say, the nature of a dog. Both are mammals, but also different in many important ways.
- Certain conditions and support for this squirrel to truly excel in their squirrely ways needs to be in place.
- Some desire to be a “great squirrel”, as opposed to becoming a so-so dog.
Anther quote which speaks to this, is from psychoanalyst Karen Horney:
“You need not, and in fact cannot, teach an acorn to grow into an oak tree; but when given a chance, its intrinsic potentialities will develop. Similarly, the human individual, given a chance, tends to develop their particular human potentialities without a great deal of forcing. Favourable conditions are needed though. She needs an atmosphere of warmth to give her both a feeling of inner security and inner freedom, enabling her to have her own feelings and thoughts and to express herself. She also needs healthy friction with the wishes and wills of others. If she can thus grow with others, in love and in friction, she will also grow in accordance with her real self.”
And in so doing, become a magnificent oak tree. Or squirrel. Or snail.
HOW TO FIND OUT IF YOU’RE A SQUIRREL, A DOG, OR A MEERKAT
If what you are reading is resonating with you, perhaps you are curious to know which kind of animal you are.
I find the Enneagram personality typology to be an excellent way of doing this. Here is an overview of the Enneagram personality model: https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/how-the-enneagram-system-works
In my years working as a psychotherapist, I have studied and used all the main personality-focused typologies: Myers-Briggs/MBTI (which is often used, and perhaps even targeted at business environments), the Five-Factor Model of Personality, or Big Five (mainly used in clinical research and academic work), and even the Thematic Apperception Test, which nobody seems interested in anymore other than me.
All of these personality tests will, in different ways, alert our troubled squirrel to her squirrelhood. However, one thing that is often lacking in these models is a developmental path. Approached the right way, the Enneagram can really help to guide us in terms of our development.
Psychotherapy seeks to explore and inquire into these person-al, existential questions in many ways. Typologies like the Enneagram can be a useful resource to run in the background of that process, helping us to becoming our best squirrely, doggy, wormy, spidery, wildebeest-y selves.
If you’re interested in getting a bit of a ball-park sense of your personality typology through an Ennea lens, I would recommend the Truity Online Enneagram test. It takes about five minutes to do on your phone (I’m a lazy squirrel) and then spits out something that looks like this, my personality snapshot, below. As you can see I am predominantly a four.
After doing the test, Truity.com will of course then ask you to give them some money for the full low-down on your type.
There is, however, no need for that, as the internet/YouTube/Steve are also available for great explorations and delvings into these personality “typologies”. These explorations can become even more nuanced, as well as tailored and focused to “you” and your self-development path once we also have an idea about which of the three instinctual/hardwired capacities most drives you.
If you would be interested in bringing some more of this exploration into our work together, do Truity’s 5-minute typology assessment, and WhatsApp over to me a screenshot of your Enneagram snapshot like the one above. We can then talk a bit more about your typology and how it factors into your life and relationships with others in our next session.