(Note: This post summarizes content found in my new book Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Disorder. If you like what you read, I urge you to find out more)
Personality or temperament characteristics tend to group together in somewhat predictable ways, often arranging themselves in a hierarchical order. One broad dimension, sometimes called extraversion or surgency, describes a person’s tendency to approach new people and experiences as well as a proclivity towards higher stimulation and excitement. Another major dimension, sometimes called negative emotionality or neuroticism, relates to the degree to which someone is brought to experience negative emotions such as sadness or fear.
Subsumed under these higher order dimensions are more specific traits, some of which are generally considered to be positive in our culture and some negative. People tend to value the lively and fun-loving side of extraversion but as for the tendency towards impulsivity and temper outbursts that are also frequently in the mix—not so much. Those prone to be quiet and cautious aren’t the life of the party, but they can be great listeners and loyal friends.
All seems well balanced here until we start listening to the way many of us describe that perfect person we are looking for. Then it becomes apparent that those common statements about searching for someone who is “bold yet compassionate” or “spontaneous but thoughtful” are basically cherry picking the positive aspects of both major dimensions and leaving the less desirable ones behind.
This kind of al a carte ordering off a prix fixe menu can create some problems when it comes to expectations. Many satisfied couples have learned to accept and even treasure those perhaps less desirable aspects that come along for ride adjacent to those other characteristics that we adore.
Probably many of you are thinking at this point that you have managed to break the mold or have found someone who has. Well…you may be right. First, these associations between different traits, while statistically significant, allow for plenty of individuals who put them together in unique combinations. Second, the third major temperament trait is more of a regulatory capacity that enables someone to be able to modify the expression of the other two dimensions. This capacity tends to get better as we get older and our frontal lobe matures. As a consequence, there are lots of folks who claim to have certain personality traits that surprise us. Well all know the mild mannered guy at the office who completely cuts loose on the weekend, or the bubbly effervescent woman who tells you in confidence about how painfully shy she is. For others, however, this cutting against our temperamental grain only comes about from more strenuous effort (think Tom Hanks in the movie A League of Their Own when he strains every muscle in his body not to yell as the woman who made a mistake on the field or Will Smith in Hancock when he struggles to learn how to tell someone g-g-g-good j-j-job).
Present company excluded of course, the rest of the world may find it challenging to measure up to all those “this but that” adjectives that wind up on people’s wish list. Luckily, there is the entire self-improvement industry to help us out.
@copyright by David Rettew 2013
David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.