Do Parts of How You Are Bother You or Others?

3 approaches to sanding down the sharp edges of your personality.

Posted Jun 24, 2015

CC0 Public Domain / FAQ
Source: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

Personality is a psychological construct consisting of a set of attributes or traits that make a person uniquely who they are. Our personality impacts our thoughts, emotions, motivations, attitudes, and actions. As described in the DSM, personality traits are consistent and lasting patterns of perceiving and relating to oneself and one’s environment that are displayed in a wide range of social and personal contexts. Personality traits can be thought of as relatively stable characteristics that sway individuals to behave in certain ways.

Everyone has a variety of personality traits: some are adaptive and health promoting and others are problematic and self-defeating. Because they are so much a part of who we are, the unhelpful parts of our personality are often relatively invisible to us. But, even when we recognize their self-defeating nature and want to conduct ourselves differently, they can be frustratingly impervious to change. Interestingly, this in an area where twelve-step recovery, Buddhism, and Western psychotherapy converge to offer assistance. Each of these approaches provides pathways for positive change—using different language but surprisingly similar techniques.

In Step Six of the Twelve Steps, the primary task is to identify the specific aspects of one’s personality that get in the way of learning, growing, and healing. This step focuses on developing conscious awareness of—in the parlance of twelve-step recovery—the “defects of character” that pose internal obstacles to the kind of person we want to be, and the kind of life we want to live. Step Six fits together hand-in-glove with Step Seven, which is about drawing on a burgeoning sense of spirituality as a resource to help alleviate such character defects (also known as “shortcomings”).

As ominous and malignant as the term may sound, character defects are merely personality traits that create problems in coping with life as it is. It may be more helpful to view them as character or personality challenges.

We are really talking about basic human qualities—ways of relating to oneself, to others, and to the world—that have become exaggerated and distorted, creating suffering for the individual and those around him or her. Personality challenges exist on a continuum for everyone—whether they struggle with addiction or chronic pain, or any other serious condition or not—from very little of a prickly personality trait to a truckload of it. Even people who are models of mental health and emotional well-being can display some degree of impatience, intolerance, being judgmental, insecurity, resentment, defensiveness, disproportionate frustration or anger, self-centeredness, etc. from time to time.

Many people naturally act out on the problematic features of their personality in situations that are stressful, uncomfortable, or painful in ways that are impulsive and immediate. It is frequently not how the person intended to act, and rarely how they wanted to act. Such reactions are consistently self-defeating and destructive, usually making the situation, and how everyone involved feels about it, worse. Even if they’ve made a commitment to themselves and others that they won’t act that way any more, like a reflex reaction it happens automatically, and continues to happen.

The past is often present in our interactions with people and situations—tinting the lenses through which we see with residue from earlier in life, based on experiences in our families of origin. Those who come from significantly dysfunctional families and/or struggle with any serious chronic condition that generates ongoing distress are likely to have more personality challenges, and are more likely to act out on them, as well as to evince more intense and problematic forms of them.

Twelve-step recovery, Buddhism, and Western psychotherapy all provide steps (pun intended) people can take to unchain themselves from the well-worn tendencies that lead to unskillful reflexive actions and free them up to respond in ways that are much more mindful, proportionate, and balanced.

Another aspect of the Sixth Step is engaging in a process of becoming ready to let go of our identified personality challenges. Consistent with Taoist and Buddhist approaches, letting go in this sense begins when we become consciously aware of how we create suffering for ourselves and others. Step Seven involves identifying and practicing the specific spiritual principles that represent the opposites of one’s personality challenges.

Personality challenges and the spiritual principles that oppose them cannot operate simultaneously. Consciously practicing the spiritual principles that oppose our personality challenges helps to displace them, effectively providing an antidote. For example, the antidote for an inclination to judge other people is compassion—for others and for oneself. The antidote for arrogance is humility. Humility is not thinking less of oneself, but rather thinking of oneself less.

The antidote for resentment—the repeated reliving of past perceived injustices in one’s mind—is forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we forget what happened. It means we let go of the emotional attachment to it (whatever it was). As John Friel, PhD has described it, forgiveness is the willingness to give up all hope for a better past.

The antidote for anger that is out of proportion to the circumstance is acceptance. Though it often piggy-backs onto feelings of hurt or fear, anger is a reaction to an upsetting occurrence or perceived mistreatment in the present. Acceptance doesn’t mean we like the situation. It means we have consciously chosen to not continue to expend time and energy fighting against it.

In Buddhism, anger, resentment, judging others, and general ill-will are recognized as fundamental obstacles to spiritual development. A common Buddhist technique to soften these reactions, thereby reducing the suffering they create and enhancing a sense of connection with others is the practice of active contemplation or meditation using metta—loving-kindness and karuna—compassion, expressed outward toward the object(s) of our upset and inward toward ourselves.

Another Buddhist practice is to utilize mindfulness to increase conscious awareness of one’s own thoughts and emotions. Using mindfulness to observe and detach from our cognitive and emotional experience builds a space that allows us to respond to other people and situations intentionally rather than react on impulse.

Albert Ellis, PhD, a central figure in the emergence of cognitive-behaviorally oriented forms of psychotherapy, described the cognitive behavioral technique known as “emotional training” in strikingly similar terms. In emotional training, a person endeavors to replace his or her hostile feelings toward someone with positive feelings by recalling pleasant experiences associated with that individual along with the related feelings, and having those positive feelings supplant the anger and upset.

Consciously reframing situations that can evoke automatic over-the-top reactions is another way to diffuse personality challenges. All experiences have a certain structure that includes the context (where we are, who we’re with, what’s happening around us), our expectations, and the interpretations or meanings we assign to it. Changing any aspect of that structure changes our subjective experience. Reframing has its origins in the work of Milton Erickson, MD, and is utilized in Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), among other psychotherapeutic models. Reframing consists of adjusting how we view a situation; looking at it from another perspective, with the result that it evokes a different meaning and new possibilities—frequntly translating to modified and more balanced cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses.

Through these seemingly diverse yet unexpectedly similar practices, we can downsize the frequency, intensity, and overall influence of our personality challenges so that they create less suffering and fewer problems—for ourselves, as well as for those close to us. Gradually and progressively, these challenges can be reduced from boulders that obstruct one’s path to stones that can be sidestepped or picked up and tossed aside. However, it’s still easy to trip over even small stones if we not paying enough conscious attention to where we’re walking. 

Copyright 2015 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain