It’s Modes, Not Personality Traits

All of us are different people in different situations.

Posted Apr 16, 2013

I know of a woman who at work seems emotionally reactive, needy and dependent – everyone says “That’s just her personality.”

But then when she was part of a group touring the labyrinths of Europe, a friend from her workplace who also went reported – a bit shocked – that the woman was nothing like her usual self. She took initiative and explored strange cities on her own, was emotionally stable, and fun to be with.

All of us are different people in different situations, or with varied groups, or from time to time, and at various stages of our lives. The old personality model, that we have fixed traits that stay with us throughout our lives, doesn’t do justice to how flexible our behavior can be.

Today brain science tells us our brains are “plastic” – they can change with the right development experience – and they are far more elastic than the trait idea gives credit to.

‘Modes’ are a new concept that lets us understand how and why we actually are diverse people at various times. A mode orchestrates our entire way of being: how we perceive and interpret the world, how we react – our thoughts, feelings, actions and interactions.

For example, there’s the avoidant mode, where we try to distance ourselves from feelings and people; the anxious mode, where we over-worry our relationships – and the secure mode, where we can take in emotions with calm, feel secure in ourselves and are able to take smart risks, and can focus in ways that help us be at our best.

With some people, for instance, we may be in a mode that proves self-defeating, like the anxious mode. But with others we may find ourselves in the secure mode, where we live life at our best.

Traits have long been used to pigeonhole people in the workplace, for everything from hiring to placing people in the “right” job.

Personality tests of the same people at different ages tend to be stable – that is, people answer the same questions in more or less the same way. But all that shows is that our self-image changes little – not that other people experience us in different ways than we do, or that we change.

A personality test just gives us a snapshot, and life is a video. We change as we go. Personality tests assess parts of our make-up that are fairly constant. But more important for how we can be at our best are the meaningful changes allowed by other parts of our make up.

One liberating effect of thinking in terms of “modes” rather than “personality types” is that modes imply we have choices. We can learn what triggers our modes, what makes some self-defeating ones so sticky, and what can help us loosen their grip and get into better modes. And, ideally, we can release the grip of our self-defeating modes and enter those for wellbeing no matter where we are or whom we are with.

Modes and how they work for or against us is the topic of Tara Bennett-Goleman’s new book, “Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits.” The mode concept builds on a recent proposal by the founder of cognitive therapy, Dr. Aaron Beck, who suggested, for instance, that what we call “depression” or “anxiety disorders” are modes that can change for the better.

Seeing someone else – or ourselves – through the lens of a label like “depressed” or “introvert” can have a subtle negative impact, suggesting a permanence that modes belie. The mode idea builds around what we can do to release the grip of our dysfunctional emotional habits and build a wider set of options for living.