By: Garri Hovhannisyan
What typically brings a client to a therapy room is not a problem that they just had last week but problems they’ve been having time and again, trapped in a cycle of repetition with no apparent way out.
It’s important to consider the situational factors that shape our problems into what we experience them to be. It’s also important to understand some of the subtle ways in which we, ourselves, might be contributing to the very cycles of distress we come to experience as already “there,” as part of the world we are in.
Consider, for instance, the case of the “lonely extravert” who has a strong need to be with and around others but whose demanding work schedule does not permit much time for socialization. Consider, alternatively, the introverted counterpart who remains unphased by the fewer opportunities to socialize and is able to go about business as usual. Consider, next, the person whose feelings of self-esteem and self-worth have been deeply affected because their high agreeableness has predisposed them to being taken advantage of by those far less concerned with the feelings of others. Finally, consider the disagreeable individual who is far less bothered by moments of social tension and conflict, and who does not come to view instances of this sort as reflecting deep faults with one’s own self.
These brief vignettes are meant to illustrate how we sometimes come to suffer in repeated ways because certain needs that are associated with our unique traits aren’t being met by the contexts we are in; and that, moreover, those who possess traits that are different than ours simply do not suffer in the same ways because they do not share our needs.
In my research (some of which can be found here and here), I’ve been studying the relationship between people’s personality traits and the pervasive patterns of distress they succumb to in their daily lives, patterns they are repeatedly having to suffer but ultimately hoping to escape.
My work draws on the Big Five theory of personality, one of the most widely researched and esteemed theories in all of psychology for predicting human behaviour. As the name suggests, the Big Five describes personality along five major traits or dimensions: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness, and Extraversion (an easy way to remember these traits is with the acronym CANOE or OCEAN). At the bottom of this page, you can find a table of basic definitions of what each trait says about a person’s general style of behaviour. If you are feeling especially curious, you can even complete the Big Five test for free by following this link. Completing this test takes about 25-35 minutes (a simplified 10-minute version can be found here) and gives you an opportunity to learn about how you compare to others who have taken the same test.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for guaranteeing a pathway out of suffering of the kind that I have discussed here (i.e., repetitious cycles of distress). Rather, solutions have to be carefully individualized to fit the unique needs and personality profiles of the individual. Having a basic understanding of your personality traits and dispositions can therefore give you a good sense of what kinds of things you might “need” psychologically to better orient yourself toward your situation, a process that is often helpfully leveraged with the expertise of a therapist.
Indeed, learning about your personality traits has the potential to enrich your sense of what counts as “psychological oxygen” for you and offer you clues on ways you can proactively bring important aspects of your Self to fuller realization in the world.
|BIG-5 TRAIT||TRAIT DESCRIPTION|
|Conscientiousness||High scorers tend to live in the future and structure their time around tight schedules and rules for completing long-term tasks|
|Low scorers tend to be more concerned with life as it can be lived in the present moment|
|Agreeableness||High scorers tend to be polite and compassionate, regarding others’ thoughts, feelings, and points of view as more important than their own|
|Low scorers tend to place their own thoughts, feelings, and point of view in centrestage even if doing might cause conflict|
|Neuroticism||High scorers tend to be more sensitive to negative emotions like anxiety, anger, or depression, and perceive the world as a place of hostility and threat|
|Low scorers tend to experience less negative emotion and see the world as relatively habitable and safe to their personal projects and concerns|
|Openness||High scorers tend to be more imaginative, artistic, and curious, inhabiting the world of images and ideas and enjoying intellectual conversations|
|Low scorers tend to be more concrete in their cognitive style and conventionally minded in their approach to learning and navigating ideas|
|Extraversion||High scorers tend to be enthusiastic, gregarious, and assertive, quite opportunistically minded and especially enjoy being around other people|
|Low scorers can be rather indifferent to opportunities to socialize and to be moved to action through feelings of enthusiasm or excitement|
Garri Hovhannisyan, M.A., R.P. (Qualifying) is a clinical psychology resident at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships where he provides psychological services to adults and couples. His approach is integrative as it draws on existential, psychodynamic, humanistic, and cognitive-behavioural perspectives. His dissertation research studies the relationship between people’s traits and their patterns of distress and seeks to develop novel uses of the Big Five theory of personality in the clinical context.