How well do you know yourself?
If you’re human, like me, probably less than you think. After all, there’s a lot more going on inside our heads than we’re aware of…
The idea of the unconscious mind was first introduced by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the 20th century. Sinds then, we know that a lot of the things we do, say and think run on an automatic pilot. We have thoughts, emotions, and reactions of which we do not always have conscious control over or are even aware of.
And luckily we don’t have to. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed beyond belief. We simply can’t manage the infinite complexity of reality if we had to be conscious of everything.
For this reason, evolutionary biology gave us a very useful reality filter. A filter that immensely reduces that complexity. And the interesting part is: We all are given a unique filter through which we see the world. That’s what we call our “personality”.
But why do we all have different personalities? How is it that we often cannot understand the behavior of some people, but get along well with others? And why do people seem to thrive in certain environments, while others feel at unease?
Keep reading if this sounds interesting to you!
After all, I’m convinced it’s incredibly valuable for everyone to know about both their own personality, and those of the people around them – In order to understand themselves, understand others, and therefore improve communication, and create deeper connections.
Why we have “Personal Constructs”
Our personality is one of the ways we handle the complexity of reality – It’s a characteristic way of perceiving the world. Psychologist George Kelly was first to describe these unique reality lenses as “Personal Constructs“.
And it’s no accident that we all have our unique personal construct, as this variation has evolved to help preserve our species…
Consider this train of thought: Mutual survival is a complex problem for human beings. Some personal constructs are useful in certain situations but unhelpful in others, and vice versa. So, to counter this phenomenon, its necessary for a human tribe to have a variety of personalities for finding the necessary solutions for survival.
Different problems arise at different times, that require different insights and perceptions for a solution. Insights and perceptions stem from a variety of individual opinions and in turn arise from a variety of personal constructs.
Our personal constructs are a type of reality filter that screens for the relevant objective facts. Important facts we need to pay attention to solve complex survival problems. Plus, our personality determines how we subjectively interpret these facts to look at the problems from different angles.
This is why the dice was shaken before you’re born, and you enter the world with a somewhat random set of personality attributes. It’s simply evolutionarily determined to be the best strategy for group survival.
Of course, your personality is largely shaped and molded by your environment and experiences as you live your life. However, you’re not a clean slate from the get-go. You have certain pre-programmed personality traits…
The Big 5 Personality Traits
It seems that our individual personal constructs are actually aggregated unions of a set of distinct personality traits. After many decades of research, psychologists validated the existence of 5 main personality traits – often called The Big 5.
Our personalities are determined by what levels of each of these 5 traits we have. Here’s an overview of them:
Now, every one of these traits is hard to describe in one sentence, but to give you a rough idea of their characteristics, here’s their definition in a nutshell:
Extraversion: In terms of behavior, highly extraverted people are sociable, talkative, and spontaneous. They gain energy from being around other people. People who are low in extraversion are also described as introverts. These people are mostly reserved, quiet and aloof. They need to recharge and spend time alone after social interactions.
Neuroticism: This personality dimension is also known as the trait associated with negative emotions such as frustration, disappointment, grief, threat, and anxiety. People who are high in neuroticism often feel blue, feel threatened easily, have big mood swings, and are easily annoyed. People who score low in this dimension are more emotionally stable and overall less sensitive to negative emotions.
Agreeableness: People high in agreeableness are characterized as kind, polite and accommodating. Agreeable people more are inclined to negotiate on behalf of others than for themselves. On the other side of the spectrum, disagreeable people can be described as more self-centered and egocentric. They tend to stick up for themselves more than for others.
Conscientiousness: Highly conscientious people tend to be more careful, organized and self-disciplined. They don’t like wasting time and are typically hard-working. People who score low in this dimension are more carefree, laid-back, and less organized.
Openness: This trait is mainly associated with creativity, abstract thinking, imagination, and artistic interest. People high in openness are curious, have broad interests, and need a creative outlet to flourish. People lower in openness can be described as conventional, concrete and have a narrow range of interests. They aren’t very interested in exploring new ideas or experiences and like to stick to what they know.
The Normal Distribution Of Personality Traits
Every human being on earth has some unique combination of these 5 traits that make up their personality.
Look at it this way: Imagine every trait as a spectrum on which you are located somewhere between two extremes. For example, between the two extremes of extraversion and introversion.
Most people lie in the middle, with fewer people near the tail-ends – creating a normal distribution (see figure). Of course, this applies to all of the big 5 traits.
Now, your personal traits are not fixed points on those normal distributions, but lines on the spectra. This is because you are not always the same amount of extraverted, neurotic, agreeable, conscientious, or open at every point in time.
This could differ between contextual circumstances, and/or the way you feel that day. For example, a person naturally low in extraversion, who feels tired after a long day of social interactions, is at that point relatively less extraverted than that morning.
So, this person’s personality shifted slightly towards the introversion tail-end of the distribution. However, it can be moved towards the extraversion tail-end again by taking rest or getting in a different state of mind.
Now, even that line isn’t fixed. You have the ability to stretch your traits through directed effort and experience. In other words: You can expand your personality by exposing yourself to experiences that lie outside the comfort zone of your current range of every trait.
We can take a highly introverted person as an example again: When an individual low in extraversion is exposed to social interactions regularly, over time, the person becomes more comfortable with being around other people with for longer periods of time – expanding their personality trait.
But this goes both ways. A highly extraverted, who is uncomfortable being alone, can practice spending time with just him or herself. Cultivating the skill of uninterrupted deep thinking and self-reflection.
(You can read my blog post “Why You Should Seek Discomfort” to learn more about the importance of discomfort in order to stretch and grow yourself)
Now, knowing that you have the ability to expand your personality is an incredibly valuable piece of knowledge. This allows you to strategically train yourself to react more effectively to a bigger set of life situations. You simply have more options for responding to certain problems and situations.
As we’ve already covered: Some personal constructs are useful in certain situations but unhelpful in others. And if you have the ability to tackle problems with a broader set of perspectives, this gives you an incredible advantage.
But not only that; you’ll also be able to better understand how others think and behave – making you more effective in doing teamwork. More importantly, you’ll improve the quality of your relationships. Because now, you can put yourself in another person’s shoes and imagine their way of thinking, how they feel, and understand their behavior. In other words, you’ll improve your capacity for empathy.
However, this doesn’t mean you have an unlimited capacity to stretch your personality. Eventually, you’ll hit the law of diminishing returns – which means: The further you move from your inborn personality trait, the more effort it takes to expand your personality in that direction.
In other words, your personality traits are like elastic: The further you pull at the ends, the harder it gets to make it move, and there’s a limit to how much it can stretch.
Use Your Personality To Your Advantage
Now you know: You have the ability to significantly expand your personality. However, I do recommend you to orient your life in a way that complements your traits. After all, you want to put yourself into a position that capitalizes on your specific personality, and really take advantage of your unique traits composition.
This could be within all the various aspects of your life. Like the type of friends you surround yourself with, the study you choose, the career path that you take, and even the life partner you decide to live with. If you understand your personality well, you’ll be better at finding the right environment for all life’s components – and thrive naturally.
This way, you can use your personality to your advantage to create a life that works best for you.
However, don’t make it yourself too comfortable. Remember, growth happens when you’re just outside your comfort zone. It’s like a balancing act.
Try and find the sweet spot between pushing your boundaries (stretching the elastic), and keeping your overall environment synchronized with the natural core of your personality. At this point, you’re both in tune and developing yourself simultaneously.
For this reason, I’ve personally curated various aspects of my life in ways that best suit my personality. For example, I’ve got this blog on which I can work on for hours in deep focus and isolation.
As I’m low in extraversion and high in openness, this is very much in line with the nature of the work. After all, I need my time alone to recharge from social interaction, and writing is also a creative outlet that helps me unpack abstract ideas.
At the same time, I do push myself to seek discomfort in the areas of my personality that limit me from reaching certain goals I have in life. Public speaking is a skill I’m currently working on, as such large scale social interactions drain a lot of energy from me.
As I greatly value the skill of public speaking, I therefore actively seek out opportunities to speak in front of large groups. I condition myself to be okay with being the center of attention. It’s like a muscle I’m training, stretching my personality more towards the extraversion tail-end of the distribution.
So, Remember This…
We all have our unique personal construct, as this variation has evolved to help preserve our species. These personal constructs are a type of reality filter that screens for the relevant objective facts we need to pay attention to solve complex survival problems.
It seems that our individual personal constructs are actually aggregated unions of a set of 5 distinct personality traits, that together form one unified personality. The big 5 personality traits are: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness.
The dice might have been shaken before you’re born, providing you with a somewhat random set of these personality attributes. However, you can expand your personality – even if the basic nature of your traits can’t be changed. They’re partly fixed, and partly malleable. They’re like elastic that you can stretch but to finite lengths.
Given these characteristics, find the right strategies for coping with their difficult aspects, and craft your environment to their advantage. Create a life in which your personality thrives, but pushes you enough to grow and expand your character.
As the ancient Greek saying goes:
Learn about yourself, and learn the most effective ways to manage your traits – This will provide you with invaluable insights, and profoundly improve your life.
Thanks for reading!