Personality Types, Traits, Tests and Chronic Illness
For Applications of Self-Understanding, Recognizing the Signs of Trauma and Healing
When I started to build a network, and connect with other people around the world who also suffered from chronic conditions, and with their caregivers too, I began talking to folks about their lives prior to diagnosis. I noticed that, time and again, there were clear patterns and common themes. This led me to writing my “When the Mighty Oak Falls” article, back in November 2017, which I also include here, by way of introduction to the topics I seek to cover herein.
When the Mighty Oak Falls
“One of my major themes of interest right now concerns common patterns of behaviors and personality traits in those of us who go on to develop movement disorders and chronic illnesses, all of which I now see as coming under the umbrella term "Nervous System Dysregulation". My evidence is not clinical, but is gleaned from talking, and sharing experiences, with hundreds of people who have or have had such health issues themselves, from all over the world. In other words, it is gleaned from the real world of people like me, and it comes from asking the right questions which haven't been postulated before.
What I've found in the background histories, time and again, is that in many of those of us who become "dysregulated" or "disordered" have, in the prelude to our health issues, tended to make ourselves into Mighty Oaks trees, isolated and standing alone in a field. The origins of this seems in many cases to arise in the acorns of rejection, abandonment and unrequited love. In order to protect ourselves from such harms in the future, we become fiercely independent, black belts at emotional "self-defence".
We take on more and more responsibility on to our own shoulders, in the very mistaken idea that by gathering Power to ourselves, we can take more control of our own lives, we begin to refuse to accept or ask for help from others and become the worlds worse delegators.
We make ourselves "strong" and "unbreakable", but we also make ourselves top heavy in the pursuit of taking on more and more, in the mistaken belief we can control the world around us this way. We isolate ourselves, pushing others away, so we grow alone in the field, instead of in the safety of the forest surround by others who could support us. We become more determined, more set in our ways, and we do feel stronger as we grow.
Then the hurricane comes. An event we have no control over. We don't break. We are uprooted wholesale. We simply fall over.
I have said many times now that there can be no chemical cure for those of us with such disorders and diseases, and I sincerely believe that, because its just a sticking plaster fix for the true origins of our health problems, which lie in such patterns of behaviour.
In my conversations with others, I see two major outcomes in people with Nervous System Dysregulation symptoms, and these outcomes depending markedly on attitudes.
The first outcome is rapid decline, as in those of us continue to fall over and for whom the Oak begins to rot from the inside most rapidly. This tends to be truest in those of us who simply want to return to our old lives, to keep going exactly the way we were before. It usually therefore involves a very rigid sense of self, a holding on to their Oak personality for dear life, with a very strong sense that this aspect is their true self, and indeed is something to be celebrated.
In my view and understanding, a chemical cure in this case would simply be the unnatural up-righting and replanting of the unsupported Oak Tree. But if nothing has changed in this resetting, it simply stands to reason when the next hurricane comes again, the Oak will simply fall over again. But now, already made susceptible to falling over, it won't take a hurricane this time, perhaps just a gale.
The second outcome is in the getting better, partial recovery, living well with the disease, slowest decline, or being happy anyway. The common factor in all of the people I know who are like this is that they have realized the folly of the Oak. They know they cannot simply stand up in the form they were before.
They have all gone through a process of change, of evolution, and they're all evolving in to Willow Trees, in the heart of the forest. They accept help and support of others around them. They seek out water and nutrients. They become flexible in nature. In short, they not only embrace change in themselves, but learn to bend with the wind of changes which they can never have any control over.
The original response to the above article was overwhelming, with very many people with chronic issues recognizing themselves in what I had written. As I explored this further, I found that other people had come to similar conclusions before me.
Dr Gabor Mate described in the book “When the Body Says No” his observations of how folks diagnosed with the same chronic disease tend to have very similar personality traits, but these personality types were different for different diseases.
I also came in to contact with Elaine Godley, who had observed common personality types in people with different types of cancers, and, later, Lilian Sjoberg, who had also observed these patterns in people suffering from chronic stress.
Dr Iain McGilchrist and the Divided Brain
I began to gather together a good explanation for these observations when I first discovered Dr Iain McGilchrist’s work on how our left and right brain hemisphere’s provide us with two very different modes of being in the world. For those unfamiliar with Iain’s work, this short animation is a really good introduction:
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Below is a summary of the important points for our discussion.
Left brain: narrow focus attention, things all ready known, attention to detail.
Right brain: broad focus, vigilant for novelty, making connections with the world, sustained, open alertness.
Left brain: manipulation of environment, using shorthands and abstractions - maps and patterns and categories, not reality, disposition for the mechanical, yields clarity and deals with the known, static, isolated, decontextualized, disembodied, lifeless.
Right brain: devils advocate, sees in context, big picture, understands individuals not just categories, empathy, social connection and bonding, disposition for the living, embodied, deals with the evolving, changing, interconnected, unknown.
Imagination and reason need both hemispheres: together they give knowledge of the parts and wisdom about the whole.
From Dr McGilchrist’s descriptions of the personality changes seen in people with right hemisphere damage or stroke, I began to suspect that folks with chronic illness had effectively lost access to their right brain hemisphere’s way of attending to the world.
Dr Joaquin Farias and Movement Disorders
This suspicion was confirmed for me when I discovered Dr Joaquin Farias’s work on Dystonia and Movement Disorders. Dr Farias has shown that in people with these types of conditions, their right cortex has gone in to shock, and is effectively shutdown. He also observed a common personality type amongst his clients. Note how the following description of Dr Farias’ observations, from his book “Limitless: How Your Movements Can Heal Your Brain”, also closely resembles Dr McGilchrist’s descriptions of folks with physical right hemisphere damage.
There are no limits to the levels of involvement they put into a project... attention to detail… can cause them to suffer from depression or fear of leaving their home.
...prefer intimate settings with just a few people and suffer from social anxiety when they are in large groups of people.
Their hypersensitivity is not just emotional, but also sensorial; bright lights, noises, and unexpected movements can all make them dizzy, anxious, or even panicky.
The same quality that allows dystonics to concentrate so deeply is linked to a tendency to ignore anything that doesn’t interest them and can become obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
Dystonics have lived in a permanent state of anxiety since they were children, which is why those who seek respite in drugs and alcohol are susceptible to becoming addicts, because their anxiety is part of their personality.
The motivation that drives them to fight against everything and everyone to defend their beliefs can make them cognitively rigid, not allowing them to abandon a project or a marriage, when clearly it has no future.
Their impulsivity when feeling attacked or misunderstood can make them become aggressive.
Their extreme attention to detail makes it hard for them to pay attention to the larger context, to the total vision, or globality.
Their hyperactivity can make them be careless because they want to read or write more rapidly than they really can. They might skip words or deform their writing to the point of illegibility.
They look for shortcuts, solving problems as fast as they can, making use of their talents and becoming frustrated when they have to wait because they are not able to find a solution.
They can become trapped in a dynamic of instant gratification, a condition they become accustomed to in their youth due to their cognitive and physical abilities.
Sensory stimulus or emotional experiences that would be difficult for other people to assimilate are enormously difficult for them, take them into states of shock where they cannot react.
Their tendency for cognitive rigidity can make those states become perpetual, providing them no assistance in overcoming their fears."
Bonnie Badenoch and Trauma
Bonnie Badenoch’s book “The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships” provided the final piece of the jigsaw, through developmental trauma, adverse experiences, and stressful episodes leading to the shutdown and shock of the right cortex, and ending up with chronic conditions. Hence Bonnie’s work provided the direct connections between left-hemisphere overactivated personality manifestations and chronic illnesses.
Dr Laurence Heller & Dr Aline LaPierre and NARM
Discovering the book “Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationships” by Drs Heller and LaPierre was another game-changer for me, and another step-change in my self-understanding. Their NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) delves deeper into the connections between personality traits and adverse childhood experiences, and provides a more fine grained breakdown of the personality styles which manifest due to the different types of developmental challenges we may face.
The model is based on 5 core needs that are vital for our physical and emotional development:
Depending on which of these needs are not met in childhood, we develop a corresponding adaptive Survival Style.
According to the NARM, each Survival Style can be broken down further into shame-based identifications that we develop to make sense of early environmental failures, and pride-based counter-identifications, or defences, which we develop in reaction to underlying shame. These are ego ideals that reflect how we would like to see ourselves or want others to see us. Paradoxically, the more energy we invests in our pride-based counter-identifications, the stronger the shame-based identifications become.
Below, I list the main features of each of the five adaptive Survival Styles, taken from the book. Many of us will strongly recognize ourselves, as well as other people, including those in public life, in these descriptions. Working backwards from these observations, we can get a sense of what happened in our own, and in other people’s, childhoods. Note that many of us will have developed more than one of these Survival Styles, depending on which combination of the five core needs we didn’t get met.
Key Features of the Connection Survival Style
Abridged notes from Table 2.1 of the Healing Development Trauma book.
feels shame about needing help;
intellectual or spiritual superiority;
drawn to others of same type;
use distancing as a substitute for healthy interpersonal boundaries;
withdrawal in emotional situations;
relate in the intellectual rather than with feelings;
unaware and out of touch with own body;
fear of being alone and being overwhelmed by others;
feel like a frightened child in adult world;
don't know how to deal with environment appropriately;
exaggerated fear of death or disease;
fear own feelings, especially anger;
fear groups and crowds;
deepest desire for contact is also deepest fear;
yearn to fill emptiness but also fear its fulfilment;
strong need to control self, others, environment;
difficulty sustaining intimacy;
drawn to therapies that re-inforce dissociation.
Key Features of the Attunement Survival Style
Abridged notes from Table 3.1 of the Healing Development Trauma book.
gets excited about new projects, but difficulty finishing them;
longing for their needs to be met without asking;
clinging in a covert way;
like to talk;
equate getting attention with love;
feel emptiness in belly;
elation at start of a relationship without ability to sustain;
don't reach out for what they want due to low energy and fear of disappointment;
see expressing anger as weak;
appear more irritable than angry;
encourage others to depend on them;
picks up strays (people and animals).”
Key Features of the Trust Survival Style
Abridged notes from Table 4.1 of the Healing Development Trauma book.
underlying feelings of impotence and powerlessness;
fear of failure;
feelings of emptiness for always putting on a "mask";
displacing of blame;
always makes it someone else's fault;
not being able to depend on others;
making others feel small, weak, stupid or helpless;
always needing to be "one up";
always wanting to be the best, winner;
when healthy, can be visionaries;
deny the reality of their bodily experience;
appearance of commitment to others, but in reality self-serving;
good at reading other people, particularly their weaknesses;
become anxious when the cannot avoid or deny;
when the idealized self-image fails, become self-destructive, prone to alcohol, drug abuse and other high risk behaviors;
paranoia: life is a jungle - survival of the fittest;
turns the tables.
Key Features of the Autonomy Survival Style
Abridged notes from Table 5.1 of the Healing Development Trauma book.
ambivalent, paralyzed by internal contradictions;
feeling stuck or in a morass;
fear of losing independence when they become intimate;
choose to please others over themselves and then feel resentful;
stubborn identity based on effort;
fear of own spontaneous expression;
fear of being rejected or attacked if openly oppositional;
global feeling of guilt;
superficially eager to please;
covertly feeling spite, negativity and anger;
secretive about their pleasures;
feel choice is to submit to authority or be rebellious;
strong fear of humiliation; forceful in defending others but not self;
continual self-judgement and self-criticism;
use the pressure of waiting to last minute before a deadline as a motivating force to break through their paralysis in order to complete tasks about which they are ambivalent.
Key Features of the Love-Sexuality Survival Style
Abridged notes from Table 2.1 of the Healing Development Trauma book.
perfectionist and critical;
impossibly high standards for self and others;
hard on self when failing to live up to high standards;
continually orientated to self-improvement;
drawn to gym, plastic surgery, wanting to make hard body even harder;
mistake admiration for love;
difficulty feeling heart and sexual connection together;
tendency to shut down sexually when heart opens;
difficulty maintaining relationships;
self-righteous, judgemental, stiff with pride;
driven, compulsive, rigid, black-and-white thinking;
does rather feels;
sex as primary way of being in touch with own body;
seductive then rejecting, will always reject first;
afraid to open heart, not even sure knows what love is;
fear of surrender;
difficulty allowing vulnerability in love relationships.
There are a number of online personality tests one can take to gain further insights about our own traits, which can not only be profoundly helpful in self-understanding (and understanding other people in our lives), but also in addressing issues we may be facing. Here, I will cover four tests that I have completed myself, and found very applicable and insightful. Note, these are not gimmicks, but have a large amount of research behind them, and have found a wide variety of serious applications (including for profiling by the security services!). All these tests consist of a series of questions, and take 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
This is a general personality assessment, which uses the “Big 5 personality aspects and traits” model, classifying personality types in terms of:
Agreeableness: Compassion and Politeness
Conscientiousness: Industriousness and Orderliness
Extraversion: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness
Neuroticism: Withdrawal and Volatility
Openness to Experience: Openness and Intellect.
The test gives you a rating on how high or low you score on these, in terms of how you compare to the average in the population.
It also provides detailed, tailored written reports, which are very insightful and surprisingly accurate.
There is also a relationship/couples version where you both fill out the test and it gives feedback on compatibility issues.
This test uses five personality aspects that, when combined, define the personality type. Each of these aspects are on a two-sided continuum, with the “neutral” option placed in the middle:
Mind: Introverted or Extroverted;
Energy: Observant or Intuitive;
Nature: Thinking or Feeling;
Tactics: Judging or Prospecting;
Identity: Assertive or Turbulent.
Again, the written reports are very detailed and surprisingly accurate and insightful. You can go quite deep on this one, and they have entire books to explore.
Developed by Danish Coach and Therapist, Lilian Sjoberg, mainly to help people with health issues to understand their Stress Type and its potential role in symptoms. The stress test is divided into 6 major stress types:
Depending on how you answer the questions, you will learn not only about yourself, and which type you are, but you can also learn about how other Stress Types manifest in the world around you.
Lilian helps people reduce symptoms by helping them move towards the Calm type.
Update: Lilian has provided me with a 50% off coupon for the Stress Test available for the next week: use “substack19092022” at check out.
This is Elaine Godley’s online assessment, which uses four traits:
What is different about this test is that it assesses not only your true inner personality (Internal, private) but also how you present to the outside world, e.g. in the workplace (External, public). According to the test, people who are showing up in the world inauthentically will be more stressed and hence prone to health problems. The bigger the difference between the Internal and External profile, the more likely that problems with occur.
Elaine uses the test as a basis for bringing people’s lives into better authentic alignment.
It provides insightful key features of each type, their developmental origins, and the best forms of therapies for each, as well as tying each to a specific body type and postural pattern.
Our True Selves
The question remains how we distinguish our true natures, from the illusions overlaid due to trauma or illness causing us to adopt Survival Styles, or shutting down parts of our brains. According to Internal Family Systems, a type of therapy which works with our various “parts” or sub-personalities, the true Self is ultimately recognisable by the eight C’s;
and the 4 P’s
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