Category Archives: Personality Traits

The Path to Managing your Empathy.

“Enlightenment” – Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart ©

Empathy can be a wonderful trait if you can choose wisely when to be empathetic and to what degree.

When Empathy is Helpful

The ability to sense, imagine, and feel what someone else is feeling allows us to tune into other people’s emotions and to know when someone who is suffering can use some help. That help might involve showing sympathy and warmth, or it might involve making a plan and taking action. Someone whose family member has passed away probably needs warmth, understanding and sympathy, whereas someone who has lost a job or is sick may need help brainstorming job opportunities or help arranging a doctor’s appointment. Communities facing hardship such as hunger or unemployment may need people with money or logistical support.

When practical action or critical thinking is needed, too much empathy can get in the way. (See “Can you have too much empathy?”) If empathy tends to overwhelm you, it is wise to learn how to tune down your empathetic responses in situations where you need to be quick thinking, practical, or ready to take action. People can learn to moderate their immediate responses through awareness and practice.

How People Develop Empathy

We all develop specific traits and response mechanisms as a result of our own specific life experience. Some individuals are the responsible ones, others are funny, accommodating, bossy, or empathetic, etc. People who are very empathetic have often experienced an environment where a keen sensitivity to others’ suffering helped them avoid potential insecurity or danger. Examples include having a volatile or depressed parent that needed appeasing. Empathetic people develop a fine sense in detecting the emotional state of others as well as a strong drive to soothe another’s needs and emotional suffering.

Every personality trait has a good and a bad side. It generally becomes harmful when a person’s tendencies become too strongly ingrained and responses become automatic and impulsive.

Generally in adulthood, we find out how our personality traits may be making life difficult for us or those around us. Someone who is overly empathetic, for instance, may become overwhelmed by sadness or despair for the hardships of others to the point where their life becomes pure anguish. Another danger for the empathetic person is being manipulated by narcissistic or self-serving individuals. Imagine someone who sulks or dramatizes feeling hurt in order to exploit the empathetic person’s desire to ease their suffering. The use of guilt or exaggerated suffering to manipulate another person is a form of emotional fusion, which ultimately leads to misery.

Developing Choice

Often the understanding that empathy can be harmful in certain cases is enough to give you permission to tune down your empathy. When you realize that empathy is not always helpful to others, you will no longer feel driven to dwell on the suffering of others. The goal is not to stop being who you are, but to develop awareness and see all of the choices you have in a given situation.

First, decide whether others will benefit from your empathy, more practical help, or indifference. Sometimes a show of warmth and sympathy is much needed and will be appreciated, but in some situations injecting too much heart-felt emotion can exacerbate the situation, distracting from practical and constructive strategies.

Second, beware of individuals who try to exploit you by calling you “uncaring,” or “cold,” the very labels that are most likely to bother you. They are trying to manipulate you. Beware also of those who want you to suffer when they are suffering. True friends may benefit from your empathy, but they will not want you to suffer.

Third, find a friend who is balanced, that is, not overly empathetic but not unempathetic, to consult when you are unsure of your reactions.

Fourth, when you need to tune down empathetic tendencies, change your focus by using the rational part of your brain. Read, plan, or figure out what specific action you can take. It is difficult to be overwhelmed by emotion when you focus on the specifics, What, Where, When and How. Just try doing a complex math equation to prove the point.

Therapy and Practice

Most people are able to intentionally adapt and adjust their personality depending on any given situation. For example, someone who is generally light-hearted and funny can regulate those traits during a serious business meeting. Military officers can modulate their tendency to use their authority when dealing with family or friends.

Problems only tend to arise when people have trouble tuning down their primary personality traits when it’s appropriate to do so. If you have trouble tuning down your empathy when you want to, “Voice Dialogue” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” can help you learn and practice controlling the amount of empathy you experience and show.

In Voice Dialogue, you learn to access different parts of yourself at will, and thereby develop a stronger “Aware Ego,” which allows you to have better control over your automatic tendencies and behavior. Any particular “self” or personality trait has a whole conglomeration of thoughts, feelings, and physical and behavioral aspects.

A therapist can guide you to embody different parts of yourself at will, and have you practice turning up and down the volume, so to speak, of any particular personality trait. For example, you would embody your empathetic self to 80% and then tune that down to 20%, and then do the same thing with a contrasting trait, such as the action-oriented rational part of yourself. You also learn to mix different parts of yourself, for example, the moderately firm parent with the mildly empathetic parent—a great mix if you want a child to take you seriously without hating you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) rarely involves actual embodiment of behavior but rather focuses on learning to become aware of your reactions and behavioral patterns. The therapist helps you find effective strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with your ineffective or harmful behavior and thinking.

In essence, both therapies help you to become more sharply aware of your own tendencies and their impact on yourself and others. Dramatic practice then rewires your brain and provides you with the ability to choose how to respond to the world around you, in order to be truly more helpful and lead a more satisfying life.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Contempt:
“You’re always scowling at me!”

"Forlorn Heart" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Contempt breaks the heart, because it implies that one person considers the other as undeserving of respect. Studies have shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years. The dissolution of the relationship may take longer, but contempt will steadily and painfully eat away at a relationship, even when there are a few good times in between. In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember any positive qualities about each other. So the vicious cycle of disdain and hurt gets worse and more irreversible with time.

It is crucial to break this cycle before it gets a stranglehold on the relationship. If your partner talks down to you, express your desire and need to be treated with love and respect. Be firm, but compassionate enough to be listened to. Try saying something like, “You may not be aware of this or mean anything by it, but you look as though you dislike me. Your facial expression makes me feel defensive and bad. I would love it if you could look at me with love and kindness.”

If your partner doesn’t get it, show him or her the research on relationships and contempt. Get any of John Gottman’s books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that show the mathematical research on the effects of contempt on a relationship. Tell your partner that life is too short to spend time together if both of you are not willing to try to bring the best of yourselves to the relationship.

While you can’t control another person, you do have control over what kind of behavior you are willing to accept, and whom you spend time with. If your partner knows that you have the desire and courage to leave an unsatisfactory relationship you will retain power over your own life. If you’re determined not to let contemptuous behavior slide, your partner will be hard pressed to continue to treat you poorly. If the behavior continues despite your ongoing efforts, the only solution may be to limit or end the relationship before heartache and misery overwhelm you.

A loving relationship based on respect requires a sense of self-respect on your part. People who exude self-respect by stopping or withdrawing from others who talk down to them are more attractive than those who accept contempt. Expecting respect can be a more powerful aphrodisiac than unconditional acceptance. But it has to be backed up by the courage to remove yourself from an unhealthy relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

John Gottman’s website.

Read “Criticism and Contempt.”

Can you have too much empathy?

“Crescendo” by Mimi Stuart ©

Can you have too much empathy?

Empathy is often considered to be the source of good behavior. The literal meaning of empathy is “the ability to share another person’s feelings.” Our culture highly values empathy and assumes you cannot have too much of it. However, when you experience other people’s feelings too strongly, you can run into big problems. Paul Bloom’s book “Against Empathy” shows how empathy can often prevent a person from making sound decisions in a crisis:

“Unmitigated communion makes you suffer when faced with those who are suffering, which imposes costs on yourself and makes you less effective at helping.”

Compassion, Kindness, Empathy

There is a subtle but important distinction between compassion, kindness, and empathy. Compassion is the concern for the suffering of others, which is different from actually feeling or experiencing the suffering of others. Kindness means being friendly, generous, and considerate of others. Kindness creates positive other-oriented feelings and makes other people feel better, which results in positive health effects all around. Compassion and kindness promote pro-social motivation and behavior, and are not likely to get in the way of good decision-making and helpful action.

Empathy, on the other hand, often comes at a great cost. As Walt Whitman quipped: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Becoming the wounded person creates distress for both the empathetic person and the suffering one, while also causing negative health outcomes for all. Moreover, too much empathy for a distressed person’s feelings often overwhelms the empathetic person and clouds clear thinking.


Do people in distress benefit from empathy?

Would you want a therapist to feel depressed or anxious when dealing with a patient who is depressed or anxious? Therapy would be impossible if therapists couldn’t put aside some of their empathy. Would you want a doctor to be overwhelmed with grief when dealing with the grief-stricken family members of a sick or dying patient? Would you want a pilot to feel the fear of the passengers in an emergency situation while airborne? Would you want a fireman to feel your loss while your life and property are burning or at risk? Clearly not. You want them to do their job calmly, quickly, and rationally, free of distracting emotions.

Empathy causes feelings of distress, which can incapacitate the empathetic person and obstruct objective thinking and effective action. Therefore, you can have more positive impact on others and on your own wellbeing when you do not experience too much empathy, albeit some empathy is helpful in making a person aware that others are suffering. People can be more effective helping distressed people when they are NOT experiencing strong feelings. The suffering person benefits more from people whose strength and decision-making are not hindered by feelings of distress.

A therapist should try to understand a client’s feelings, but without matching or absorbing those feelings. It is more important to be engaged by a client’s challenges and to think creatively about possible tools, options and solutions for improving the client’s life. In a medical emergency, you would want a trauma surgeon to stop the bleeding and assess the situation quickly without pausing to feel the patient’s pain. Pilots should focus on what actions are needed while remaining emotionally separated from their passengers in order to best serve them.

How does empathy affect relationships?

Too much empathy in a relationship leads to emotional fusion, which is quite destructive to the individuals involved. If your partner feels your anger or panic to the extent that you do, that will exacerbate the situation. If, instead, your partner remains emotionally separate, objective, calm and compassionate, then he or she can be a rock for you and help you gain perspective and insight into your situation. You can get better support and advice from someone who does not freak out or become upset when you are suffering and need support. Someone who remains cool and calm in difficult times can better guide and counsel you through emotional turmoil.

Similarly, parents who demonstrate too much empathy will overreact when their children are hurt or upset. A parent’s anxiety is infectious and will only increase the fearfulness and distress of the child. If the parent habitually overreacts to the child’s distress, either by panic or extreme coaxing or placating, the child may very well become an anxious, insecure individual. Children need to sense from their parents’ demeanor that everything will be fine. Often they learn resiliency and faith in the future from the parent’s calm, solution-oriented demeanor in stressful situations.

If you want to be effective at alleviating someone’s suffering, it is best to be compassionate and kind while remaining calm and emotionally separate enough to use your reason.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Reference: “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. 2016.


Saying “Yes.”
“No, I don’t feel like it. I’d rather stay home.”

"Yes!" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Yes!” by Mimi Stuart ©

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the comfort of your favorite routines. Yet when you get into the habit of always saying “no” when others suggest doing something different, you may be narrowing your life and your experiences to the detriment of your vitality and relationship potential.

For example, when you consider inviting friends over for dinner, and decide, “No, I’m not a great cook,” or “No, our house is a mess,” or “No, we hardly know them,” you are letting your anxiety about uncertainty get the better of you. When asked to go ice skating or try a dance class, and you say “No, that’s not my thing, I’m very uncoordinated,” you are letting your fear of discomfort or embarrassment get in the way of an interesting experience, an adventure, or at least a funny story.

Ironically, one of the greatest things about uncertainty is the very thing people don’t like about it: the anxiety it causes. When you feel anxiety because you are doing something new or different, you become more alert and perceptive. Your senses come alive and your mind sharpens. A moderate dose of anxiety is healthy. Moreover, as you make it a habit to face your anxiety, you start to experience it differently; it transforms into the excitement of being alive. You gain confidence in your readiness to respond in the moment even when you don’t know exactly what will happen. So learn to embrace your anxiety!

Another benefit to participating in novel activities with others is that it magnifies the positive emotions you feel for one another. No matter how long you’ve known someone, new experiences enhance your relationship. Therefore, embracing opportunities and the anxiety that go with them helps you both individually and together.

Of course, you shouldn’t say “yes” to everything. You will know which activities are clearly not going to enhance your life in any way. Also, you need to balance the vitality and growth of facing the unknown with the ease and contentment of enjoying the known. When you choose routine, you can relax and be comfortable, which is an important part of life, just as you need sleep each night to restore your mind and body. Yet too much comfort can lead to lethargy, apathy, and boredom. To see how either extreme can be hazardous to your mental, emotional, and physical health, I recommend seeing the entertaining comedy “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey.

So the next time a friend says “Lets go Spelunking,” say “yes,” and just do it!

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

“Is there hope for our relationship when we have such different mindsets?”

"Jazz Night" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Jazz Night” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I have a “growth mentality” and I guess my husband has a “fixed” mentality. I want to grow and change in every area of my (our) lives. I want us to become better people and pursue greater happiness. My husband wants to stay the same. He is insecure and likes comforts and approval and takes my wanting change as a personal affront. He says I’m never happy. But I am happy. I’m just happiest when I/we are moving in new directions and growing! He loves movies and food and I want to read and be outdoors and learn. We have little children and I really don’t want to divorce. We seem to want such different things that I fear we won’t make each other happy over the long run. Is there hope for people with such different mindsets being together?”

Two people who are very different from one another can have a loving, fulfilling relationship as long as there is no contempt or abuse within the relationship. While you can generally improve a relationship more easily if you have a growth mentality than a fixed mentality, I don’t think having a husband with a fixed mentality is enough reason to toss in the towel, especially if you have children. Remember that we can never get everything we want in any particular partner.

I would consider whether part of your growth could be to accept your husband for who he is, that is, someone with different interests and less desire to change and grow. I would recommend continuing to pursue your interests while respecting his complacency. Continue to grow, read, go outdoors, and learn. But don’t show contempt for your husband’s lack of interest in doing the same. I would not badger him to read, because he probably won’t, and he would feel that you are nagging and criticizing him. If you try to push him, he will become more defensive, entrenched, and find more things to criticize about you.

I bet that there were qualities about him that you liked when you met, and that there’s a reason you liked those qualities. Perhaps you liked him in part because he is predictable and not seeking novelty and growth. Predictable people tend to be more loyal and bring less chaos into a relationship. They can be more stable as a partner and parent than someone who is seeking change and improvement. Your differences from each other can bring a nice balance to the relationship as long as there is no contempt.

I would recommend continuing to pursue your interests and learning, while also spending a little time trying to appreciate the things he likes to do, whether it’s watching football, going to movies, or eating delicious food. You don’t have to do everything together by any means. But it would be nice if you could find a way to do a couple of the things he likes to do and really appreciate those activities (even as a learning experience) and try to understand why he likes them.

Reading, learning, and going outdoors may sound more virtuous than watching movies, enjoying food, and staying comfortably at home. Yet it is important to enjoy the present even while seeking improvement in YOURself for the future.

I am not implying that you don’t enjoy the present, and I can see why you would be frustrated with someone who isn’t trying to better himself and explore life more. I’m just trying to help you appreciate what is good in your husband, while you continue to seek your own path. We cannot change others, but sometimes it is surprising what we can learn from them while continuing to maintain our own preferences.

I’m glad you’re reluctant to divorce, particularly since you have children together. It can be beneficial for children to experience two very different kinds of parenting—one who is predictable and stays at home, while the other explores the outdoors and new activities.

If you continue to grow, and the two of you thereby grow apart dramatically and can no longer get along, then that will become much more clear over time. Or if you are able to resist criticizing him and pushing him to change, and he continues to act with defensiveness and hostility toward you, then it may be time to seek counseling to improve the situation or to consider other alternatives.

But there is a good chance that you can and will continue to grow while honoring who your husband is as a person, a mate, and a father. You may come to appreciate your differences, while experiencing growing mutual respect and love for each other.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

“If I don’t keep on top of everything, I don’t know what will happen.”

“Garden of Eden” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Being organized, dependable, and creative in planning for the future are wonderful qualities. They allow you to create beauty in the home, order in your finances, and enjoyment in your social life.

Control and order

Responsible people generally strive to achieve security, order, and harmony to prevent upheaval, chaos, and turmoil. When circumstances become stressful, however, the drive to sustain order can get out of control and actually add to the stress. Ironically, the attempt to take too much control of life sometimes results in excessive vigilance that leaves you feeling powerless and out of control.

Moreover, you may become preoccupied with your worries to the exclusion of appreciating your blessings. As a result, you end up feeling tense, angry, and tormented — even panicked, while others seem to be nonchalant. It doesn’t seem fair.

Effective Problem-Solving

Paradoxically, by focusing exclusively on what has gone wrong and what might go wrong in the future, you lose your objectivity and effectiveness. If you dwell too much on a problem, you may lose sight of the bigger picture and access to your intuition. You may get mired in the mud of hopelessness. You may also drive other people away with your anxious energy.

Brain research shows that the best way to resolve a problem is to focus on that over which you have control. Inform yourself of all the facts and seek good advice if necessary in order to consider the problem thoughtfully. Then engage in something other than thinking about the problem. Stepping away from the problem at this point will allow your intuition to inform your decision-making. It also allows you to maintain perspective, while being able to enjoy other aspects of life.

Security

Taking the time to plan and organize fosters security and harmony in life. Too much planning and organizing, however, creates excessive tension that wipes out feelings of security and harmony. While you can hedge against some risks in the future, you cannot prevent all misfortunes and loss. Life is fleeting and mercurial. At some point you have to let go of trying to control against all misfortunes, and face the unknown with courage and acceptance.

Balance

Given the ephemeral quality of life, we need to balance planning for the future with being present in the moment. It may seem inappropriate and even absurd to think about enjoying life when faced with uncertainty, misfortune, and stress. Yet it is the present moment that we actually have the most control over, that is, we have control over our attitude and reactions to whatever is currently happening. Regardless of how beautiful and safe we try to make our world, we inevitably must accept what comes our way willingly and gracefully.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen