Episode 24: The Personality Key

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In this series, adapted from my book Toxic Criticism, we examine the ways that criticism and self-criticism interfere with our ability to find our life purpose and live as strongly, passionately, and effectively as we would like to live. Today’s episode is called “The Personality Key.”

Transcript

Hello, everybody. Today’s is the sixth episode in a series called Handling Toxic Criticism. In this series we look at the terrible toll that criticism takes, how it interferes with your ability to live your life purpose, and what you can do to reduce the effects of criticism in your life. Today’s episode is called “The Personal Key.” Let’s begin!

Personality is both formed and fluid, static and dynamic. If the brain is the most complicated bit of matter in the universe, personality may amount to the most complicated set of dynamics in the universe. Sometimes you react reflexively, sometimes you stop yourself from acting reflexively and consider your reaction. Sometimes you operate from the shadows, leading with the dark side of your personality, sometimes you operate from the light. Sometimes you feel yourself to be nothing but a walking addiction, incapable of not overdoing the buffet, sometimes you operate in a principled and disciplined way for days on end.

As a rule, and unless you’ve put these keys into practice, when you are hit with a bit of toxic criticism you react reflexively, bringing forth the personality piece that you habitually bring forth when you’re attacked. Maybe you mourn and drink. Maybe you get angry and dream of revenge. Maybe you get very small and hide for weeks. Maybe you try to deny that it happened and smile a false smile. Maybe you kick the cat. Maybe you make very big changes in the blink of eye, dropping a career, quitting a job, leaving a relationship, splitting town. Most people react reflexively in the face of toxic criticism, just as they would react if they had touched a hot stove.

Consider the following scenario. A novelist devotes four years to writing a novel. During that time she also struggles to lose fifty pounds and to keep a depression at bay. A literary agent reads her novel and informs her that it is an unmitigated disaster. Worse, the author recognizes that each of the agent’s criticisms is fair and that the novel is unsalvageable. This is an existentially crucial criticism, one that directly connects to the way that she has decided to make meaning in life, and can’t be met with a sunny attitude and a philosophical shrug. What is this author likely to do if she can’t manage her reaction at the deep level of personality? She is likely to fall off her diet and balloon, sink into a severe depression, open herself up to opportunistic illness, and call herself the worst names imaginable.

This is the epitome of toxic criticism, criticism so virulent that it can destroy you by virtue of the way it undermines your sense of self and drains the meaning right out of your life. The criticism and self-criticism may be relatively more fair or unfair, as even an objectively wretched novel is still an accomplishment that could be celebrated, but whether it is more fair or unfair it is experienced as a terrific blow. If this author reacts reflexively with pain, despair, an eating binge, and so on, this blow will amount to a true catastrophe. If, on the other hand, she can somehow manage her personality and her self-talk, she has the chance to survive this blow with minimal damage.

What would “managing her personality” amount to in this scenario? Nothing so simple as managing her self-talk and substituting more affirming language for the terrible language suddenly coursing her brain, though that is a vital part of solution. In addition to employing the magic of self-cognitive therapy, she would want to calm herself so that she could think clearly and mindfully examine her options, fervently recommit to her diet program, monitor her behaviors to make sure that she hadn’t started behaving from the shadows, monitor her mood and engage in activities that worked to minimize depression, and so on. Her working mantra might amount to something like the following: “I am going to think the right thoughts and be the right me as I deal with this calamity.”   

There are scores of ways of conceptualizing personality, from ancient systems, like the medieval one that posits four basic personality types (the four humours), to contemporary systems like the Jungian model based on dualities such as introversion and extraversion. There are Freudian drive theories having to do with the interaction of psychic parts (id, ego, and superego), narrative theories that argue that we are the stories we tell about ourselves, personality trait theories based on the idea that we are collections of traits, and many more.

In excess of a hundred personality traits have been identified and described; the seminal concept of ego means something different to each theorist; and influential factors like culture and genetics must somehow be factored into any comprehensive theory of personality. It would therefore not be surprising if you felt that you had no very sure way or very clear way to think about your personality—and therefore little idea how to change it or improve it.

Nevertheless, we are obliged to figure ourselves out. You can’t deal effectively with toxic criticism if you aren’t aware of how you typically act and react in life and if you have no decent sense of what motivates you or what subverts you. As difficult and elusive as personality may be, you nevertheless have certain tasks you need to master if you are going to stand in better relationship to criticism.

The first task is learning to appraise your own personality. In my experience there are certain keys to personality, among them the extent to which a person experiences anxiety and how that anxiety is manifested, the extent to which a person has an existential or conventional view of life, the extent to which a person is plagued by or free of depression, and so on. Your job is to decide for yourself what the keys to personality are in your case. Have you been made by your culture into a certain kind of person? Did the messages you received in childhood shape you? Were you born with a certain primary personality such that at your core you are pessimistic or optimistic, weak-willed or stubborn? Who are you? You really need to know.

One tactic to use with respect to this first task is to write your autobiography. In working with therapy clients and creativity coaching clients for more than twenty years, I have found that perhaps the most useful tactic for self-exploration is writing an autobiography on the order of twelve to fifteen pages in length. If you do, you are almost certain to learn a great deal about who you are. Focus on going deep and being real, not on beautiful memoir-writing. You do not need to arrive at a one-word or a one-sentence answer to the question, “Who am I?” Where you want to arrive is at a sense of what motivates you, what subverts you, and why you react in the idiosyncratic ways that you do.

A second task is learning to appraise what criticism triggers in your personality. Some people get angry when criticized and lash out at someone other than the person who criticized them. This psychological defense, where you attack a safe target like your child, rather the person who criticized you, say your father or your boss, is called displacement. Other people, troubled by doubts about their abilities, get ashamed and mortified and shrink away. Some people move quickly to depression, others feel goaded by the criticism to act ruthlessly, others treat the criticism as gospel and keep trying to reshape themselves according to what others tell them they ought to do. How do you react to criticism?

A straightforward way to determine how you react to criticism is to try your hand at completing the sentence, “When I’m criticized, I ______”

You can refine your self-examination by completing the following sentences:

• “When I’m surprised by criticism, I ______”

• “When I have the chance to prepare for criticism, I ______”

• “When I’m criticized by someone I thought was on my side, like a friend or loved one, I ______”

• “When I’m criticized by a stranger or someone I consider an enemy, I ______”

• “When I’m criticized about something where I’ve invested meaning, like my writing if I’m a writer, I ______”

• “When I’m criticized in an area that holds no meaning for me, I ______”

• “When I’m criticized at home, I ______”

• “When I’m criticized at work, I ______” 

• “My most usual response to criticism is ______”

• “My most troubling response to criticism is ______”
A third task is learning how to change your personality. If you are brave enough and wise enough to appraise your personality, determine what motivates you and subverts you, and arrive at some conclusions about what personality changes you want to make, you still are confronted by the enormous challenge of actually changing your personality.

Say, for example, that you recognize that you grow meek and compliant whenever you are criticized, can trace that reaction to childhood dynamics, and know that you want to change your reaction pattern and the underlying personality piece that produces that reaction. How can you translate that excellent understanding into action? Three steps are required: that you state a clear goal with nameable behaviors, that you practice those behaviors, and that you act as you have practiced when a real situation arises.  

A tactic to use with respect to this third task is the following one. First, you name a personality goal, for instance that you intend to become more assertive. Next, you articulate what behaviors go with that goal: that the second Jim criticizes you, you will tell him to stop, that when Mary makes a comment about your weight, you will let her know that she is never to make that remark again, that when Barry complains that his socks come out of the dryer full of static, you will turn the laundry chores over to him with great glee. Next, rehearse in your mind’s eye what you will say to Jim, Mary, and Barry when they criticize you next. Last, you actually respond as you intend to respond the next time you are criticized by one of them.

A fourth task is learning to consolidate personality change. It is splendid to act assertively when we have decided that we want to become more assertive. But if our habit is to be meek, our style is to be meek, and a host of personality pieces collude to make us meek, then a single assertive response will not do the complete trick. We need to repeat our desired behaviors over and over again, forgive ourselves when we slip and react too meekly, continue practicing and rehearsing, and pay attention to our goals every single day. Just as sobriety is a process and not an event, so too with any personality change that we hope to make. We keep focused on our intentions, cherish our successes, and remain mindful of the fact that slips remain a persistent possibility. 

A tactic to use with respect to this fourth task is to ceremonially honor process. Since personality change is a process and not an event, it is hard to honor it with markers like annual anniversaries. You could certainly celebrate the one-year anniversary of the day you asserted yourself or the day you shrugged away some noxious criticism, but it makes more sense to regularly honor your efforts without connecting your ceremony to any particular event. For instance, once a month celebrate in a small, meaningful way the fact that you remained mindful about being assertive. During your celebration, name the personality change that you are honoring: “Another disciplined month!” or “Another sober month!”  

That ends today’s show. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that you’ll tune in next week for another episode of Your Purpose-Centered Life. If you subscribe to your Purpose-Centered Life, you won’t miss a single episode!—to subscribe, please visit personallifemedia.com or look for Your Purpose-Centerd Life in iTunes. You might also want to visit my blog, where many guest correspondents write about issues of interest in the secular-humanist, skeptical, free-thinking, existential and atheist traditions. My blog is available at the personallifemedia.com website. If you’d like to drop me an email, I’d love to hear from you. My email address is [email protected]. And I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services, including my annual Taos workshops. To visit, please head over to ericmaisel.com—that’s e-r-i-c-m-a-i-s-e-l.com. Thank you for listening!