Some folk have it all. Or so it seems.
Charm, looks, money, success, universal approval. And yet…
How often we learn, with surprise, that privately they’ve been struggling.
Perhaps depression has them in its grip. Maybe their appetites have grown unchecked into full-blown addictions. Maybe they feel fake, like a trickster imposter waiting for public opinion to turn on them, constantly afraid that the mask will slip and reveal them as unworthy of their success.
We learn, some of us maybe with delighted horror, that they’ve been battling demons. Outwardly their lives shine with envy-inspiring luminance, but inwardly they’re falling apart. They’re mentally tortured, or feel empty or lonely.
I don’t know about you, but little alarm bells go off in my head when I hear some clichés relating to mental health.
What, for example, does ‘battling inner demons’ actually mean? These words and phrases (being ‘tortured’ is another one) may sound profound. But words and phrases can do as much to hide meaning as reveal it unless we dig deeper.
Interestingly, the metaphor of ‘battling demons’ may have come from a time when people experiencing mental illness were literally believed to be possessed by demons.1 It doesn’t tell us much in itself. We need to go deeper.
We need to know what demons a person is fighting. To turn the metaphor back into something more literal so we can actually help vanquish said inner monsters.
Demons are either:
- The effects of past emotional conditioning which have not been resolved (nor, in the case of some celebrities, helped by worldly success). For example, someone can be objectively safe, but because of past emotional conditioning, not feel safe and therefore suffer anxiety. Years after a traumatic event or situation, someone may still be suffering the after effects, for which no number of private jets, swimming pools, limousines, or social-media ‘likes’ can replace real treatment.
- Unmet needs. Someone can seem to ‘have it all’ – in other words, have all their primal emotional needs met – but now find, as is the case with demon-fighting celebrities, that the need for meaning or purpose has vanished. When you have it all, what are you striving for? Or perhaps the need for genuine connection to others has vaporized because no one is real with them anymore because they are pampered or pandered to.
- Aspects of personality that cause problems – perhaps a pronessess to depression-generating rumination,2 maladaptive perfectionism, or general neuroticism.
It’s this last aspect that I want to briefly highlight here.
Now, when we treat clients, we’re not seeking to change their personality. But we are seeking to help them adapt and modify troublesome personality traits.
Some people are fatalistic about personality traits but the fact is, personality can, and perhaps inevitably does, change through experience. Indeed, the emerging science of epigenetics seems to support this.
Epigenetics looks at how we are shaped not just by our base genetic code, but also by changes in the way our genes are expressed.3 We each, of course, have a different genetic ‘blueprint’, but what we do in life – our experiences and learnings – influences whether and how our genes are expressed.
For instance, someone who is characteristically introverted can learn to become more extraverted, not as an act but as a reality. This can happen through skills training, for example in social skills or stress management, and just through practice. It’s even been found that simply pretending to be extraverted helps introverted people not just feel happier but become more extraverted, at least while they are acting that way.4
Personality type is not destiny. After all, what makes us unique as human beings is our almost infinite capacity to learn.
But when seeking to help others and ourselves adopt and develop healthier personality traits, what exactly should we be aiming for?
What is a healthy personality, anyway?
A 2019 study asked psychologists and college students to rate personality traits in terms of how healthy they believed them to be.5 The professional psychologists and the students gave surprisingly similar answers, but it was the experts’ responses that the authors used to create an “expert-generated healthy prototype”.
The following traits were identified as characterizing a healthy personality:
- Openness to feelings
- Positive emotions
- Low depression
- Low anxiety
- Low impulsivity
- Low stress vulnerability
- Low anger or hostility.
The “healthy prototype” was also low in narcissism and exploitativeness, though relatively high in some of the perceived healthier traits associated with narcissism, such as boldness and openness to experience.
I think this is a pretty good list and at least gives us a sense of the kinds of traits that it may be useful to work at developing in order to live healthier, happier, and possibly more productive lives.
Promoting a strong inner guidance system
Human Givens Psychology describes the part of a human being that tries to meet emotional and physical needs as the “inner guidance system”. We are instinctively driven towards meeting our needs in any way we can, but if our guidance system is damaged or faulty we tend to find this much harder.
So how might this guidance system be compromised?
Well, for example, an autistic person is likely to be less well equipped to meet their need for attention as others. Someone who has been severely traumatized is less able to meet their needs for a sense of safety or human connection. Someone with poor impulse control may find it hard to meet their need for status if their poor capacity to focus prevents them from progressing in their career.
When we can’t meet our needs legitimately, we may try to meet them in ways that are damaging to us and others.
The client who doesn’t feel safe may turn to alcohol to numb the pain of not meeting that important need. The person who finds it hard to discipline themselves enough to gain attention for positive reasons may turn to cheap tricks as a short-term attention-seeking strategy, and so on.
But I ask you to notice something…
What the healthiest personality traits all have in common is that they help a person to meet all their primal emotional needs in balance.
Such traits enable people to be assertive, calm, and focused; to connect with others; to work towards goals; to feel calm and experience positive feelings regularly; and ultimately to be more fully engaged in life. People with these traits are also more likely to treat others well, thereby strengthening their social ties and, I would imagine, helping them become more popular and embedded within their communities.
The aforementioned study compared the personality profiles of over 3,000 people against the expert-generated healthy prototype to yield a “healthy personality index”. Sure enough, it was found that:
“Individuals with high scores on the healthy personality index were psychologically well-adjusted, had high self-esteem, good self-regulatory skills, an optimistic outlook on the world, and a clear and stable self-view. These individuals were low in aggression and meanness, unlikely to exploit others, and were relatively immune to stress and self-sufficient.”
Vanquishing inner demons through self-development
If I compare myself to that list, which is very much an ideal, I think I fit some of the traits… but others not so much. And that’s fine! Not many people will exhibit all those traits.
But if we keep in mind that these traits are likely linked to a greater capacity to meet emotional needs, then we can help develop these traits within our clients so that they can progress through life more happily and productively. We are never aiming for a complete personality change, simply helping people develop some of these traits to the extent that they reasonably can.
By helping others develop skills that encourage the development and stability of healthy personality traits, we support better mental health not just now but into the future. The demons are driven out for good.
When we can help a person in this way, they are better placed to meet their own and other people’s needs in a balanced and sustainable way. And that is, I hope, what we are all aiming for.
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- See https://courses.lumenlearning.com/waymaker-psychology/chapter/mental-health-treatment-past-and-present/
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