We’ve all heard the saying: You can’t choose your family. And it’s true.
Families aren’t groups that developed based on common interests and opinions. Instead, they’re a seemingly random group of people thrown together to live and manage life’s stressors.
One factor that can make family life harder is personality. After all, personality guides how we interact with our environment and others. This includes coping with stress.
Based on the work of Terry Kottman, Ph.D., personality can be categorized into four types, or personality priorities:
- Control personality priority: These types like to be in control of themselves and/or others. This isn’t about power. It’s about needing to control what’s happening to or around them. These types are stressed when they perceive that they can’t do anything about a situation and are comforted when they can.
- Pleasing personality priority: These types work hard to please others. If those around them are happy, they’re happy. They want to be accepted and don’t like to make mistakes that might lead to disappointment or rejection from others. Think of a chameleon, adapting to any situation.
- Superiority personality priority: These people want to do their best or be the best in everything that they do. If they’re not the best, they feel that they’re inferior. These types are driven and enjoy standing out.
- Comfort personality priority: These types want to feel comfortable — physically, mentally and emotionally. They will avoid stress and pressure. They prefer to stay in their “comfort zone,” and it’s rare that they will step out of that.
Most often, each person has a primary and secondary personality type. While all of these types may fit at different times, the primary and secondary are the most prevalent.
What does this mean in a family system?
Let’s take a common parent complaint: “My kid doesn’t do his homework.” Everyone can understand that this is frustrating. Understanding the personality priorities, however, gives us a clue as to why this is frustrating.
If the parent is a control type, they come up with plans and punishments, but they can’t get their kids to do it. So the controlling parent may think, “Aren’t kids supposed to do what their parents say?”
What if the parent is the superiority type? They’re upset because they understand this as, “My kid is failing; therefore, I am failing.”
This is the same problem. But different buttons are being pushed based upon the parent’s personality priority.
Now let’s add in the kid’s personality priority. Take the control type parent with a control type kid, for instance. The kid perceives all of the parent’s strategies as attempts to manage her and therefore feels out of control. As a way to feel in control, she doesn’t follow the parent’s strategies.
Now we have a parent and kid locked into a battle for control. And neither will win.
Or what if there’s a superiority type parent with a comfort type kid? The comfort kid doesn’t want to do homework because he’s geared more toward doing what feels good (not to mention if it’s a challenging or time-consuming assignment!). The parent simply can't understand that the kid gets less satisfaction from getting As than he does from getting to the next level on his video game. And the more pressure the parent applies, the more the kid retreats. Ugh!
Personalities in couples
While we do have more choice in our significant other, the same personality priorities play out in these relationships, as well. This helps explain why opposites attract.
A superiority type, who is outgoing and seeks success, can be attracted to a comfort type, who is going to let them do their thing with minimal disruption. And the comfort person can stay relaxed, because the other will take care of everything.
It also can explain common arguments. Imagine two control types going on a road trip. Each thinks they know the right route, the right way to drive, the right times and places to stop. Oh, the frustration when they don’t agree!
If we’re aware of our own personality priorities and those of our family members, we can understand what’s occurring when we’re in conflict. That can lead us to a solution.
If the control parent can understand that they’re frustrated by their lack of control, for example, they can manage their emotions better when interacting with their child. And when the parent isn’t reacting based on their trigger, the kid won’t need to respond so intensely to their need for control.
Then the parent can find places for the kid to have appropriate control and build their workload around this. Homework can begin to get done, and more peace can be felt in the relationship and in the house.
For the couple on the road trip, the passenger can remind himself, “It’s my need for control that has me stressed. We’ll get to the destination regardless.” The driver can also recognize that she has all of the control and that the other is feeling out of control — and she can make some concessions to ease those feelings.
The best is when they can agree on the plan and what needs to happen. They’re in sync and relaxed.
Creating a more peaceful home
Recognizing our own personality priorities can help us manage our own emotions and reactions. Doing this as a family can be even more beneficial — not just for managing stress but also for finding solutions to frustrating problems and personality clashes.
We can help you through the process. Call (319) 356-6352 to schedule an appointment, or use our Request an Appointment form.
Lanny Tygrett, LISW, RPT
Lanny Tygrett helps children, adolescents and adults with family dynamics/relationships, trauma, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral challenges and autism spectrum disorders.