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Methods for Changing Perspective on the Present

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The present is what is happening right now; that set of relationships and opportunities that define this moment in time. As we've noted, attempts to understand what is happening in the present in terms of what has happened in the past can result in problems (e.g., transference can occur), so it is a good idea to become conscious of the various ways you are tempted to do this (e.g., to unconsciously understand new relationships in terms of old ones) and try to refrain from letting this happen. It is similarly important for you to become aware of the various other tendencies and habits you are subject to that may bias your decision making and judgment There are numerous such tendencies, but for purposes of this discussion, we will limit ourselves to talking about three major ones: your personality traits and temperaments, your habitual coping strategies and defense mechanisms, and your values.

Personality Traits and Temperaments

Any attempt at understanding the tendencies that govern your life needs to include an exploration of your personality traits and your temperament. Your personality is that collection of behavioral, mental and emotional tendencies you happen to have that makes you a unique person, distinct from all others. The starting place for personality is temperament, which is that set of biologically given behavioral, mental and emotional tendencies you are born with. As people age, their base personality is deeply affected by their experiences and how they uniquely interpret those experiences. Personality is usually described as a set of enduring tendencies or "traits" that tend to be stable over long periods of time.

Many psychologists have devoted their careers to the task of mapping out the different important personality traits. Though there are many competing voices, a sort of consensus has developed over the years that there are essentially five major normal personality factors. These factors are:

  • Emotional Stability (sometimes known as "Neuroticism") which describes a person's tendency to be either calm and laid-back or else jumpy, and prone to anxiousness and nervousness,
  • Extraversion/Introversion (sometimes known as "Surgency") which describes a person's preference for social interaction or solitary pursuits,
  • Agreeableness, which describes a person's disposition to be friendly, emotional and warm or cold, cognitive and detached,
  • Conscientiousness, which describes a person's disposition to take on responsibility, and avoid acting on impulse (or vice versa, to avoid responsibility and act on impulse)
  • Intellect/Openness, which describes a person's disposition towards opportunities to try out new ideas, attitudes and sensations

There are psychological personality tests available, designed to measure people's personality on each of these five factors. Any given person's test scores can be expressed as a profile, showing how they rank in comparison with everyone's average score on each of the five factors. When this profile is drawn, average scores show up towards the middle of the graph, while extreme scores show up as dramatic peaks or valleys far above or below the middle.

It can be a good idea to take a personality test so as to learn how your own personality ranks against the average. Knowing that you score very high or low on a particular aspect of personality (rather than scoring in the middle, towards the average) can be valuable information, in that it helps you to understand how you are specifically different than average in terms of your personality. Extreme personality tendencies are not evidence of pathology or problems in of themselves. However, they can be suggestive that particular vulnerabilities to develop particular problems may be present in your constitution, and that you should be aware you are at risk. For example, high Neuroticism scores (low emotional stability scores) are known to be associated with a heightened risk for developing mood and anxiety disorders such as depression and generalized anxiety disorder.