constellations #24: who even are you?
It can be shocking not to recognize yourself, in part or wholly, in someone’s description of you. I get that aftershock occasionally upon the compliment of a good friend — who, me?! in earnest — or from a jumped-to conclusion by an over-eager conversationalist. A few people have described this newsletter as “calming,” which has made me laugh. I find it incredibly flattering, to be clear; I just don’t see myself as a calm person, or by extension, someone who makes calm things.
OK, if not calm — What kind of person am I? I’ve been turning that question over a lot in my mind lately. I think it has to do with having been stuck in relative isolation over the past, you know, nine months. Being around different people brings out different parts of us, right, but the pandemic has meant being around fewer people but in more concentrated amounts — so maybe I’ve just been seeing a lot of one particular version of myself, and I’m not sure how much I trust it.
Psychologists — some of them, anyway — say that personality is arranged around the "Big Five" personality traits. According to this article they are:
extraversion: outgoing, assertive, and energetic vs. quiet and reserved
agreeableness: compassionate, respectful, and trusting vs. uncaring and argumentative
conscientiousness: orderly, hard-working, and responsible vs. disorganized and distractible
negative emotionality: prone to worry, sadness, and mood swings vs. calm and emotionally resilient
open-mindedness: intellectually curious, artistic, and imaginative vs. disinterested in art, beauty, and abstract ideas
I think I know where I fall on many of these — or at least, today, right now, as I’m sitting to write this. It feels hard to pin down all of them, all the time, though. I imagine which other traits could stand in for these “big five.” A tendency towards meaning-making vs. belief in chaos? Preference for hierarchy vs. cooperation? An orientation towards the past or the future? Why am I only proposing binaries?
Most of these psychologists argue that people don’t change their personalities suddenly, or all that much; small shifts happen over time, maybe, but year after year we act in predictable ways. Other psychologists, though, argue that the frame is wrong: We aren’t inherently stable; our circumstances are. We act the same way, do the same things, because our lives are mostly the same, day-to-day.
I’m not a psychologist and, of course, it’s just one frame. And the belief in an inherent personality feels, to me (and probably to a lot of these psychologists, too) complicated by a bunch of angles: class and race and gender and culture, etc. Am I quiet because that’s what’s expected of me as a woman? Am I organized because class privilege has afforded me the space and time to be? You get the idea.
Years ago, I remember my sister — who actually did study psychology and is now a mental health counselor — telling me about research that says that believing our personalities are changeable leads to greater personal happiness than believing they are fixed or inherent. This weekend I asked her (and my brother, who also studies the brain) if I was remembering what she said correctly. She said I was; my brother added that it’s a matter of personality as “internal, global, and stable vs. external, specific, and unstable.” As a lover of words, I appreciate his precision, even though I can’t at a glance parse what this means in a practical sense. There’s always more to learn, I guess — about ourselves, about learning, about how we learn about ourselves, etc.
Anyway, if this newsletter has ever calmed you, I’m grateful to know that. I hope you learn something nice about yourself this week. Here’s a song I’ve been digging lately. Take care.