Six Personality Patterns
The following six personality patterns are tied to an article on the best way to understand your child. Dr. James Dobson says you must first get behind the eyes of your child to see and experience the world as he does. Then see which of these six personality patterns best describes your child.
Six personality patterns, I believe, offer the most direct and accurate explanation of human behavior that I have seen. Most children adopt one or more of these avenues of defense. Each parent is encouraged to look through this set of patterns for the footprints of his or her own child, and while doing so, he or she might even find the sand-filled remnants of their own tracks.
One of the most common ways of dealing with inadequacy and inferiority is to surrender, completely and totally. The individual who chooses this approach has concluded in his own mind that he is inferior. He measures his worth and makes this reluctant admission: “Yes, it’s true! I am a failure, just as I feared. Even now people are laughing at me. Where can I hide?”
In the elementary grades they sit year after year in silence with eyes cast downward. Their peers know them as “shy” or “quiet” but seldom understand their true feelings. The withdrawing child is usually misjudged in two major ways:
- Quiet, reserved and unresponsive, he is frequently assumed to be stuck-up and snobbish. The child who is most overwhelmed with feelings of personal inferiority is blamed for thinking too highly of himself. How little we understand each other!
- Because the withdrawing individual seldom speaks, it is assumed that he isn’t thinking. Quite the opposite, this child’s mind whirls with thoughts and feelings just like everyone else’s. But this person has learned early that the safest defense is to keep the mouth shut. This strategy often backfires for a boy, who becomes the unprotected target of the local bully.
I believe we have much greater reason to be concerned about the withdrawing child (from a psychological point of view) than the more aggressive troublemaker. Children at both extremes often need adult intervention; but the surrenderer is much less likely to get it. He doesn’t bug anybody. He cooperates with the teacher and tries to avoid conflict with peers. But this quiet manner is dangerously misleading. Adults may fail to notice that a destructive self-image is rapidly solidifying and will never be pliable again. Considering all the alternative ways to cope with inferiority, withdrawal is probably the least effective and most painful. It is, in reality, no defense at all.
The identical feelings motivating one child to withdraw from society urge a more aggressive boy or girl to fight in response. Instead of surrendering to inferiority, like the withdrawing child, the fighter is angry, carries a chip on the shoulder and dares anyone to knock it off. He looks for any excuse to lash out, and his temper can be triggered by the most insignificant provocation. If he is tough enough to back up the threats, this kid becomes the terror of the playground. Later he may develop into a mean, temperamental malcontent, always looking for a hassle with somebody—anybody.
Although inferiority is always distressing, the fighter is less vulnerable to its impact than a withdrawing child. The fighter has a defense, even if it is an antisocial one. The realization of this creates the climate for a dramatic personality reversal during the early teen years. Not infrequently, a quiet, timid child will creep into adolescence as a cautious surrenderer. Having avoided conflict all through life, this child has suffered accordingly. Then during the natural antagonism of adolescence, he learns almost by accident that it hurts less to fight than withdraw. And suddenly, this shy, meek youngster becomes hostile and aggressive. Parents shake their heads in disbelief as their cooperative teenager declares total war on everyone in sight.
Another common way to deal with inferiority is to laugh it off. By making an enormous joke out of everything, the clown conceals the self-doubt that churns inside. A great many well-known comedians have turned this pattern into a life career.
Teachers are well acquainted with the clowns in the classroom. These skilled disrupters are usually (but not necessarily) boys. They often have reading or other academic problems, may be small in stature, and may do anything for a laugh (eat worms, risk expulsion from school, hang by one toe from a tree). Their parents are usually unappreciative of the humor and may never recognize that the clown, the fighter and the surrenderer have one important thing in common—feelings of inferiority.
I worked with the teacher of Jeff, a 7-year-old, who wore heavy leather gloves to school every day. He was rarely seen without his gloves, even on the warmest days. His teacher insisted that he remove the gloves in the classroom because he could scarcely hold a pencil with his thickly padded fingers. But the moment Jeff went to recess or lunch, the gloves reappeared. Jeff’s teacher could not understand the motive for this behavior. All through the school year Jeff had not wavered in his desire to wear those hot, cumbersome gloves.
In describing the problem the teacher casually alluded to the fact that Jeff was the only black child in a classroom filled with white children. His feelings suddenly seemed obvious. Wanting to be like everyone else, when wearing a long-sleeved shirt or coat, the only black skin Jeff could see was on his hands. By wearing the gloves, he hid the feature that marked him as different. He was, in effect, denying reality. He wanted to conform so badly that he denied the reality of his God-given difference.
One of the great myths in the U.S. is that we are a nation of rugged individualists. We really have ourselves fooled at this point. We like to think of ourselves as Abraham Lincoln, Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr.; standing tall and courageous in the face of social rejection. We are fooling ourselves. In truth we are a nation of social cowards. A major portion of our energy is expended in trying to be like everyone else, cringing in fear at true individuality.
Conformity, then, presents itself as the fifth personality pattern in response to inferiority. Those who adopt it may be social doormats, afraid to express their own opinions. They seem to be liked by everyone, regardless of the expense to their own convictions and beliefs. For adolescents, whom I’ve already described, the urge to conform dictates most of their activity for a period of 10 or more years. Accordingly, adolescent behavior is the most contagious phenomenon shared from one human being to another.
I have presented five common personality patterns that often develop to cope with feelings of inferiority. The selection of a particular pattern may not be a matter of personal choice. It has always been surprising for me to observe how rigidly society dictates which of the five approaches an individual is expected to pursue. “Everyone knows,” for example, that the fat person is supposed to be a jolly clown. It would seem strange to see a fat person fight or withdraw, because we’ve come to expect smiles on the faces of our fat friends. On the other hand, a redhead is told of his “hot temper” from early in life and is expected to be a fighter.
Each of us evaluates what we believe other people are thinking about us, and then we often play that prescribed role. This explains why we wear a very different “face” among different groups. A doctor may be an unsmiling professional with his patients, reserved and wise. They “see” their doctor in that mold, and the doctor fulfills their expectations. That evening, however, the doctor is reunited with former college friends who remember the post-adolescent screwball. So now the clown emerges. The patient would be amazed and would not recognize this persona.
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