Trait Conflicts and Finding Balance

Darrell’s avatar

“In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.” ― Thomas Szasz

A family of three: Mom, perhaps an Architect (INTJ), is a doctor. Dad, perhaps an Executive (ESTJ), manages a business office. They run a rational, orderly household and have created enough financial stability that sailing will be smooth the rest of their lives. And as though conceived by different parents, Junior, probably an Entertainer (ESFP), wants to be the next David Bowie – writing poetry, strumming guitar and hanging out at an indie coffee shop where youthful amateur talent thrives. He’s not doing as well as he might in school. Could this be taking the place of college and a sensible degree? Is this phase for real? Parental panic ensues. The result is too often harsh words and dire warnings. And Junior will return the salvo if he is in any way a typical teen.

We can spend a lot of time arguing about nature versus nurture as it applies to personality traits. But notwithstanding some fine arguments on the subject, we all know situations where an offspring doesn’t match the dominant traits of the family into which they’re born. Or someone has married into a family that’s not quite a temperamental fit. The scenario is enough of a universal theme that countless novels, movies and television shows have relied on personality clashes to move their plots along throughout their histories. While entertaining, some real-life mismatches can be trying, maybe even devastating, for a family. You may be in a similar position yourself.

And while, as a movie device, an inflexible parent or spouse might make a wonderful villain for the piece, in reality it’s more complex than that. People naturally assume the way they like to do things is always the best way. There’s a natural bias toward our own personality style being the most reasonable one. It’s the way that makes most sense to us, so, in our less guarded moments, we may consider it the only levelheaded thing to do. From this point of view, insisting on our own way isn’t always an act of selfishness. It can also be an expression of concern, love and even compassion, albeit a naïve one.

When there are dominant family traits and personality types, and there is a member (or more) out of sync with them, there is either conflict or understanding. Conflict is the result of a refusal to become acquainted with another person’s preferences and temperament or an unwillingness to accept the differences once they’re understood. Understanding speaks for itself, but it has to go beyond simply “getting it” to accepting or at least tolerating differences.

In our introductory example, it’s easy to see where Junior’s interests may be disconcerting when seen through the lens of the parents’ worldview. Even the thought of him leaning in a more artistic direction in high school might be a bit unsettling for them, anchored as they are in their more predictable lives. After all, life pursued as any kind of artist can be a tough one. Even a modicum of success is hard to find in that life. Creativity is often stereotyped as always coloring outside the lines. If mom and dad have seen too many movies about that, they may come to believe a musician’s life is automatically wild and full of dangerous abandon. That type of life would make no sense to them. In this case, any objection to Junior’s passion in life would be an expression of parental love and concern. And when you think about it, it beats neglect or indifference any day.

There are multiple combinations of clashing personality traits that families might endure. To try to catalog all of them here would be impractical. However, if you are in a household that harbors trait conflicts, nobody has to spell it out for you. It’s pretty obvious. Expressions of frustration abound and tension pretty much remains a constant. However, there are some basic starting points (reminders perhaps) that may help regardless of the specific nature of the clashes:

“I have found that winning isn’t everything, and, in fact, in the relationships I most care about, it isn’t anything.” ― Robert Brault

1) Know yourself. Having a solid understanding of one’s own personality can be the best first step to understanding those who have a different approach to the world. The more we know about ourselves, the better sense we get that we have characteristics that aren’t shared in the same way by everyone. It’s too easy to think that just because we’re one way, everyone else is or should be as well. We all intellectually know this isn’t true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we all embrace it fully. Knowing ourselves better and acknowledging our own unique traits helps us tolerate the differences in others. (If you haven’t already taken our personality test, this might be a good time.)

“All problems, though appearing outside of you, must be resolved within YOU.” ― Vivian Amis

2) Get rid of the “fix-it” mentality. There’s an old joke that goes:

Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One. But only if it wants to change.

A good therapist knows they only facilitate change; they don’t create it. That’s a healthy perspective to adopt when we find ourselves having a personality clash with someone we care about. We get into incredible trouble when we try to fix those we love rather than help them find their own way using their own style. There can be nothing more tragic than someone marrying another with the idea that one will repair the other once they are wed. The first idea that we need to let go of is that other people need to be fixed when they don’t approach life the same way we do. The second is that it is possible to fix them even if we ill-advisedly decide we should.

However, having said that, a parent/child interaction is a little different. Parents are teachers, guides and disciplinarians. They need to set rules and standards in the interest of raising a child to someday be a responsible adult. However, things will go a lot easier if the parents take the time to understand exactly what type of a child they have. The idea is not to understand so as to change them or fix them but to help them adapt their particular style so that they can survive and even thrive in the world. Children are like vines on trellises. We help them take shape by giving them some structure but then letting them find their own ways within it.

“The thinking at the epicenter of most human conflict: I’m right; you’re wrong.” ― Charles F. Glassman

3) Collaborate. Or at least adopt the spirit of collaboration.

There are no good or bad personality types. There are just types. A popular and feasible theory is that personality types evolved as humans did. We developed personality traits because we adapted to the need for different roles in our cultures – each role serving a purpose. We had the dreamers, the intellectuals, and the explorers, and a larger stabilizing group that made sure that the culture kept its feet on the ground. All played a part in the adaptations, advancements and well-being of society.

Use this evolutionary model when you think about your family and group. Each person in the group potentially brings something to the table. With acceptance rather than resistance, each person may have something to offer. It may even surprise you once you’re open to it. A fastidious person and a free spirit have much to offer each other. Among other things, the orderly one can help anchor the more spontaneous one, while the spontaneous one can bring an adventurous energy into the life of the orderly one. There are hundreds of ways that different personality traits can complement each other if we just look for them.

To some this may seem a bit mercenary. Is there no place for unconditional positive regard? Isn’t there respect due for just being human rather than for what they contribute? Sure there is. But that is not always something we can just conjure up out of nothing. The first step toward it is finding value in others on whatever level we might. Our goal here is to reduce conflict and foster acceptance. However, it’s great if some kind of unconditional positive regard blossoms at some point.

“Peace of mind is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” ― Scott Hawkins

4) See personality clashes as a tool for better understanding. Sometimes all it takes is stepping back, maintaining a little objectivity and avoiding personal attacks.

While it may seem wildly paradoxical, treating a personality conflict creatively and as an opportunity can widen everyone’s understanding. Nobody likes conflict. Nor should we go out of our way to create it. However, honestly trying to understand other family members’ differing points of view during trying times can help us expand our own.

While we never want to abandon who we are in order to please those around us, we can become a bit more fluid in our stances and try to be more accepting. In fact, it may be that the more fluid we are, the more universally relevant we become. Excessive rigidity doesn’t look good on anyone. But this kind of fluidity generally comes from actively seeking to understand others.

When you feel that tension that comes because of another’s personality, what about it is irritating or conflictual? Are they wrong or are they just different? Are we conflicted because there is going to be real damage done by the other person or because what they do just doesn’t sit well with who we are? Answering these and similar questions not only opens the doors to accepting family members for who they are, but they also help us understand ourselves better. There can be growth in learning to let go a little. Within a family or group context, asking these questions not only does a service to the person who doesn’t “fit,” but it also strengthens the whole unit.

It can be hard to accept our differences especially if we’re worried about those we care about. The key is to stay open, talk often and find out what makes those you care about tick. Remember, one of the first steps to adequately understanding others starts by understanding our unique selves.