In my work as a psychologist clients sometimes gasp and ask me “How did you know that? Can you read my mind?”
What I actually did in 90% of cases was relying on my superpower as a psychologist: recognising patterns.
In my training to become a psychodynamic psychotherapist, I’m being trained in different areas of pattern recognition. There are inner conflicts and defense mechanisms but the domain of patterns I want to help you understand in this post are recognizing personality styles.
We all have our own often-repeated ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving. Our personality is the source of our strengths and weaknesses. And it affects all key areas of our life: our relationships, work, emotions, self-control, and how we see the world.
Even though our personality is as unique as a fingerprint, clinicians and researchers have managed to identify a certain number of personality styles.
Being trained in recognising and understanding those personality styles has helped me understand both myself and my clients (and given me and them those moments that feel like *magic*).
In this post I want to introduce you to: you what personality is, what personality styles there are, how to recognize them, and share helpful resources.
But before we dive in: are you curious to learn more about your own personality style? Let me first tell you it’s tough to recognize our own personality style. Because, well, “fish don’t know they’re in water.” – David F. Wallace.
But luckily I found help.
My Favourite Personality Style Test
The NPSP25 is my favourite personality style test (use the code “AM10” to get 10% off).
It allows about normal people like you and I to understand our unique combination of personality styles. Making sense of our strengths, weaknesses, and unlock more of our potential.
I’d say it’s Myers-Briggs on steroids, although you can’t even compare it to the Myers-Briggs:
“The test was developed by a team headed by an academic psychiatrist who has served as the president of the American Psychiatric Association. It has been in use in professional settings for more than two decades.” – npsp25.com
You can get 10% off and support me with the coupon code “AM10” at checkout for the personality style test at NPSP25.com
Take a moment to see what comes to mind if you think about “personality”? Some might think about great personalities of our time or if you are a psychologist like me, you might think about personality disorders. But beyond those specific associations with “personality” really we all have one. We all have a personality but most of us don’t have any idea what that exactly is, why and how we develop it, and how it shows up in our feelings, behaviour and relationships.
The APA’s definition of personality is:
“…the enduring configuration of characteristics and behavior that comprises an individual’s unique adjustment to life, including major traits, interests, drives, values, self-concept, abilities, and emotional patterns.”
Personality is developed as a combination of genetics (which is what we often call temperament) and what the APA refers to as “adjustments to life”, the impact of our nurture, upbringing, and also our life and circumstances up until now.
This provides a beautiful first explanation of why we develop a personality: We adjust to life grounded in our natural temperamental tendencies. We do so to increase the chances of a good outcome for ourselves, we want to experience safety, love, autonomy, coherence, significance. Our personality becomes our vehicle to achieve just that through distinct patterns of emotional responses, ways of relating, defenses, solving inner conflicts, and more.
Per definition a personality is always unique because no one has the same genetics and development as someone else. But throughout the long history of clinical practice, there has been a recurrent collection of patterns that were summarised into distinct personality styles.
The number of personality styles differs by the source. But in this article I want to introduce you to an overview of personality styles from the book “The New Personality Self-Portrait”. (The same authors that made the NPSP25 personality test I talked about before! You can still get 10% off with the code “AM10”).
In this book the authors summarized 14 normal personality styles (that can become a disorder but that is not today’s topic). Each of those 14 styles affects key life domains such as relationships, work, emotions, self-control and how we see ourselves and the world. Each style brings specific strengths and weaknesses to the table. And because personality styles are so influential in key life areas, we better know what we’re dealing with.
14 Personality Styles
I want to give you a brief overview of each of the 14 personality styles (but only how they present and not how they come to be) so that you have some sort of an idea what they contain.
For understanding personality styles psychodynamically like I’m being trained to, it’s more important to know what is happening internally than what behaviors are visible from the outside. But this article would then be 600 pages, so I want to keep it short and therefore superficial for this time. Also if you want to learn more about the pathological side of personality styles and how they come to be, I’ll give two specific book recommendations for that at the end of this article.
To reiterate: you’ll likely see bits and pieces of you in many of these styles. That is to be expected. The pure styles described are more prototypes than what you’ll find in its pure form in real life. Also I’ll always include the pathological variant in brakes for those of you who are interested in that. You might be able to see how having different styles to a varying degree in your unique blend can be a beautiful balance and opportunity.
The first style I want to introduce you to is the conscientious style. If you want to achieve, you need to be conscientious. The conscientious personality style focuses on working hard, doing the right thing the right way, they’re both benefiting and suffering from their perfectionism. They are very reliable and loyal but might struggle with the fuzzy bits of intimacy, they’re not the hugely romantic type. And while their self-control is impressive, they find it hard to relax and make decisions. Because if they’re not working and doing the right thing, who are they?
Self-confident styles are the number one and star of the show. They are leaders who show ambition, don’t shy away from competition, and are the ones who most strive to make their dreams reality. They feel comfortable in the spotlight and have the charisma to draw people in. On the other hand, this style can have a temper, struggle with envy, be over-confident and not be aware enough of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities which can get them in all sorts of trouble.
People with a devoted style care. They value commitment and teamwork rather than doing it on their own. They cherish being together in harmony, get deeply attached and show a lot of consideration for others. On the other hand, they struggle taking on responsibility, they’d rather ask someone else or defer decision-making. Because they cherish harmony, the might be rather conflict-avoided, struggle to express anger or stand up for themselves in fear of losing attachment.
The dramatic style is all about excitement. They bring color, attention, and sexual attraction into their relationships. They’re passionate, the life of the party, and if they like you, you’ll know (and if they don’t like you, you’ll also know). Also the dramatic style requires attention and admiration and their moods can be quite dominant. They’re not that good with keeping track of mundane but important tasks (such as taxes, bills, chores) because they’re more drawn to the exciting colourful side of life.
The vigilant personality style is a survivor. They have an incredible awareness of their surroundings and are always on the lookout for what might be dangerous, out of place, strange. They always read between the lines and are particularly sensitive to someone not telling the whole truth, sending mixed messages, or hiding true intentions. Vigilant personalities are incredibly autonomous, alert, focused and precede with caution. They know when something is off and can protect themselves well. This makes them a wonderful social critic and watchdog but not an emotional, social, spontaneous lover.
The sensitive personality’s home is their castle. They love familiarity, privacy, clear roles, and to keep their circle small. They don’t need to find freedom in the big world out there but use their sense of imagination and curiosity to find it in their own minds (except if they are counter-phobic sensitive, which used to be one of my styles two years ago, then they also venture out into the world, just in their own calm and quiet ways). On the other hand, they struggle with new social settings where their partner or friend would have to take the lead. Plus they tend to worry more than others and are quite sensitive to criticism.
For the leisurely personality style, enjoying themselves is a priority. They won’t sacrifice their happiness beyond the obligations they have to fulfil. While conscientious personalities strive for perfection and self-confident ones for prestige, leisurely personalities couldn’t care less. They know the word “enough” and have no trouble relaxing and taking a break. On the other hand leisurely personalities struggle with procrastination. Also their complaining and sometimes passive-aggressively “forgetting” of things can bring them into trouble.
The adventurous personalities are explorers, doing the impossible. They push boundaries, takes on risks, and defy gravity. They value a good challenge, wanderlust and live a life of no regrets. To others, adventurous personalities can be absolutely inspiring but their intensity and need for independence can make commitment to a partner or boss difficult. They are generally not prone to anxiety and therefore need to pay attention to make safe and rational decisions that include the interest of others.
People with an idiosyncratic personality style march to their own drum. They feel at home in the world of metaphysics, mysticism, and the supernatural. They don’t require the approval of others, they are true originals and dreamers and create their own eccentric lifestyle. Therefore, they can have trouble navigating the real world and find it hard to compromise and adjust, which can cause difficulties to find a compatible job and partner.
People with a solitary style, are lone wolfs. They value reason, independence, and solitude. If they had to chose a philosophy, it would be Stoicism. They are not driven by emotional or sexual needs as others are and don’t care about the approval of the crowd. With their sense of clarity, they make great scientists, mathematicians, but also writers or filmmakers because they don’t get side-tracked by emotions as much as others. On the other hand, their difficulty to express emotions, tendency to retreat, and difficulty to commit can get in the way of a loving relationship.
The mercurial personality style lives out their emotional intensity in their relationships, in which they are passionate, spontaneous, energic, and reactive. They give their partner their all and need closeness and reciprocity. Because they need focused attachment, breakups are particularly hard on them. Their emotional intensity can be wonderfully fun and interesting but can also cause trouble in their intimate relationships.
If you had to chose one word for the self-sacrificing type it would be “altruistic”. They practice generosity, service, humility, and have no trouble putting themselves second. A self-sacrificing personality accepts others for who they are and thrive in their intimate relationships. While the self-sacrificing type is excellent at giving, they can struggle to receive and experience more resentment and sadness. They can also be quite naive in their evaluation of others and can more easily be taken advantage off by others.
People with an aggressive personality style want to be the boss. They are very sensitive to power, hierarchy, goals, and have no trouble being assertive. They take on responsibility and leadership as their second nature, just that they tend to put themselves and their needs first. They can thrive at work but struggle in their intimate relationships where they need to learn to let go of control while still controlling their temper.
The final personality style is the serious one. People with a serious personality style are realists. They are thinkers with a tendency to ruminate but certainly nobody’s fool. They are made for hard times, anticipate problems and are set up to deal with them. In relationships and at work they are reliable, steady, and hard-working. On the other hand, they can feel limited and struggle to invite fun and lightness into their lives with a lifestyle that is mostly grounded in a view of a glass half-empty.
Lastly, if you are a psychotherapist in training like me, I’d recommend you two other resources if you want to understand the pathological side of personality styles, meaning personality disorders, and dive into the psychodynamics of it.
First, I cannot recommend Nancy McWilliam’s Psychoanalytic Diagnosis enough. The way she describes the development and treatment of personality disorders is beyond helpful.
And if you want to start with a free article, I’d encourage you to check out Jonathan Shedler’s “The Personality Syndroms”.