I was chatting with one of my daughters today about personality types because in the last couple of weeks, all of us (mom, dad and both girls) have taken a personality test called the Enneagram. For my daughter, we learned she is a classic reformer and of course, every type has good and not so good features.
Now, my daughter is still very young, only 16 years old, and so for the most part, she hasn’t picked up a lot of bad habits that come from years of trying to survive all the stress and conflict that life throws at us. Thankfully, she still has big dreams and approaches life full of hope and passion.
So I wondered what it would take to make sure my daughter’s life does not get on an unhealthy path because so many of us get to middle-age and realize we’ve never gotten any of our dreams and most have accepted the fact we probably never will. This led to a discussion about how to take advantage of the healthy parts of her personality type and how to keep the less healthy parts under control.
So, the main problem with reformers is that life is just not good enough, meaning every single day, they have a long and detailed list in their minds of all the things they need to fix. And they really feel like they have to do it all themselves because no one could ever do it as well as it needs to be done. I think it goes without saying this personality type can easily become annoyingly perfectionistic.
Now, if reformers become really unhealthy, they begin to take out their perfectionistic demands on everyone around them; then they also become unpopular and lonely, since no one wants to be around them for too long.
In 1965, Neil Simon wrote a play called the Odd Couple, which has been made into movies and television shows six times in the last 50 years; the most recent incarnation is a new TV series, launched in 2015, starring Matthew Perry as Oscar, the slob and Thomas Lennon as Felix, who is most definitely a perfectionistic reformer. Of course, the entire plot and corresponding humor revolves around the resulting conflicts between these two extreme and very unhealthy personality types.
But, of course, I don’t want that extreme and very unhealthy life for my daughter because if they are able to hang on to their mental health throughout life, reformers are awesome people. They are the ones who lead the charge to make positive change in the world.
Riso and Hudson report, “Reformers are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards. They can grow to be wise, discerning, realistic, noble and even morally heroic.” The last thing that I want is for my daughter to get tripped up by a need for perfectionism when she has such incredible potential in the world.
So, I began to look into how to help my daughter keep this troublesome side of herself under control without making her simply repress it, which would not be healthy either. Instead, I want her to have healthy ways to release the silent anger that often comes with this personality type, so it doesn’t show up as impatience, intolerance, judgment, criticism and annoyance at people and their habits when they don’t measure up to some imaginary, but still unrelenting standards.
So, we did some brainstorming and came up with some ideas that could really make a difference for her. First, we learned in our research that reformers think anger is a very bad thing. I asked my daughter about this and she said this is true. However, anger is not a bad thing at all; what is bad is when people act out their anger in destructive or violent ways. The real truth is that anger is a healthy secondary emotion often layered on top of fear or sadness.
You see, my daughter feels extreme sadness about all the injustice and inequality in the world. Because of this, she puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on herself to make the world a fair place for everyone. She believes in countless social justice causes and she fights for what is right. This is all good stuff and I would never want to take that away from her, but what I do want to keep away from her is the guilt that she feels about her anger, a common theme for reformers.
So the trick with my daughter and with anybody else who has this personality type is not to repress the anger with guilt or other destructive emotions and behaviors, but rather to honor the anger, make use of it sometimes and then release the rest.
So, today we came up with several strategies to help her honor the anger she feels at all the injustice in the world. We decided personal anger parties could be very useful indeed. My daughter thought that sounded like a fantastic idea and to that end, we generated three solid ideas, kind of like games played at bridal and baby showers.
First, I suggested that she create an anger journal and once a week or once a month, she could write out all the things that make her incredibly angry in the world. She could just take the time to write for about an hour or more or less about all the things in the world and in her private life that cause her frustration, annoyance and agitation because they are unjust or imperfect.
Then she could stop writing, tear out all the pages and go have a burning ritual; thereby allowing herself to let go of all the anger for awhile. Then, once it’s all built up again inside of her, she could do it all over again. Also, the burning ritual would make it so no one ever finds her angry writings, which could cause problems later in life if the journal was ever discovered.
The second idea was to get a bin full of Lego or mega blocks and always keep a bunch of small structures built and stored inside this bin. If she had 10 or 20 small structures built up, then during her anger party, she could smash them apart as a means of working out frustration. When I suggested this, I was actually just kidding around, but upon hearing it, she said that it sounded immensely satisfying and she wanted to do that.
In fact, there is a whole industry around the stress management strategy called “destruction therapy” and people actually go to junkyards and pay good money to be allowed to smash up cars and trucks that are destined to be squashed and melted down for recycling. These people get suited up in lots of safety gear, they are given big sledge hammers and then they are let loose on the poor, unsuspecting cars and trucks while loud, angry music plays.
Third, we talked about using self-created theatrical monologues to act out all her anger and frustration. She said she has already done this many times and wants to do it way more.
Of course, there are many more possible activities to do at a personal anger party, but these three are great starters.
Finally, we talked about the importance of having plenty of healthy hormones coursing through her bloodstream to help manage all this passion. Reformers need plenty of Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphins rather than the over-used Cortisol and Adrenaline.
When you have the level of passion typical of a reformer, it’s important to have plenty of the feel good, love, trust, and reward hormones on board rather than the hormones that keep you in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. Just because the world feels unjust, does not mean that my daughter and other reformers are in any physical danger; it’s not like she’s being chased by a grizzly bear every day.
However, her stress response system really doesn’t know the difference between the two scenarios and so all that passion can easily become a very destructive force for illness in her body when she continually overproduces unnecessary stress hormones.
So, if my aim is to help her use her personality type for good, then I must work hard to give her the tools and skills to keep it under control so it doesn’t get the better of her in the long run.