Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

It’s been over 9 months since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.

The first 1–2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people I had left behind to have this experience—especially my old private practice jobs and the patients I had there.

Once I settled in, however, the following seven months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore. I am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can. I am developing some excellent friendships too.

About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back and curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.

Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot into every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted. My elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that my lifestyle was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, age, or environment.

Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means Port Vila operates much more leisurely than Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.

The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.

The moment I arrived back in Melbourne, however, I felt stressed again and tired shortly after that. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but many people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as possible because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.

People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers I did smile at or said hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like, “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”

Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. For example, people from Melbourne often expect Asia, South America, or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.

My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see many of my friends and family again, and I hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.

I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Importance of Sleep for Good Mental Health

Sleep difficulties are a feature of nearly every mental health difficulty, including depression, anxiety, trauma, substance use issues, bipolar disorder and psychosis or schizophrenia. Take Depression for example. Up to 90% of individuals with Depression have sleep difficulties, and two out of every three have significant enough sleep problems to also have a diagnosis of Insomnia.

alarm clock analogue bed bedroom

Worse still, Insomnia does not tend to go away on its own without appropriate treatment. This is because once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaving around sleep that make their problems worse over the long run.

Fortunately, there is a treatment out there that can improve your sleep. It’s called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), which directly targets these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours around sleep.

CBT-I is an effective treatment for insomnia, with many studies showing it to be similar to sleeping pills at improving sleep in the short-term, and much more effective than sleeping pills at improving sleep in the long-term.

Research shows that CBT-I consistently reduces the time taken to get to sleep, decreases the amount of time spent awake during the night, and improves sleep quality and efficiency, with improvements persisting after treatment finishes. This is unlike sleeping pills, which typically lead to sleep difficulties coming back once people with insomnia stop taking them.

Sleeping pills are also not recommended for use beyond 2-4 weeks at a time, because they stop working after a while and people need to take bigger doses over time to get the same effects. Sometimes doctors prescribe them more because they think they will work faster for patients, but even one session of CBT-I has been shown to make a significant difference to one’s sleep at night!

beach during sunset

CBT for Insomnia consists of four main components:

  1. Psychoeducation: This provides people with helpful information around sleep, including homeostatic pressure, circadian rhythms, hyper-arousal and sleep hygiene recommendations. Sleep hygiene means having a comfortable bedroom environment, minimising light exposure before bed, exercising during the day, minimising caffeine and alcohol and doing things to wind down or manage worries before bed.
  1. Sleep scheduling: This provides people with helpful information on when they should be going to bed at night, the time they should be arising from bed in the morning, and the ideal amount of time that they should be in bed for each night. Stimulus control and sleep restriction are the two main interventions included in sleep scheduling, and both are scientifically supported for improving sleep quality and sleep efficiency if done properly.
  1. Relaxation techniques: Because hyper-arousal plays a huge role in Insomnia, it is important to help people develop strategies to quieten the mind and calm the body, during the day, before bed and in bed. Relaxation techniques can include imagery training, meditation, biofeedback training, deep and slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
  1. Cognitive Therapy: This provides people with the skills to challenge their unhelpful or unrealistic beliefs about sleep. A lot of individuals with Insomnia attribute all of their tiredness, mood difficulties or poor performance at work to their sleep difficulties, and this puts too much pressure on them to get a good night’s sleep. It is therefore important to get them to see the other factors that may contribute to how they feel during the day, present them with data that challenges their fears, and help them to develop realistic expectations about their sleep.

In Vanuatu, there is currently only one psychologist located at the Mind Care Unit in Port Vila who is trained in CBT-I. Please come down to receive this effective treatment if you or a family member is struggling with poor sleep. Until then, there are other sleep strategies that you can try:

orange cat sleeping on white bed

BEST SLEEP INTERVENTIONS OVERALL

In 2017, Dr Damon Ashworth, Clinical Psychologist and Sleep Researcher, ran 26 two-week experiments on his sleep to determine which interventions were most helpful for him.

He gave each intervention a score out of 100, based on how effective he found the strategy (25 points), how easy it was to apply and use the strategy (25 points), and how much scientific evidence there was that showed that this strategy could improve sleep (50 points).

Here are all of the sleep interventions he tested, ranked from best to worst based on their overall score out of 100:

palm trees at night

High Distinction

  1. Stimulus control = 85/100
  2. Winding down before sleep = 85/100
  3. Sleep restriction = 81/100
  4. Relaxation strategies pre-sleep = 81/100

photo of a man sitting under the tree

Distinction

  1. Meditation = 77/100
  2. No alcohol = 75/100
  3. Wearing blue-light blocking glasses before sleep = 75/100
  4. Listening to music in the evening = 73/100
  5. Yoga/Pilates = 72/100
  6. Constructive worry or writing down plans = 71/100

white teddy bear with opened book photo

Credit

  1. Avoiding TV before bed = 69/100
  2. Melatonin = 68/100
  3. Aromatherapy = 68/100
  4. Sauna or hot bath in the evening = 68/100
  5. Morning sunlight = 65/100
  6. Reading or listening to audiobooks pre-sleep = 63/100
  7. Exercise during the day = 61/100

black ceramic tea cup on brown surface

Pass

  1. No caffeine = 58/100
  2. Food that helps sleep = 57/100
  3. Controlling temperature = 57/100
  4. Massage in the afternoon = 57/100
  5. Comfort of sleep surface = 56/100
  6. Sleeping alone = 53/100
  7. Creativity in the evening = 52/100

Sleep Recommendations

(Stepanski & Wyatt, 2003)
  1. Decrease time in bed – Sleep efficiency is a better predictor of satisfaction with sleep and daytime mood than total sleep time. So if you only get 7 hours of sleep per night, spend 7.5 hours of time in bed. This will allow for better sleep over time.
  2. Regular bedtime and arising time – Reducing variability in your sleep can make a huge difference in how long it takes you to get to sleep, how restful a sleep you have, and how refreshed you feel in the morning. Have a set bedtime, and whenever you feel sleepy around this time, go to bed. Then set an alarm so that you can wake up at the same time each day. If you want to sleep in on weekends, allow yourself no more than one hour later than you usually wake up. Following this regardless of how much sleep you get helps to strengthen your circadian rhythms and build up your homeostatic pressure to ensure better sleep over time.
  3. Exercise – Vigorous exercise prior to bedtime is actually unhelpful for sleep, but expending more energy during the day is likely to lead to better quality sleep at night. The earlier in the day it is done, the greater the effect it will have.
  4. Less caffeine and alcohol – Minimise these substances where possible, especially within 4 hours of bedtime as they both have significant effects on sleep quality. Alcohol can reduce worries and result in getting to sleep quicker, but results in poorer sleep quality in the second half of the night. Alcohol can also can lead to more snoring due to the loosening of the throat muscles. Caffeine boosts cortisol levels, a.k.a. stress, and results in less deep sleep and more awakenings.
  5. Do not try to sleep – It is something that has to come on naturally. The harder you try to get to sleep, the less likely you will be able to, as trying activates the autonomic nervous system, which also increase how stressed you feel. The more you allow yourself to relax, the more likely sleep is.
  6. Do not keep looking at your phone or alarm clock during the night – If your alarm is set, then there is no need to know the time in bed. This will only increase performance anxiety if you look and see that you have not slept for very long. Put it in a draw, cover it with a shirt, or face it the other way.
  7. Keep naps short – Napping during the day reduces your pressure for sleep by the time you get into bed at night. If you have to nap, keep it less than 30 minutes so that you don’t go into a deep sleep, and do it before 4pm so that sleep pressure can build up again by the time you go to bed that night.
  8. Engage in relaxing activities before bed – Just like waking up, going to sleep is a transitional process. Don’t expect that your mind will shut off immediately as soon as you get into bed. Whatever it is, do something relaxing as a pre-bed routine. Watch some T.V., read a book, listen to some music, have a hot bath, practice yoga, mindfulness or relaxation techniques. Then maintain that relaxed state in bed and allow sleep to come.
  9. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex – This means no reading, eating, internet surfing, game playing, phones, T.V., planning, worrying etc. in bed. Want bed = sleep.
  10. Make worry list before bed – To prevent your mind from racing in bed, reflect on the day about 2 hours before you want to sleep, write down any worries, concerns or problems you may have, create a to-do-list, or plan for the day ahead. Then if thoughts come up in bed, remind yourself that you have already sorted them out or that they can wait until tomorrow.
  11. Leave the bed if awake – Sometimes no matter what we try, you may find yourself awake in bed. If you do not fall to sleep within what feels like 20 minutes, get up, go to another room, and do something relaxing until you are sleepy before returning to bed. Over time, this will recondition the bed with sleepiness rather than frustration and allow you to fall asleep quickly. If you are worried that you may never sleep if this was the case, give it a try for a week. It may be the most difficult recommendation to follow initially, but it produces long-lasting results quickly.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Four Ultimate Concerns in Life

I’ve been afraid to say this for a while because of how it will be perceived, but my favourite book of all time is actually a textbook. So before you think that makes me someone you would never want to speak to, I’ll ask if you have ever read anything by Irvin Yalom, American Psychiatrist and Author?

His book ‘Existential Psychotherapy’ is a true masterpiece he worked on for 10 years and is written as eloquently as any of his other titles, including ‘When Nietzsche Wept’, the best fiction novel award winner in 1992.

What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Existentialism is the philosophical exploration of existential issues or questions about our existence that we don’t have an easy answer for. We all suffer from anxiety, despair, grief and loneliness at times in our lives. Existential Psychotherapy tries to understand what life and humanity are about.

In the book, Yalom explores what he considers to be our four most significant existential issues in life:

  1. Death
  2. Freedom
  3. Isolation
  4. Meaninglessness

These existential issues or ultimate concerns are “givens of existence” or “an inescapable part” of being an alive human in our world. He shows how these concerns develop over time, how we can run into problems with each of these issues, and what they might look like in patients coming to therapy. He also talks about how we can try to live with these concerns to negatively impact our lives less, even if we don’t have clear-cut solutions to them.

Let’s go through each of these ultimate concerns…

1. Death

Homo sapiens, or humans, as far as I know, are the only species in the animal kingdom that are aware that one day they are going to die.

The first time I heard this, it fascinated me and made me wonder if life would be more comfortable not being aware that one day we cease to exist.

Imagine it. Life is going well. Then suddenly, it is no more. No worry about what the future holds. We are born. We experience life. Then we are no longer there. No fear. Just nothingness.

Being aware that we will die shapes and influences our lives much more than we would like to admit. This is because so many of our anxieties and phobias at their core are fear of some loss or death.

Irvin Yalom says that while the actuality of death is the end of us, the idea of death can actually energise us.

If we don’t know when we will die, being in touch with the fact that one day everything will vanish is enough to overwhelm some people and make them panic.

For others, it is enough to make them follow the maxim of carpe diem and helps them to seize the day by appreciating everything they have so that they can make the most of the precious time they have left on this planet. Time is really just a bright spark of lightness between two identical and infinite periods of darkness — one before we are born and one after.

Death is the ultimate equaliser, for no matter how much we have achieved or done with our time on this planet, the truth is that we will all one day die.

It is also true that we will not know exactly when death will happen. It might be with a car accident tomorrow, from cancer in ten years, motor neurone disease in twenty years, a heart attack in thirty years, a stroke in forty years, or during our sleep in fifty years.

Because our knowledge of our inevitable death is so inescapable and hard to confront and deal with directly, we instead focus on smaller and more manageable worries or concerns in our lives that we can do something about if we want to. If we successfully address all these minor concerns, however, we then come in contact with our fear of death again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Most people tend to have one of two basic defence mechanisms against their fear of death:

A. They can think that they are “special” and that death will befall others but not them, and try to be an individual and experience anxiety about life.

Or

B. They can think they are an “ultimate rescuer” and try to fuse with others and experience anxiety about death (their own mortality and that of their loved ones).

A breakdown of either of these defences can give rise to psychological disorders:

  • narcissism or schizoid characteristics for the “special” defence, and
  • passive, dependent or masochistic characteristics for the “ultimate rescuer” defence.

In general, trying to be an individual is a more empowering and effective defence than fusing with others. Still, the breakdown of either can lead to pathological anxiety and/or depression.

The way to feel better about death anxiety is through an exercise called “disidentification”:

  1. To begin with, ask yourself the question “Who am I?” and write down every answer that you can think of.
  2. Then, take one answer at a time, and meditate on giving up this part of yourself, asking and reflecting on what it would be like to give up this part of yourself and your identity.
  3. Repeat this with all the other answers until you have gone through all of them.
  4. You have now disidentified yourself from all parts of your identity. See how you feel, and if there isn’t still a part of you, that feels separate from all the labels you give yourself. This provides comfort and reduces anxiety about death and life for a lot of people.

What I try to manage death anxiety is to only focus on whatever is most important to me that I can do something about in any given moment. I try to appreciate and be grateful for the time that I have had with each important person in my life. I try to be as fully present in the moment and with others as I can be. I try to use every moment and meeting as an opportunity to impact someone’s life positively. That way, I’ll hopefully not have too many regrets and be glad for the time I have had on this planet, no matter how long it ends up being.

2. Freedom

The second ultimate concern is about freedom, responsibility and will.

Every country in the world talks about fighting for the freedom of its citizens and about taking away some people’s freedom to ensure the safety and security of all. Therefore, the existential dilemma is how much freedom do we give up to others to feel safe and secure, or how much safety and security do we give up to feel genuinely free? Are these concepts in direct opposition, or is it sometimes possible to have enough of both?

Responsibility means taking full ownership of:

one’s own self, destiny, life predicament, feelings, and if such be the case, one’s own suffering” — Irvin Yalom

In the past, one’s life was set out for them by their parents or society, and many people struggled to fight for the right to live an authentic and genuine life.

These days, most people struggle instead with the amount of choice that they have in their lives. They come to therapy because they don’t know what they want to do or how to choose, given all of the available options. They also know that if no one else is telling them what to do, it is ultimately their responsibility if things do not work out the way they want them to. People wish to choose for themselves but fear not having someone to blame when things don’t work out.

There are various defences that we engage in to avoid responsibility and shield ourselves from freedom, including:

  • compulsivity
  • displacement of responsibility to another
  • denial of responsibility (“innocent victim” or “losing control”)
  • avoidance of autonomous behaviour, and
  • decisional pathology

We can do something over and over again to relieve anxiety or stop thinking about things. This can present as OCD, hoarding, or any addiction ranging from technology to drugs and alcohol and even dependency on others.

We can try to coerce others to make decisions for us or seek out and find controlling partners, bosses or friends. But, we can also play it safe and try to do what we think everyone else does; focus on keeping up with the Joneses, engaging in passive activities that don’t require much effort, and feeling stuck in an unfulfilling relationship or career.

The problem with giving up the responsibility for how our lives turn out is that it creates an external rather than an internal locus of control. Depression and other forms of psychological disorders are more highly correlated with an external locus of control. It can also lead to learned helplessness, where people no longer feel like they can do anything to change their life in a positive direction.

The way to manage the responsibility and freedom paradox is to develop an internal locus of control. This is generally more beneficial for most people’s well-being unless we blame ourselves or change things out of our control. This includes what has happened in the past, what other people do or say, and acts of nature.

The serenity prayer nicely spells out how we should approach responsibility:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

Paradoxical intention is a good antidote too. This means that we try to do the opposite of what we typically do for a period of time and keep an open mind and observe how things go. We can then see if the outcome is better than what we usually do or if it has taught us something about what will be best for us going forward.

Anything that creates a double bind is potentially helpful for encouraging people to take more responsibility in their lives. One way is to remind someone who struggles to make their own decisions that by not deciding, they are still making a choice not to choose. This means that no matter what they do, it is impossible not to make a decision that impacts the direction of their lives. Even if we choose to follow what someone else wants us to do, we still choose to do this. Therefore, why not take responsibility for our own lives and forge our own paths?

3. Isolation

There are three types of isolation:

“A. Interpersonal isolation: isolation from other individuals, experienced as loneliness

B. Intrapersonal isolation: parts of oneself are partitioned off from the self, and

C. Existential isolation:an unbridgeable gap between oneself and any other being.”

A common way that people try to escape from existential isolation is to fuse with another fully. This is also a strategy for dealing with death anxiety, with people trying to be the “ultimate rescuer” of someone else. It can lead to an individual feeling temporarily less alone. Unfortunately, however, the less isolated we are from others, sometimes the more isolated we are from ourselves.

Other people try to overcompensate for their feelings of isolation by never relying on anyone and trying to be fully independent. Both extremes can have negative consequences.

The main thing we can do to manage our feelings of isolation is to realise and accept that we are social creatures and have always relied on others to survive. This drive creates a desire to feel closer to, more understood, and more connected to people than we can ever achieve and sustain.

Growing up, many people feel loved and comforted in an unbalanced relationship towards their needs being met over their parents. They then try to reenact this within their adult relationships and usually end up feeling resentful, angry and disappointed as a result.

Yalom believes that a good relationship involves “needs-free love”, which is about loving someone else for their sake. This is opposed to “deficiency love”, a selfish love where we only think about how useful the other person may be to us. Creating a relationship where you want the best for the other person is a healthier way to manage interpersonal isolation than demanding for them to meet every need for you.

Some of the best solutions to intrapersonal isolation are to have time to get to know ourselves through practices such as journaling, therapy and meditation. Introverts may need to have more of this time than extroverts, so it’s important to tune into how agitated or lonely you feel to know if you have found the right balance or not.

Unfortunately, existential isolation cannot be fully breached, and therefore needs to be accepted, as it is out of our control. To feel the pain that comes with this isolation and our desire not to have it is challenging, but it can help reduce the intensity of the feeling. Being grateful for the meaningful connections we have in our lives and trying to strengthen them without losing our sense of self is another way to lessen the intensity of the feeling.

4. Meaninglessness

According to Yalom and many non-religious philosophers, humans are meaning-seeking creatures in a world without a universal sense of meaning. As a result of this, most of the world turn to a religious or spiritual belief system of one type or another that clearly lays out the meaning of the world and our purpose in it. People who truly believe these systems often provide a lot of clarity, reassurance, and guidance. The tricky part is that these belief systems can vary widely, and it is hard to know which one is more correct than another or if some of them are even harmful.

What we do know is that most belief systems tend to agree that

it is good to immerse oneself in the stream of life”.

People can try to find meaning through:

A. Hedonism: Seeking out pleasure and positive experiences and trying to avoid pain,

B. Altruism: Dedication towards a cause that helps other people, and

C. Creativity: Transcending oneself through art.

Many philosophers believe that both the search for pleasure and the search for meaning are paradoxical. By this, they mean that happiness and meaning or purpose in life are tough to achieve when they are aimed at directly, but possible if they are aimed at indirectly.

So if you or someone that you know is complaining about a lack of meaning in life, try to see if there are other issues. If possible, address these other issues first, and see if your worry about meaninglessness has lessened or gone away.

The best indirect way to increase a sense of purpose and meaning in life is to build kindness, curiosity and concern for others. This is often best done by helping out with a charity, joining a club, fighting for a cause, or attending a group activity or group therapy.

Yalom strongly believes that a desire to engage in life and satisfying relationships, work, spiritual and creative pursuits always exists within a person. Therefore, the key to managing meaninglessness is to remove the obstacles that prevent the individual from wholeheartedly engaging in the regular activities of life.

We may never be able to find the absolute meaning of life. However, what we can do is work at creating a life that is personally meaningful to us.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Which Archetype Are You?

Ever notice how any successful story throughout history tends to have a similar cast of characters?

If you haven’t bothered counting, I’ll let you know that most characters will fall into one of 12 principal roles, and this explains why and how we can find favourite stories so relatable. Carl Gustav Jung, a famous psychoanalyst, defined these characters and their journey as Archetypes.

What is an Archetype?

An archetype is something that symbolises primary human motivations, drives, desires and goals. It influences how one finds meaning in life, what one values, and personality characteristics. Most people tend to identify primarily with one archetype, although it can be a mix of a few different ones.

Below are the 12 archetypes, with a brief description below them:

If you’re a visionary, you value innovation above all else. You look for patterns in the ordinary and try to create order out of chaos. You are intuitive and tend to find it much more comfortable than others to predict trends and look into the future accurately. You love to exchange ideas, share your opinions, and try out new gadgets. But you also tend to overthink things or catastrophise if stressed and overwhelmed. When this happens, you need to retreat to somewhere secluded and/or scenic to once again focus on your next innovative idea that you would like to put into action.

The visionary archetype includes the designer, the detective, the director, the entrepreneur, the hermit, the futurist or the strategist.

If you’re a caregiver, you value being compassionate, caring and kind to others, especially your family and friends. You struggle to say no to people because you love to help out and give as much as you can. Burnout is a risk if you spread yourself too thin, however. You are easy to get along with, flexible to various situations, and always willing to do what is required to adapt to and fit in with others without losing your sense of self. Your favourite activities involve spending time with those you love, and you are the person that people call or talk to if they have been going through something tough or are in crisis.

The caregiver archetype tends to include the loving parent, the teacher, the nurse, the doctor, the best friend forever, the rescuer, the mentor, the healer, the veteran and the civil servant.

The royal wants power and to be in control. They love being a leader and the boss and love living the high life and the sense of entitlement that comes with this. The royal is not afraid to throw money at a problem so that it will go away and is willing to use their status, title or name to get what they want and feel that they deserve. Activities, holidays and clothes all need to be the best that money can buy.

Royal archetypes include the king, the queen, the prince or princess, the boss, the executive, the politician, the diva and the networker or social climber.

The performer is all about entertaining others and being the centre of attention, even at social and family gatherings. Like Lady Gaga, they live for the applause and moving others emotionally or making them laugh. The performer wants to be seen and believes that being dramatic and in the right places with the right people is the best way to achieve this.

The performer archetype includes the actor, the entertainer, the comedian, the clown or fool, the eccentric, the trickster, the storyteller, the spellcaster, the magician and the provocateur.

The spiritual person has their faith as the cornerstone of who they are. They are belief-driven and pray and seek for what they know to be true to come to fruition. They love to engage in yoga, meditation, and connecting with others on a deeper level and feel very connected with others and the world around them. The biggest trap for the spiritual person is magical thinking and not doing enough to take action and change the questionable things in their lives. They instead have hope and faith that things will work out the way they want, even when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

The spiritual archetype can include the shaman, the saint, the mystic, the guru, the angel, the missionary, the martyr, the disciple and the Samaritan.

The tastemaker values the beautiful nature of things above all else. They pay attention to trends, fashion and decor, and ensure that whatever they have is as aesthetically pleasing as possible. But, unlike the royal, they don’t assume that this is just about what is most decadent or expensive. A tastemaker loves to explore new restaurants, shops, technology and holiday spots. Their weakness is judging others who do not prioritise aesthetics as much as them.

The tastemaker archetype includes the fashionista, the goddess, the gentleman and the metrosexual.

The explorer loves adventure, exploring the world, and seeking excitement wherever they are. They are curious about everything new and things they are yet to encounter, and as a result, they fear commitment and being stuck in one spot or tied down by someone else in any way. The explorer feels drawn to things unseen and undiscovered and is willing to be practical about what it takes to live their lives in this way. They love meeting new people and immersing themselves in new cultures and experiences.

The explorer archetype includes the adventurer, the traveller, the seeker, the discoverer, the wanderer, the individualist, and the pioneer.

The advocate is always being a champion for a good cause and hoping that things will get better if they fight for what they believe in. They may tend to get too caught up personally in the cause but are willing to back up what they believe in by getting signatures for a petition, fundraising money for a campaign, or organising a protest. They also try to live their lives in a way that is consistent with their values and standing up for those less fortunate or those without a voice, such as flora and fauna.

The advocate archetype includes the hero, the environmentalist, the crusader, the vegan, the lawyer, the feminist, and the human rights advocate.

The Intellectual takes pride in their extensive knowledge about things that are important to them. They are always seeking new information and trying to apply it in a useful way to increase their wisdom. The intellectual can come across as a know-it-all, but they never feel like they have enough new things to learn. They love to spend time reading books and going to museums and are happy to impart their knowledge to anyone willing to listen.

The Intellectual archetype includes the philosopher, the student, the geek, the sage, the scientist, the theologian, the crone, the inventor, and the judge.

The rebel’s core values are justice and autonomy. They are fiercely independent and cannot be contained by the social niceties, order and dutifulness. They do what they want at all times, and like adventure and excitement, challenging convention and being deliberately provocative too. They are at risk of not thinking through the consequences of their decisions, and as a result, can overconsume drugs or alcohol or get into trouble with the law, at work, or with those closest to them.

Rebel archetypes include the warrior, the hedonist, Don Juan, the femme fatale and the wild man or wild woman.

The athlete lives for staying active, fit, and in shape. They love to compete in anything involving physical activity and are happiest when they have achieved a big, athletic goal. The athlete tends to turn everything into a competition, which can annoy others, but they are just as happy pushing themselves to improve their health and body. Clothing is worn for comfort and performance only, not aesthetics. The athlete loves to attend sporting events and is also happy to watch sport on the TV.

The Athlete archetype includes the competitor, the outdoorsman, the dancer, and the tomboy.

The creative loves being original and genuinely expressing themselves. The creative hates to repeat or copy what others have done before them. They are happiest creating something from nothing, and this may include a piece of art, but it could also be a meal, an outfit, a room in a house or even an idea. The creative tends to be a perfectionist, which can make it difficult to begin a new project. Once you get started, you tend to get into the zone until a project is complete or you need a break.

The creative archetype includes the artist, the chef, the child, the poet, the novelist, the shapeshifter and the romantic.

What Are Your Main Archetypes?

At archetypes.com, it’s possible to find out which archetypes you are most similar to. This may help you identify what journey you need to take in life or what areas may be best for you to focus on going forward. Included below are my results:

I’m pretty happy with these results and not surprised by my top 2, but I was surprised to see visionary my third highest archetype. I’ve never thought of myself as imaginative or innovative, but I do want the world to change for the better and am willing to do what I can to improve the mental health of others.

Based on these results, it’s apparent that I love to help others. Still, I need to be cautious about taking on excessive responsibility for others or feeling too guilty or inadequate when I can’t help as much as I would like to. I love to learn and be curious about new things, but I still need to be humble and understand that there’s still so much that I’ll never know. I also need to realise that not everyone wants to learn as I do, which is okay. Lastly, when I have an innovative idea, it is vital that I put this plan into action to make a real difference. I would also benefit from connecting with others and collaborating with the right people to help make these dreams a reality.

I know that archetypes and the test are not highly scientific, but I still found them useful to think about what story I am trying to live out and what values or principles I am being guided by. Caring for others, learning new things, and creating positive change is what I care about. What about you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

33 Thoughts About Turning 33

This will be an unfiltered post. No thinking things through. No edits. Just reflections on life, age, and anything else that pops into my head. Here goes nothing:

  1. Turning 33 feels weird.
  2. I feel old at times, especially in my body.
  3. I still feel like a child at other times, and I wonder whether I will ever feel like a proper adult.
  4. I can’t believe I have so much grey hair now.
  5. It’s strange to wonder where the time has gone.
  6. Yet when I think about it, I really have done a lot and had many amazing experiences in my time on this planet.
  7. I’m happier now than I have ever been before.
  8. We never really know how our life will turn out.
  9. I couldn’t have planned for what has occurred in my life, yet, amazingly, things have turned out the way they have.
  10. I’m excited about the future.
  11. I used to get scared about the idea of getting older, but I don’t anymore.
  12. I’ve stopped searching for the right answers these days and instead focus on asking and living the right questions.
  13. I don’t regret much from my past, even though some of it really sucked at the time.
  14. I still don’t fully understand people, even after I have studied psychology for 8 years, seen patients since 2010 and read over 200 psychology books.
  15. I will never fully understand myself or someone else, which is okay as long as I keep trying to learn and grow.
  16. 33 is a palindrome.
  17. When I was younger, I would have seen 33 years old as “really old” and “over the hill.”
  18. I thought that I would have been a parent by now.
  19. I am glad that I haven’t just tried to follow the crowd and live a traditional life.
  20. I used to think it was better to receive gifts from others, and now I can see how it is better to give.
  21. I worried and stressed way more than I needed to as a child.
  22. I focused on my body image and appearance way too much as a teenager.
  23. I’ve never really looked after myself that well regarding what I put into my body. This will eventually catch up to me if it hasn’t already.
  24. I’ve let go of being perfect, which feels great.
  25. Not everything happens for a reason, but we can learn something from everything that we go through.
  26. Everyone suffers in life to some degree.
  27. Everyone has baggage.
  28. Life isn’t about getting the best job, house, partner, but the best one for you and your lifestyle and values.
  29. No one truly knows what the future holds, and that is both exciting and scary.
  30. It’s much better to only focus on trying to change what is in my control.
  31. Having unconditional positive regard and compassion for others is tough to do but really rewarding if you can.
  32. Living an honest and ethical life is so much less tiring in the long run than being dishonest, self-centred and egotistical.
  33. There are many kind people out there, and being kind to others is the best way to see it.

Thanks for reading these last three years, and happy holidays to you all!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

It’s Okay to Still Fall into Life Traps… We All Do!

Life traps are self-defeating ways of perceiving, feeling about, interacting with oneself, others, and the world.

If you want to get a sense of what your life-traps may be, the book ‘Reinventing your life’ by Jeffrey Young is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy.

A Psychologist has much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas (life-traps), help you identify your most common traps, and show you what you can do both in therapy and outside of it whenever you realise that you have fallen into a trap.

My Life-traps

I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) three times to help identify my main life traps. The first time was at the beginning of 2014 when I was stuck in the middle of a complicated relationship while also trying to complete the last part of my Doctoral thesis and play basketball at a semi-professional level.

The second time was in April 2017, when I was in a Clinical Psychology job that I loved. I had also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level and played with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which was way more fun.

The most recent time was August 2018, where I had just finished up my work in private practice in Melbourne, Australia and was about to leave my friends and family to volunteer for two years in Port Vila, Vanuatu, as part of the Australian Volunteers Program (funded by the Australian Government).

I want to share these results with you to show you that:

  1. context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others,
  2. personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships, and the world can change, and
  3. Even though it is possible to grow and improve over time, we all still fall into traps at times, which is okay. It’s about identifying when you have fallen into a trap and then knowing what you need to do to get out of it.

When looking at the results, a 100% score would mean that I have answered every item for that life-trap a 6, which means that they describe me perfectly. The higher the % score, the more likely I will frequently fall into this life trap.

YSQ-L3
2014 Results 2017 Results 2018 Results
Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap
1. Subjugation – 75% 1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78% 1.Self-sacrifice – 60.78%
2. Dependence – 64.44% 2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14% 2. Emotional Deprivation – 59.26%
3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76% 3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85% 3. Punitiveness (self) – 50%
4. Approval seeking – 54.76% 4. Unrelenting Standards/ Hyper-criticalness – 48.96% 4. Subjugation – 50%
5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19% 5. Approval Seeking – 48.81% 5. Unrelenting standards – 43.75%
6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96% 6. Subjugation – 48.33% 6. Approval seeking – 41.67%
7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67% 7. Negativity/ Pessimism – 43.94% 7. Vulnerability to harm/illness – 40.28%
8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30% 8. Mistrust/ Abuse – 41.18% 8. Negativity/Pessimism – 39.39%
9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 41.11% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 38.89%
10. Abandonment – 41.18% 10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74% 10. Mistrust/Abuse – 37.25%

What’s Changed?

people riding canoe boat view from inside pipe

By looking at the table above, the green items indicate an improvement in comparison to the prior assessment, meaning that these life-traps are a little bit less powerful for me. The yellow indicates no change since the last assessment, and the red indicates a worse score, meaning that these life-traps may have a more powerful sway over me.

From 2014 to 2017, 7 out of the initial top-10 life-traps had improved, one stayed the same, and two had worsened. Two additional traps not included in the initial top 10 had worsened and made the list (Negativity/Pessimism & Mistrust/Abuse).

From 2017 to 2018, seven out of the 2017 top ten life traps had improved yet again, with one staying the same and two becoming worse. One additional trap (Vulnerability to harm/illness) had increased. Still, I believe this was due to the medical and safety briefings that I had been going through in the preparation of moving to Vanuatu for 2 years.

Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life trap in 2018 than in 2014 and 2017. For example, the average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017, it was 48.28%, and in 2018, it was 46.13%.

I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, only five in 2017, and none in 2018. This means that I am much less likely to get completely pushed around by my life traps. However, they still have some sway on me, especially the self-sacrifice and the emotional deprivation schemas, and to a lesser degree, punitiveness and subjugation.

Here is Young’s description of these schemas:

SELF-SACRIFICE: Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one’s own gratification. The most common reasons are: to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy. Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of.

EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: Expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others. The three major forms of deprivation are:

  1. Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.
  2. Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.
  3. Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.

SUBJUGATION: Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced — usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. The two major forms of subjugation are:

1. Subjugation of Needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires.

2. Subjugation of Emotions: Suppression of emotional expression, especially anger.

Subjugation usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a build up of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive-aggressive behaviour, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).

PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with oneself for not meeting one’s expectations or standards. Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with one’s feelings.

Three out of my top four life traps have improved since 2014, but emotional deprivation, unfortunately, continues to climb with each assessment. I think that self-sacrifice, subjugation, and emotional deprivation schemas may be common life traps for people who decide to become psychologists. The therapeutic relationship is meant to be one-sided and focused on the patient or client’s needs, not the psychologist’s needs. For this reason, psychologists must get their relational needs met outside of their job and get their own therapy if needed to ensure that they can have a space about them. I wonder how these life traps will continue to evolve over the next two years in Vanuatu…

How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?

The first step to changing anything is awareness. If you are not aware that you are falling into any traps, it means that you either don’t have any, or you are so enmeshed in your experience that you cannot see them.

Once you are aware of your traps, the next step is to understand them and why they occur for you. Most life traps originate in childhood typically, which is why most psychologists and psychiatrists will ask about your upbringing and your relationship with your parents in particular.

Life traps are actually considered to be adaptive ways of coping with maladaptive environments. This means that your life traps were probably quite useful in the particular family dynamic that you had, or you wouldn’t have developed them in the first place. For example, my family often called me a martyr when I was younger because it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality, it was just much more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge. Then if things didn’t work out, others couldn’t blame me. I saw it as a win-win but often didn’t get what I wanted because I didn’t speak up and then complained that my parents loved my siblings more, who were more than happy to speak up and ask for what they wanted.

However, once you move out of the family home, these coping methods are generally ineffective. They tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. If I keep playing the martyr and refuse to speak up as an adult, my needs still don’t get met. As a result, I may become excessively demanding of others as a counterattack measure (not likely for me), or I may try to escape from all relationships where I need to speak up about my needs. Either way, it keeps the life trap going, and it isn’t helpful.

I need to realise that there are relationships out there where it is beneficial for me to speak up, as people then know what I want and respond effectively to the situation at hand. It still doesn’t “feel right” when I think about telling others my wants or needs (and I’m not sure if it ever will), but I logically know that it is the best approach for me to take going forward. If I want to break free from my main life traps, I must learn to speak up reasonably when important to me (and others). By doing this, eventually, the life traps will become much less prevalent and less powerful too.

If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think you are getting anywhere, please seek a Psychologist with experience in Schema Therapy. Also, if you are stuck in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met, it could help too.

Learning about Schema Therapy and undergoing training in it has taught me more about my own personal life traps than anything else that I have done before and really does give me a sense of what my most significant challenges are going forward. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but there is still a long way to go, and that is okay. I know that I will continue to improve with acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection, and perseverance, and I am confident you can too!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

P.S. For a full description of the other 14 maladaptive schemas, please click here.

Change is Possible (and Inevitable)!

I haven’t announced it on my blog until now, but there have been many changes for me lately…

After an amazing five years of Clinical work at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre and Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services, I have decided to finish up and take on a brand new and exciting challenge.

On August 16th, I left Melbourne, Australia, and flew to Port Vila Vanuatu, where I will be living for the next two years. I will be taking on a volunteer role as part of the Australian Volunteers program funded by the Australian government.

The title of the role is Mental Health Specialist (Clinical Psychologist). I will be assisting the Ministry of Health in Vanuatu with implementing their National Mental Health Policy and Strategic Plan. While my exact role description remains vague, already I’ve met some great people, given a talk to Police Academy cadets about mental health, substance abuse and self-care, and assisted in the facilitation of a five-day training with 60 health care professionals, service providers and community leaders from all over the Shefa Province in Vanuatu.

I came over to Vanuatu hoping to implement effective ways to increase mental health awareness, reduce stigma and increase access to effective psychological interventions for anyone who could benefit from them. It looks like that process has already begun!

Finishing up with my clients and leaving behind my life in Australia has been hard, but it’s also helped me really appreciate what I have in my life in a way that I maybe wouldn’t have been able to without making this move. It’s really led to me reflecting on my life, in particular my last five years and the challenges I’ve been through, the amazing experiences I’ve had, and the people I’ve met along the way. I’ve changed and grown in many ways I couldn’t have imagined, and for that reason, I’ve decided to do a pre-departure assessment of where I am at on all of my favourite psychological assessments.

This article will focus on the changes to my character strengths over the last year. I’ve already compared them from 2013 to 2017. This looks at how they have changed since then. Positive psychologists believe that happiness can be sought out and fostered by discovering our natural character strengths and virtues and then putting them into action on a more regular basis.

My Top Character Strengths

I will present my 2018 results from 24th through to 1st, with the description from the authentic happiness website and the core virtue from the VIA character website. I will then display my previous survey rankings under each description:

24: Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith

Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme: having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2017: 23rd Average score = 23.5.

I do think that having a belief system about how things work in life is crucial to well-being, as is having a higher purpose and meaning in life. But, unfortunately, I don’t tend to see my spiritual beliefs as much of a strength.

23: Self-Regulation and Self-Control

You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2017: 24th Average score = 23.5.

I think it is pointless to try to control my emotions, as accepting them and trying to understand them has been much more fruitful for me than trying to control them. Trying to control my appetite is a different story, however. I’d love to be able to do it.

22: Bravery and Valour

You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.

Core Virtue: Courage

2017: 22nd Average score = 22.

I wish that this was more of a strength for me, but it is something that I struggle with. I admire others who are consistently courageous, and I continue to aspire towards it myself, but I find myself more cautious than I would like to be.

21: Humility and Modesty

You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2017: 19th Average score = 15.25. Overall rank = 19th

When I was younger, I struggled to be modest due to insecurities. This improved as I sought therapy and felt much more comfortable with myself. I try to be humble, but I believe that I have psychological skills and knowledge that can be useful to others.

20: Zest, Enthusiasm and Energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Core Virtue: Courage

2017: 20th Average score = 20.

I would love it if this were a greater strength for me, but low energy has unfortunately been a long-term issue. Maybe this will change in Vanuatu!

19: Teamwork, Citizenship and Loyalty

You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated teammate, you always do your share, and you work hard for the success of your group.

Core Virtue: Justice

2017: 21st Average score = 20.

I have played competitive sports since the age of five, and I am always happy to do what is needed to help the team win. However, even though my agreeableness and co-operation are extremely high, I probably don’t always see this strength.

18: Prudence, Caution and Discretion

You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2017: 17th Average score = 17.5.

My cautiousness levels are usually really high. Taking the risk of moving to Vanuatu is a big one, but I spoke to many previous volunteers before I left, and they all seemed to love it here. So far, I do too.

17: Perspective Wisdom

Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2017: 12th Average score = 14.5

This has gotten worse, but this could be related to my doubting how much I can pick up on how people really feel. I like to try and see things from others perspectives but prefer to clarify what someone thinks rather than assume that I already know.

16: Perseverance, Industry and Diligence

You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.

Core Virtue: Courage

2017: 10th Average score = 13.

This has dropped a little. I try to persevere with important projects, but my low energy and fatigue can get the better of me sometimes.

15: Gratitude

You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2017: 11th Average score = 13.25. Overall rank = 17th

My gratitude has dropped, but not because I don’t value it. A gratitude practice can do wonders for some people. For me, I try to do it whenever I am getting too caught up in all the little details of life or catastrophizing about something.

14: Leadership

You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.

Core Virtue: Justice

2017: 16th Average score = 8.75. Overall rank = 5th

Leadership used to be a key strength back in the day, but now I try to work in a much more collaborative way and seek first to understand where others are coming from and what they want rather than just telling them what to do.

13: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2017: 18th Average score = 15.5.

I’m glad that this has improved as much as it has over the past 14 months. Optimists tend to take more risks in life and experience better health in general. Sometimes caution is good, but not if it stops you from doing the things you really want in life.

12: Capacity to Love and Be Loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2017: 6th Average score = 9.

It’s interesting to see this drop so much over the last year. I wonder if it has to do with my guilt at leaving clients, family and friends in Australia when moving to Vanuatu. I would like it to go back up next time.

11: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2017: 9th Average score = 10.

I try to appreciate the natural beauty of life and love visiting national parks and going hiking. All the beaches and sunsets in Vanuatu are beautiful too, and it’s nice to sit on the balcony of where I live and have a great view of the water.

10: Social intelligence

You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2017: 13th Average score = 11.5.

This has improved too, but it is particularly tough to step into a new culture with Ni-Vanuatu, French, Chinese, and many other people in Port Vila. Engaging with them all regularly without fully knowing their cultural norms and mores is challenging, and I’m sure I’ll offend people without meaning. Nevertheless, I hope to become more familiar with all of this over the next two years.

9: Honesty, Authentic and Genuineness

You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.

Core Virtue: Courage

2017: 8th Average score = 8.5.

Authenticity is something that I value a lot. I strongly believe that more genuine and authentic people tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives, and being honest is so much easier than having to keep remembering what you said and who you said it to.

8: Forgiveness and Mercy

You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2017: 14th Average score = 11.

It’s nice that this has improved. I do want to forgive those who have erred and have done wrong towards me, as I understand the benefits of this type of forgiveness.

7: Fairness, Equity and Justice

Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.

Core Virtue: Justice

2017: 4th Average score = 5.5.

Being a middle child influenced my focus on fairness and equality growing up, as I always felt my older brother could do more than me, and my younger sister never had to do anything. I remember creating rules to make sure things were as fair as possible and have continued to stand up for people who are not given equal treatment or legal rights since then.

6: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality

Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2017: 7th Average score = 6.5.

Being original and non-conventional was quite important to me while growing up, but I took a back seat when I married and bought a house in the suburbs. Then, I realised the traditional life was not right for me, and I strongly advocate for you to do what is right for you rather than just going along with familial or societal pressures.

5: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness

Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2017: 2nd Average score = 3.5.

This has decreased a little bit since 2017 but is ahead of where it was in 2013. I am glad that it is still in my top 5, as I value changing my mind over time, especially when there is evidence contrary to what I previously believed.

4: Humour and Playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2017: 15th Average score = 9.5

I love stand up comedy and have always wished that I was more playful than I have typically been. It’s so refreshing to see how much this has jumped over the past year and how it is now one of my key character strengths.

3: Kindness and Generosity

You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favor. You enjoy doing good deeds for others, even if you do not know them well.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2017: 5th Average score = 4.

Doing the random acts of kindness challenge in January 2018 was a nice way to increase this. Volunteering is also a way to be kind and generous with my time and clinical skills.

2: Curiosity and Interest in the World

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2017: 3 Average score = 2.5

This has never been a key character strength for me until 2017. However, over the past few years, I have become less concerned with my personal issues and much more interested in making a lasting difference on a larger scale.

1: Love of Learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2017: 1st Average score = 1.

This was definitely NOT a strength of mine back in school. Up until 3rd grade, I loved learning new things. Then I stopped reading for fun and put my energy into sport and video games. However, once I began studying for my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, I re-found my love of learning new things, and haven’t stopped since then!. I’ve read over 70 books already this year, and my thirst for new knowledge on how people can improve their mental health and overall well-being seems insatiable.

Can Our Key Strengths Change?

A key strength is what you would put in your top 5 strengths. Fairness, equity and justice have dropped out of my top 5, and humour and playfulness have climbed in. I became more hopeful, forgiving, and socially intelligent over the past year, although these are still not considered key strengths of mine. If all of this means I am getting back to being a little less serious and having some more fun over the past year, I’m pretty happy with the changes I’ve made and the overall direction I’m heading!

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

Wisdom — 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 17th. Average score = 6.2

Humanity — 3rd, 10th, 12th. Average score = 8.33

Justice — 7th, 14th, 19th. Average score = 13.33

Transcendence — 4th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 24th. Average score = 13.4

Courage — 9th, 16th, 20th, 22nd. Average score = 16.75

Temperance 8th, 18th, 21st, 23rd. Average score = 17.5

My transcendence scores improved the most, with my wisdom dropping slightly over the past year but still holding onto the top spot. I’d love for courage to improve more by the next time I do the test.

Does It Matter Which Strengths We Have?

Maybe. What is most important is that we are aware of our individual key strengths and that we can put these character strengths into action as often as possible.

Seeing that our strengths can change over time, it is worth looking at if some character strengths predict a higher level of well-being than others. In the excellent book ‘Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life’, Dr Todd Kashdan (2009) found that curiosity was one of the five strengths most highly associated with:

  • meaning
  • engagement
  • pleasure
  • satisfaction in one’s work, and
  • happiness in life.

In research conducted by Seligman and Peterson (2004), the only strengths rated higher than curiosity for being substantially related to satisfaction in life were hope, zest and gratitude. The other strength in the top 5 was capacity to love and be loved.

Only curiosity is in my top 5 (at #2), so either I try to build more hope, zest, gratitude or love in my life, or I accept that this is currently my strengths and aim to put them into practice on a more regular basis.

What do you think? Should we all try to have the same strengths that have been linked with increased life satisfaction on average, or should we put our own unique strengths into action more?

Even better, why don’t you find out what your key strengths are by taking the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA character website, and then let me know what your key character strengths are and if you would prefer for other items to be in your top 5!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

How Much Could You Change Your Personality in a Year?

In April 2017, I looked at how my personality changed from 2011 to 2017 on the IPIP-NEO, my favourite free online personality test (see the website personality assessor and choose the IPIP-120 if you are interested in taking it). So I wrote this up for the article: Is it possible to change your personality?

Before April 2017, I had never really looked at how my personality changed over time — I was looking at how I rated myself compared to other males of my age from Australia. I then recently read Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 rules for life, and my favourite rule was #4:

“Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today.”

After reading this book, I thought it would be a good time to go back and see how my personality has changed over the past 15 months since I last took the IPIP-120. Of course, I already know that my psychological, emotional, spiritual, and workplace self-care have improved this year, but do these changes also contribute to positive personality changes? Let’s find out…

My Personality Assessment Results From April 2017 — August 2018

The IPIP-120 results below are from April 12th 2017, to August 1st 2018, with the description of each factor and facet written underneath it copied or paraphrased from the reports found at personality assessor.

The Factor or Facet will be presented first, followed by a series of …, then the 2017 percentile score results, which are surrounded by ( ), then the 2018 results, which are not in any brackets or parentheses.

Extraversion…………… (48) — 74

I am high in Extraversion. Extraverts are sociable and like to take risks and feel lots of positive emotions.

This change is interesting to me. I agree that I have been focusing on connecting with others more and have been feeling more energetic recently, but I am still surprised to see this factor increase. I find socialising with others quite tiring after a while, and I often need time to unwind and recharge.

The six facets of extraversion are:

Friendliness…………… (58) — 88

I’m very high in my desire to be around other people and show an interest in their lives.

This has increased a lot over the past 15 months. I value quality time more than quantity time when it comes to spending time with friends but have realised just how important connection and belonging is for overall health and well-being.

Gregariousness……… (42) — 77

I’m very high in flocking toward other people and being talkative and sociable around them.

I am much more comfortable having downtime by myself or with one or two people these days, rather than going out to clubs or big parties or festivals. Even so, this increase over the past 15 months supports my resurgence towards being more sociable again like I was when I was younger.

Assertiveness………… (13) — 34

I’m more assertive than I used to be with others, but there is still a low chance that I’ll take charge and lead others.

I have begun to speak up more for myself and express my needs better over the past 15 months. However, I still prefer to help people be the person they want to be, rather than try to lead them or tell them who I think they should be.

Activity Level………… (79) — 90

I prefer very high levels of activity, such as being on the go and staying busy.

This has increased over the last 15 months and may indicate that I am feeling more energetic or that I am currently rushing around too much and trying to do too many things all at once. I hope that if it is the latter that I manage to slow down, relax more and be more mindful of this going forward.

Excitement-Seeking… (87) — 81

I like to seek very high levels of thrills.

This has decreased a little over the past 15 months, which indicates that I have increased the amount of excitement I have in my life and enjoy it when I experience it.

Cheerfulness………… (54) — 70

I experience high levels of happiness, joy, and other positive emotions.

This is a great improvement and indicates that the regular mindfulness, gratitude, savouring and reflective practices I have been engaging in make a positive difference for me. I am also finding it easier to express positive emotions with others, including love, hope and excitement.

Agreeableness…………… (89) — 90

I am very high in agreeableness. Highly agreeable people tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people.

This hasn’t changed much over the past 15 months. However, I don’t think it needs to be any higher either, as there could be some negatives with being too agreeable all the time.

The six facets of agreeableness are:

Trust……………… (89) — 90

I’m very high in believing that other people are generally good and not out to harm others.

Given a choice, I’d always rather give people the benefit of the doubt, to begin with, until I see evidence to the contrary. This is better than distrusting everyone except for those who prove themselves to me. If you believe others to be good and portray this in your dealings with them, it gives most people a reputation that they’ll want to uphold.

Morality………… (65) — 79

Sticking to the rules and treating everyone fairly is of very high value to me these days.

Reading the essay “Lying” by Sam Harris really helped highlight the importance of being honest or not lying to people. It’s also Jordan Peterson’s 8th rule for life. The more straightforward and congruent we can be with others, the better outcomes and connections we will have. Unfortunately, secrecy often creates a chasm that can be difficult to bridge, and having to remember which lies you told to which people is just too tiring.

Altruism………… (85) — 90

I am very high in wanting to be good to other people, including helping them when they need it.

This has continued to increase over time, which is great to see. The more people I can help with the time that I have, the better, as far as I can see. It could lead to burnout if I don’t look after myself too, but generally, kindness has more positive health benefits than negative in the long run.

Cooperation…… (99) — 99

There are extremely high chances that I’ll try to get along with other people.

This has remained as high as it can be. So that means that if you have an issue with me or something that I have written and want to try to sort it out, please do contact me. I will do my best to try to resolve it in whatever way I can.

Modesty………… (71) — 44

I have about average levels of modesty, which means that I don’t like to brag or show off too much because these behaviours can be harmful to relationships.

Too high a modesty can sometimes mean low self-esteem, and the drop in this score indicates a greater level of self-confidence. I hope it doesn’t swing too far, but it’s nice not to see myself as any better or worse than anyone else.

Sympathy………… (84) — 76

I have very high levels of sympathy for other people, including caring about them and wanting what’s best for them.

This has dropped a little bit over the last 15 months. I think it’s better to be empathetic (“I will try to feel and understand what you feel”) rather than sympathetic (“I feel bad or sorry for you”). I definitely care about others and want the best for others, but I never want to come from a position of superiority.

Conscientiousness…………… (70) — 74

I am high in conscientiousness. Highly conscientious people are diligent, hard-working, and responsible.

This is the highest that my conscientiousness has been in the 6 times I have taken the test since 2011. In the book “The Longevity Project”, which tracked individuals across 80 years to look at factors influencing healthy ageing, conscientiousness was the only personality variable associated with longer and healthier lives.

The six facets of conscientiousness are:

Self-Efficacy………… (62) — 77

When I need to do something, I have a very high level of belief that I can get it done and do it well.

This has increased quite a bit over the past 15 months and has been boosted by the various challenges that I have taken on.

Orderliness……… (80) — 88

I prefer very high levels of cleanliness and order in my environment.

It wasn’t that I didn’t prefer this in 2011 and before that, but that I really struggled to stay organised with everything. Doing a Doctoral degree definitely helped with this, as did having a very organised partner in 2014 and reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen.

Dutifulness……… (27) — 28

I’m low in sticking to my word, keeping my promises, and upholding my obligations.

As bad as this description makes it sound, I am actually happy that I do fewer things out of a sense of duty or obligations these days. I am more likely to tune in and figure out if something is consistent with my values and my best long-term interests before committing to something or just saying yes and then later regretting it. It means that resentment is less likely to build up for me because I am doing what I want, not what others want me to do.

Achievement-Striving… (88) — 79

I have a very high desire to work hard and get ahead.

This has dropped a little over the last 15 months, and this is because I now see just how important social connection and relationship warmth is for long term health and happiness.

Self-Discipline………. (49) — 69

I have above average self-discipline — which is the ability to get to work quickly, stay focused, and avoid distractions or procrastination.

I’m super happy that this has improved over the past 15 months. After not making videos for most of 2017, I created 31 videos for my youtube channel in 2018. I’ve also been able to stick with some of the challenges I have set for myself this year.

Cautiousness……… (89) — 88

The odds are extremely low that I’ll jump into things without really thinking them through.

This hasn’t changed much over the years, and I continue to spend high amounts of time planning what to do. I probably would benefit by being a bit more spontaneous at times with less important things and getting into more productive action as soon as I know what the right path is for me to take.

Neuroticism…………… (29) — 13

I am very low in Neuroticism. This means that I experience low levels of negative emotions, like anger, fear, and stress.

The six facets of neuroticism are:

Anxiety…………… (25) — 6

Compared with other people, I have extremely low stress, fears, and worries about the future.

This is the lowest that my anxiety score has ever been. I now feel much more resilient, which means that no matter what comes my way in the future, I have a strong feeling that I’ll be okay and that I will be able to figure out how to get through it.

Anger………………… (7) — 8

My levels of anger and irritability are extremely low.

This has increased slightly since 2011, so I am now more aware of when I feel resentful, irritable, frustrated, or angry. I basically never lose my cool but can identify what does tick me off much more than I used to, which helps me stand up for myself.

Depression……… (10) — 9

Compared with other people, I now feel extremely low amounts of sadness and like myself to a high degree.

This has continued to improve over the years’ thanks to much psychological therapy, better relationships and ongoing self-improvement.

Self-Consciousness… (71) — 50

I like to draw very low levels of attention to myself and feel high amounts of unease when interacting with others socially (especially strangers).

I have been drawing more attention to myself over the last few years through blogs, podcasts and videos, making me feel a bit self-conscious at times. However, if it helps even one person, it is worth putting my ideas out there, even if it is scary.

Immoderation…… (46) — 32

I have average self-control when it comes to resisting temptations; there are about average chances that I’ll give in to my desires and binge (on shopping, eating, drinking, or whatever my vices are).

This has decreased a bit over the past 15 months, which is consistent with my increase in self-discipline. I’ve been saving a lot more money lately and making less impulsive choices in what I buy. Having a mortgage to pay off now does help, too, especially with an offset account that I put all my money into every month. It leads to a sensation of less disposable income that I have to waste on whatever I feel like at the moment.

Vulnerability…… (45) — 14

The chances that I’ll be overwhelmed by difficult circumstances are about average.

This has decreased heaps over the last year. Similar to the anxiety drop, I feel less under threat and more resilient no matter what occurs.

Openness to experience…… (93) — 95

I am extremely high in openness to experience, and increasingly so over the past seven years. Openness is a broad, diffuse personality dimension with many seemingly different facets. In general, highly open people like various new experiences, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or cultural.

The six facets of openness are:

Imagination………… (15) — 14

I have very low imagination and therefore tend not to use it too much to escape reality or daydream.

This has continued to decrease over time. I tend to stick more to the facts of a situation and how I can improve it than wistfully imagine that it will fix itself or that I will win the lottery.

Artistic Interests…… (69) — 71

I have high openness for art, music, culture and other aesthetic experiences.

This has been consistent over the years, especially my love of music, movies, good TV shows and reading.

Emotionality……… (89) — 90

My attunement to my own and others’ emotions are very high. Whereas cheerfulness and excitement seeking (facets of extraversion) capture my propensity to feel positive emotions and neuroticism capture my propensity to feel negative emotions, emotionality refers to my overall openness to/desire to truly feel emotions.

This has improved a lot since 2011, and regular mindfulness meditation has helped a lot.

Adventurousness…… (90) — 95

I prefer very high amounts of variety and new experiences in my life and have a very high openness to new experiences.

This has increased even more over the last 15 months and comes out in my love of travel, learning new things, and taking on new challenges.

Intellect…………… (90) — 89

My desire to play with ideas, reflect on philosophical concepts, and have deep discussions is very high.

I love to read widely and am willing to have interesting conversations about anything, even if they disagree with my viewpoint. Learning about different cultures and their different expectations and belief systems is especially interesting to me and something I look forward to doing more of in the future.

Liberalism………… (97) — 97

My political liberalism is extremely high, and my political conservatism is extremely low. I desire progressive change.

I fully believe that everyone should be free to live the right life for themselves as long as it doesn’t harm others. Therefore, I believe that governments should help guide people to make healthier choices but still allow them to do what they want.

Which Areas Changed the Most?

The two factors that changed the most were extraversion (26 percentile point increase) and neuroticism (16 percentile point decrease) over the past 15 months. The biggest facet changes for extraversion were an improvement in gregariousness (35 point increase), friendliness (30 points) and assertiveness (21 points). The biggest facet changes for neuroticism were a reduction in vulnerability (31 point decrease), self-consciousness (21 points) and anxiousness (19 points).

I also became less modest (27 point decrease), more self-disciplined (20 point increase), more self-efficacious (15 points), and more moral (14 points).

Which Areas Stayed the Same?

The other three factors barely changed, including Conscientiousness (a 4 point increase), Openness to Experience (a 2 point increase) and Agreeableness (a 1 point increase).

Only two facets didn’t change at all — co-operation and liberalism (both very high). Trust, dutifulness, anger, depression, imagination, emotionality, and intellect only changed one percentile point, and four other facets changed less than five percentile points.

In all, 18 facets changed less than 10 percentile points from 15 months ago, and 12 changed more than 10 percentile points.

What do I recommend?

If you have been trying to change something for a long time and haven’t been able to, maybe it is worth seeing if you can accept and embrace this quality about yourself, or if you can at least see some of the positives that come with it.

If there are things about yourself that you would like to improve, seek out people who seem to do these things well, and learn from them what you can. If you don’t have anyone in your life who represents these qualities, a book, Youtube and many other online resources are now available to help give you the skills, knowledge, motivation, perseverance and ongoing support that is required for successful long-term change.

I’ve either accepted or changed many things about myself over the past seven years and am now much happier with the person I am. I wish you all the same too.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Can Your Personality Type Change Across Time?

I tried out a new personality test website the other day called 16 personalities. I came up as an Advocate or an INFJ-A. This is a Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) type personality test for those who aren’t familiar with the letters:

  • The I means I am an introvert (63%) more than an extrovert (37%) and can “get exhausted by social interactions”. It also means that I recharge my energy through solitary activities.
  • The N means I am intuitive (58%) rather than sensing or observant (42%) and that I am “very imaginative, open-minded and curious”. Intuitive individuals “prefer novelty over stability and focus on hidden meanings and future possibilities”.
  • The F means that I am feeling (72%) rather than thinking (28%) and am “sensitive and emotionally expressive”. Feeling individuals are “more empathic and less competitive than Thinking types, focusing on social harmony and co-operation”.
  • The J means that I am judging (60%) rather than perceiving or prospecting (40%). This means that I “approach work, planning and decision making” in a “decisive, thorough, and highly organised” way. Judging individuals “value clarity, predictability and closure, preferring structure and planning to spontaneity”.
  • The A means that I am assertive (65%) rather than turbulent (35%). Assertive individuals are “self-assured, even-tempered and resistant to stress. They refuse to worry too much and do not push themselves too hard when it comes to achieving goals”.

HOW HAS MY PERSONALITY CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

Interestingly, I have taken the MBTI on several occasions and have achieved very different results. Way back before I sought any personal therapy, about 10 years ago, I was an ENTJ, which is a Commander. This does not seem to fit me anymore, but it did back then when I was much more competitive and egotistical. I was young and thought I had it all figured out. My father called me “un-coachable” when he was my basketball coach for 2 seasons, which isn’t great news. It might explain why I have one of the ugliest jump shots going around and no range from outside the key.

I became an ENFJ when I took the test about 5 years ago, which is sometimes referred to as a Protagonist. It meant that I was still an extrovert, but I had switched from thinking to a feeling subtype. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to fit me too much anymore, as I really don’t try to lead others. Instead, I try to help them understand themselves and become the person they want to be, not who I think they should be.

IS IT WORTH COMPLETING A PERSONALITY TEST?

Normally, I’ve been fairly dismissive of the MBTI, as it doesn’t have much scientific evidence supporting it. However, the description of the Advocate personality type on the 16personalities website was creepily spot on in some regards for me, including:

INFJs are not idle dreamers, but people capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact.”

INFJs tend to see helping others as their purpose in life, but while people with this personality type can be found engaging rescue efforts and doing charity work, their real passion is to get to the heart of the issue so that I need not rescue people at all.

It makes sense that their friends and colleagues will come to think of them as quiet Extraverted types, but they would all do well to remember that INFJs need time alone to decompress and recharge and not to become too alarmed when they suddenly withdraw.

The passion of their convictions is perfectly capable of carrying them past their breaking point, and if their zeal gets out of hand, they can find themselves exhausted, unhealthy and stressed.

One of the things INFJs find most important is establishing genuine, deep connections with the people they care about.

There is a running theme with INFJs, and that is a yearning for authenticity and sincerity — in their activities, their romantic relationships, and their friendships.

INFJs seek out people who share their passions, interests and ideologies, people with whom they can explore philosophies and subjects that they believe are truly meaningful.

“People with the INFJ personality type make loyal and supportive companions, encouraging growth and life-enriching experiences with warmth, excitement and care.

“INFJs don’t require a great deal of day-to-day attention — for them, quality trumps quantity every time.

First and foremost, INFJs need to find meaning in their work, to know that they are helping and connecting with people. This desire to help and connect makes careers in healthcare, especially the more holistic varieties, advantageous for INFJs — roles as counsellors, psychologists, doctors, life coaches and spiritual guides are all attractive options.

INFJs crave creativity too, the ability to use their insight to connect events and situations, effecting real change in others’ lives personally.

INFJs often pursue expressive careers such as writing, elegant communicators that they are, and author many popular blogs, stories and screenplays. Music, photography, design and art are viable options too, and they all can focus on deeper themes of personal growth, morality and spirituality.

Other people may disagree with me, but these quotes were consistent with how I’d like to see myself and what I truly value in life.

RECOMMENDATION

If you’ve never taken an MBTI personality test before, check it out at 16personalities.com and let me know if it was as accurate for you as it was for me. If you’ve already taken it, I’d love to hear about if it has changed over time and if your description now feels more accurate than how it defined you in the past?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

How Do You Deal With Your Problems?

Throughout my schooling years, I was a horrible procrastinator. I would leave everything to the last minute, sometimes even having to take a day off high school to finish an assignment that was meant to be due that day.

Once I got to university, I couldn’t do this anymore, as the due date remained the same whether I went to classes or not. So I would instead consume a lot of energy drinks the night before an assignment was due and generally do the majority of the assignment in an anxious, tense and sleep-deprived state, printing it out and submitting it 20 minutes before the deadline.

Exams were the same. I’d miss classes, not pay attention when I was there, and then try to cram an entire semester’s contents into the last 4 days before an exam. I would lock myself in my room and study up to 12 hours a day, only leaving for toilet breaks and something to eat until I was utterly exhausted. Luckily, I have a knack for remembering vast amounts of information in short periods of time, so I always passed, but it wasn’t easy or fun.

I sometimes tried to start early but never found this effective, as the negative consequences seemed far away. So eventually, I figured I would follow the mantra, “if you leave everything to the last minute, it only takes a minute”. This mantra actually helped me fit a lot of things into my life by being more efficient, but it did have its limitations.

Once I got to my Doctorate of Clinical Psychology degree at Monash University, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to do a 70,000-word thesis that was meant to take 3.5 years to do. How could I possibly cram something so big, especially when it consisted of making a research proposal, ethics application, recruiting participants, conducting a clinical trial, collating all the results, running data analysis and writing up the thesis and journal articles? It turns out I couldn’t.

The thesis ended up taking me 4 years to complete, and there wasn’t too much of it that I enjoyed. Moreover, it required a direct challenge of my usual defence mechanisms, which was no easy feat, especially because I didn’t know what they were. I knew that I had always procrastinated with my studies, but I was never entirely sure why.

What Are Your Defence Mechanisms?

Fortunately, a fun test over at personalityassessor.com on coping styles’ titled ‘How Do You Deal?’ helped me identify which defence mechanisms I typically used. So if you are interested in knowing what yours are, I definitely recommend taking it.

It is a bit time-consuming as there are 2 parts and over 200 questions, but I like this questionnaire so much because it is tough to fudge the test to get desirable results. This is because the survey doesn’t have face validity, and therefore doesn’t appear to measure how much someone engages in a particular defence mechanism. Two examples of questions are:

“I am bothered by stomach acid several times per week” or

“It is annoying to listen to a lecturer who cannot seem to make up his mind as to what he really believes”.

I’m not sure which defence mechanisms these questions are tapping into or if the correct answer is true or false. However, previous research has shown that specific patterns of responses on the questionnaire are quite good at identifying people who regularly use 10 common defence mechanisms, including repression, displacement, denial, regression, projection, reaction formation, intellectualisation, rationalisation, isolation and doubt. My results were astonishing to me.

My Defence Mechanisms

I first took the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire in February 2013. I had just finished a year-long practical internship at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and I found supporting individuals with cancer really rewarding and meaningful, but also quite challenging as I had lost a dear friend to cancer when I was 21. In addition, I wanted to finish my thesis by July but was falling way behind, and I was also a month away from getting married and moving in with my then fiancé. So I had many big changes coming up, and I was both stressed and scared about how everything would go.

Here are my February 2013 results, alongside the descriptions of these defence mechanisms given by the personality assessor website:

1. Denial — 94th percentile — extremely high

Denial is a defense mechanism where people avoid thinking about problems, or even pretend like their problems don’t exist. For example, someone might deny that they have a drug problem. Or someone might deny that they’re currently having conflict in their romantic relationship.

Since denial can be subconscious, people who use denial might honestly believe that their problems don’t exist!

2. Isolation — 91st percentile — extremely high

Isolation is a defense mechanism where people compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings so that their thoughts don’t affect their feelings.

Isolation differs from denial. Using denial, a person with a drug problem might refuse to even see that they have a drug problem. Using isolation, a person with a drug problem would acknowledge they have a problem, but would not let the fact they have a problem affect their feelings. If intellectualization is all about staying in your head to avoid your heart, isolation is about keeping your head and your heart separate.

3. Displacement — 81st percentile — very high

Displacement occurs when we “take out” our frustrations on someone/something else. For example, imagine that you hate your boss. It might have dire consequences if you expressed your hate toward your boss. So, if you displaced those feelings, you might go home and yell at your family.

This is different than projection. In projection, we don’t see our own feelings — we see them in other people (e.g., I am not angry, my boss is). In displacement, however, we still “own” our feelings (e.g., I am angry) but we “take out” those feelings on the wrong target (e.g., angry at boss, but kick dog instead of boss).

4. Regression — 73rd percentile — high

Regression is a defense mechanism where people essentially start acting or thinking like a child. The idea is that when life feels too overwhelming or our problems feel too big, that we regress to an earlier, easier time when other people (our parents) used to take care of us. As such, regression can include:

* desiring for other people to take care of your problems for you

* acting dependent on other people

* acting like a child (e.g., temper tantrums)

* refusing to take responsibility for your actions

5. Doubt — 72nd percentile — high

The defense mechanism of doubt occurs when people doubt their senses or thought processes when they encounter problems. For example, imagine a good friend tells you they don’t really like you. You might utilize the defense mechanism of doubt by thinking “I must have misunderstood what they meant.”

Doubt is kind of like a mixture of denial, intellectualization, and rationalization. Doubt lets us deny that our problems are real (or avoid making big decisions we’re afraid of) by questioning our ability to accurately see the world and make good decisions. In contrast to denial, when people use doubt, they are aware of their problems on some level.

6. Rationalization — 68th percentile — high

Rationalization is when people excuse their actions with usually irrational false explanations. For example, if someone binges and eats an entire large pizza, they might think “Well, the food was going to waste anyway! I might as well have eaten it.”

Rationalization is kind of like a mixture of denial and intellectualization. Essentially, rationalization allows people to “explain away” their problems (usually bad habits, personal flaws, etc.) with a superficially valid explanation. The biggest difference between rationalization and intellectualization is that intellectualization is used to avoid feelings, whereas rationalization is used to avoid seeing our own personal flaws.

7. Intellectualisation — 64th percentile — high

Intellectualization occurs when people avoid painful feelings by thinking oftentimes inappropriate impersonal thoughts. For example, if someone’s pet dies, they might think, “Pets die every day. Why should I be upset?”

Basically, the idea is that people who use intellectualization minimize their problems — or at least their feelings — and avoid the pain in their hearts by staying lodged solidly in their heads.

8. Projection — 47th percentile — about average

Projection occurs when we project our own thoughts and feelings onto other people. For example, you might really hate your boss. If you used the defense mechanism of projection, you might be unaware of your own feelings toward your boss, but instead think your boss hated you. This defense mechanism would allow you to deny your feelings and, in turn, believe that any conflict between you and your boss is your boss’s fault (not yours).

Projection basically lets us believe that are problems aren’t really ours — they’re someone else’s!

9. Repression — 37th percentile — low

Repression occurs when people push down or block-out memories or desires that they feel are threatening. For example, someone might repress painful childhood memories and try to not think about them. As another example, someone might repress their attraction to a friend that they fear wouldn’t reciprocate their interest.

Repression is similar to denial, but slightly different. Denial is about convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist. Repression is about blocking out part of yourself — memories or desires, usually — perhaps to avoid creating a problem!

10. Reaction formation — 15th percentile — very low

Reaction formation is a fascinating defense mechanism where we do the opposite of what we really want to do. For example, imagine you are very attracted to another person. If, for some reason that attraction is a problem (e.g., you are married, they are married, etc.), you might start to feel the opposite toward them — you may think they are disgusting and/or actively dislike them.

Reaction formation allows you to avoid your problems — and also creates a buffer to ensure you avoid your problems. In the example above, you’re not merely repressing your attraction toward the other person — you’re actually feeling negative feelings toward them. These negative feelings will ensure the attraction doesn’t resurface.

Seeing that my marriage ended up being far worse than I had predicted, I maybe should have paid attention to these results a bit more, especially my denial and doubt scores.

It did help with the writing up of my thesis. I stopped trying to avoid the problem, started coming into the lab from 9 am — 5 pm every weekday regardless of how I felt and began making some real and consistent progress without cramming for the first time in my life. I finished a full draft of my thesis by September 2013, started working as a Psychologist in private practice shortly after that, and submitted the final copy of my thesis for examination in February 2014.

Have My Defence Mechanisms Improved?

I retook the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire at the end of April 2017. I now live a life that is much more consistent with the experiences I want to have rather than what society says that I should be doing. I believe that I am a lot happier and in the best place that I have ever been psychologically. But have my defence mechanisms actually changed?

Defence Mechanisms 2013 2017
Denial 94th percentile 75th percentile
Isolation 91st percentile 92nd percentile
Displacement 81st percentile 77th percentile
Regression  73rd percentile 68th percentile
Doubt 72nd percentile 64th percentile
Rationalisation 68th percentile 53rd percentile
Intellectualisation 64th percentile 18th percentile
Projection 47th percentile 56th percentile
Repression 37th percentile 20th percentile
Reaction formation 15th percentile 9th percentile

As you can see, eight of my results had improved, with denial dropping 19 percentile points and losing its position as my most used defence mechanism. This is great, as I am now more aware of my issues and can actually do something about them.

My most noticeable improvement was my reduction in intellectualising things, but I also repress things much less than I used to, rationalise my actions less, and doubt myself less too. This means that I am now turning into what I feel and need more, not just remaining in my head. By understanding and accepting my emotions rather than avoiding them or explaining them away, it really does make it easier to know what action I need to take. Regular journaling, mindfulness and therapy have definitely helped me to create these changes. So has being more honest and authentic with others.

The two defence mechanism scores that have increased are projection and isolation. The increase in projection isn’t helpful, as this means I could be externalising some problems rather than taking responsibility for my role in creating them. The high isolation score isn’t so bad, though, as separating my head and heart is something that I have worked on to make sure that I am making decisions in line with my values and not my fears going forward. If this never changes, that will be fine by me.

Can We Change How We Deal With Problems?

It’s not possible to completely avoid engaging in defence mechanisms. We all have different coping methods, and many of these coping styles are developed in childhood and modelled on what everyone else in our family did.

However, some defence mechanisms are more helpful than others, and they can change in time with deliberate practice. Head researcher of the Grant longitudinal study, George Vaillant, has separated defence mechanisms into immature, intermediate and mature defences. Acting out, projection, passive-aggressive behaviour, and denial are considered immature. Reaction formation, repression and displacement are intermediate defences. Mature defences include:

  1. humour: seeing the funny side of things,
  2. sublimation: channelling difficult emotions into something prosocial and constructive,
  3. anticipation: planning for upcoming situations that might be challenging,
  4. suppression: not reacting to your feelings or letting them show if this would interfere with you achieving your goals, and
  5. altruism: deriving pleasure from helping others.

A 2013 study by Malone and colleagues found that men who used more mature defence mechanisms between 47 and 63 years of age had better health between 70 and 80. This was mostly because the people who regularly engaged in more mature defence mechanisms had better social support and stronger interpersonal connections than individuals who used immature defence mechanisms (Malone et al., 2013).

If you want to build up healthier coping strategies, understanding which defences you currently use is a great place to start. The best way to do this apart from taking the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire is consulting with a therapist, especially a psychologist or a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy. Friends and family might be able to point out some potential defence mechanisms that you use, but I think it is better to get this feedback from professionally trained and impartial. They can then help you replace these defences with more mature and adaptive coping strategies to have more supportive relationships and better long-term health and well-being.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist