by Marjory Foyle
The author discusses two aspects of relationship problems that are based on personality differences: personality types, and personal maturity.
Isn’t it strange the way our differing personalities can cause profound disturbances in our relationships with one another? God made us with our differing personalities just as he made the many differing forms of natural life.
Interestingly, personality differences are not confined to humans. In fact, in recent years National Geographic has had articles about the social life of the gorilla, which comment on the differing personalities of these animals. Yet, somehow, they seem able to get along together.
In the human kingdom, however, personality conflicts can become so severe that a group’s unity is disrupted. Perhaps a basic reason is that today few human groups function as a tribe. The factors that unite-blood kinship, built-in patterns of leadership, and social structure-have largely been lost. Now the possible disruptive influence of personality conflicts on the group go unchecked by tribal customs.
I want to discuss two aspects of relationship problems that are based on personality differences: personality types, and personal maturity.
Rather than use the psychologists’ complicated classifications of personality types, I want to discuss the varieties of personality in simple terms.
First, I have noticed in my missionary experience that people whose personalities are very similar may not get along well. For example, I know of a missionary secretary who was very obsessional. She worked on bookkeeping and accounts. She was, in some ways, a godsend, for she was neat, careful, and orderly. But she was also very slow. Others in the office endured her lack of speed, believing that her neatness and care made her a worthwhile staff member.
Unfortunately, when another missionary woman was appointed to the same office, no one thought to inquire about her personality: she was obsessional to the same degree as the first woman. After a few months, the bosses were in despair, for both women were so slow and so careful that the work could not be completed. Moreover, the women themselves developed a bitter rivalry, and tried to outdo each other in neatness. Finally, someone had the good sense to separate the two. They were allocated to different offices, and they were given new companions who had a bit of hysteria in their personalities. Their mildly dramatic natures combined well with the plodding steadiness of the obsessional women.
Second, certain types of opposites do not mix well- and some personalities do not mix at all. The latter include people whose personalities are disordered to a pathological degree. Among them are people who are paranoid or suspicious, people who always feel discriminated against or taken advantage of by others.
Working with other people’s personality types. It is important to accept other people as they really are, not as we think they should be. An extrovert, for example, with his warm outgoing nature, cannot understand someone who is an introvert. When the extrovert is in trouble, he wants people around him during his stress. C. B. Dobson reminds us of Shapiro and Alexander’s comment that "the introvert prefers to be left to his own devices, or to have just a few friends to whom he turns for help and guidance. Introverts choose to wait alone in times of stress."
It is easy, then, to see how tensions can develop between two such people, and especially if they are alone together on a mission station. Under stress, the extrovert will become more talkative, demanding the colleague’s company. He or she cannot comprehend the introvert’s need for withdrawal during difficult times.
Managing your own personality. First of all, accept yourself. This is a struggle for some of us who may be aware that we have a difficult personality. We may even feel God has not been kind to us since others seem to struggle less.
Yet, I believe that God knew exactly what he was doing when he made us.
Most people understand personality to be a mixture of our genes and the environment in which they develop. Psalm 139 supports this: When we were being formed in the womb, God himself knitted us together (v. 13), referring to the genetic component. But then the psalmist says: "All the ways ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (v. 16). In other words, God also knew about the environment in which we would develop!
Missionaries who struggle with their own difficult personalities can be comforted by this. Some have gone through terrible circumstances that had a deleterious effect on them. While I do not wish to get involved in the problems of good and evil, I am sure that none of these terrible events has been outside God and his knowledge. If they were, then everything is haphazard and meaningless. No, I believe that God has somehow been involved with a creative purpose, and that our earlier lives and their influences upon us become a sort of spiritual trust from him. He has confidence in us, that by his power these difficult experiences will become a creative force for good.
Understanding the redemptive and creative work of God within us. Accepting how we are made is one thing-but that must lead to a new trust in what God is going to do within us. I believe he can, and will, take our genes, environmental influences – and our own unhappy reactions to them – and redeem them. We will not be left unscarred, but he will be honored by our personalities when they are glorified by the work of the Spirit.
I have watched clients who felt their personalities were marred from the beginning grow and blossom as they increasingly committed themselves to the re-creative work of the Holy Spirit. Some have been totally transformed. In others, the triumph of God within them was so great that the scarring, though visible, was like a garland of honor. This redemptive and recreative work can be done in us as we present ourselves, problems and all, to the living God.
But missionaries need to be open with one another on this matter. Too often they do not discuss their personality problems. Instead, they but suffer in silence, with the result that others suffer too, and interpersonal relationships deteriorate. We need to support and encourage one another, in openness of heart, about our weakest areas and deepest concerns.
Erik Erikson says personality matures in eight stages. The process begins at birth and ends at death if we have a normal life span. At each state we have to learn what he calls "The Task," and we learn through the many relationships in our lives: mother, father, siblings, peers, and other adults. Erikson says, for example, that we learn basic trust of others through the relationship with our mother in the first two years of life.
If, however, there is a marked delay in development at any stage of life, which is caused by serious stress, problems can arise. Please note the word serious, for we human beings are really very resilient. Throughout our lives we can handle large amounts of stress. (Don’t worry when you have a quarrel with your little girl; she is not likely to have her development delayed on that account!) The problems that stunt development are usually many in quantity and painful in quality. One missionary I knew endured constant parental quarreling and violence during his early childhood. He hardly knew a day’s peace until he was 18. That is the sort of conflict that causes developmental delays.
Sometimes an area of immaturity can result from developmental delay. An immature area may remain in the personality, but it causes no trouble until-or unless-that adult encounters a large amount of stress. Then, that immature area can be reactivated and cause problems. This is the reason missionaries sometimes develop profound dependency needs, or unexplained anxiety or depression. The experience of changing culture proves too much for them, for instance, and the old immaturity is reactivated.
One of my clients had handled life reasonably well in his home country, though some aspects of it had been difficult. But when he moved into a new culture, he experienced severe culture shock. He was physically unwell, did not like his new job, and he could not get along with his senior missionary. Under so much stress, an old immaturity resurfaced. He became demanding of support from his senior, and when the amount he needed could not be provided, he became anxious and depressed. Only when the underlying immaturity and its causes were explored, and handled, did he begin to mature fully. He finally became a very acceptable and useful missionary.
It is what comprises the immaturity that is important. Usually these are negative emotions such as bitterness, jealousy, resentment, anger, and hatred, which lie buried beneath the surface of the mind. If these emotions are reactivated, they surge up and attach themselves to the adult figures in the sufferer’s environment. He or she may pray earnestly about the problem-and get increasingly despairing when there is little benefit. What such a person needs, of course, is to pray about the right thing-about the underlying abscess of negative emotions surrounding earlier figures in his or her life.
I agree fully with current mission policies that call for psychological testing before a missionary candidate is accepted (provided the testing is accompanied by interviews with someone who is trained in this field). Missionary candidates themselves, and mission selection committees, should also have some understanding of the signs of personality immaturity. Difficulty in trusting others, inferiority, boastfulness or overdogmatism, overdramatization of events and a tendency to exaggeration, persistent jealousy, and the persistence of other negative emotions are all important. These traits require skilled help before a candidate is considered for acceptance by a mission: they tend to become far worse during missionary service. In fact, my colleagues and I agree that personality immaturity is a major cause of interpersonal relationship problems among missionaries.
Remember, no one is free from negative emotions. We must deal with them, through the Holy Spirit, most of our lives. But if they persist, even after earnest prayer, there is usually deeper trouble that has to be cleared up.
I remember a missionary who was constantly jealous of her senior missionary. Prayer seemingly made it no better. When she finally asked for help, she discovered that the real problem was a previous jealousy-in her case, of a cousin who had lived with her family throughout her childhood.
Dealing with negative emotions. Missionaries commonly ask how they can deal with negative feelings. Since professional help is rarely available, they want to know what they can do to help themselves. Here are some pointers:
1. Do not brood about the problem. Commit it to God, and ask his help; he wants to come to your rescue.
2. If the problem is jealousy, for instance, ask God to show you all the persons you have ever been jealous of, especially feelings of long standing. Think through what it is in their personalities that made you jealous, then try to find a scriptural promise to meet the lack in your own life. Usually we are jealous of people who have something that we ourselves want! As an antidote, read relevant promises daily. If, for example, you are jealous because someone else’s position is better than yours, study your position in Jesus Christ to provide the necessary "superiority."
3. Try to understand why others behave toward you as they do. They may be totally unconscious of causing you distress. Perhaps they have been difficult because they have a great personal need themselves. Understanding adds an element of compassion to your perception, and this is enormously healing.
4. Practice forgiveness when there have been real hurts. But it is how we forgive that is important. Usually, forgiveness is thought of as blotting something out; we want to consider that the event never happened. But this does not usually work. I learned something new about this at a recent conference on missionary kids. Sharon Willmer explained that what we forgive is the debt someone owes us because they have hurt us: they have taken something from us, or they have damaged us in some way. But we forgive their debts – what they owe us. The Lord’s prayer really becomes meaningful to us: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Such forgiveness is a truly creative act. Though the memory of the offense may remain, the hurt and the damaging influence on us and our personality is gone.
When I was a new missionary, some 35 years ago, my senior advised me always to walk about with a stick during the rains. I thought she meant it to ward off snakes and other such exotica. But the stick was for the plumbing – a never-ending problem for missionaries. She used the stick to poke leaves out of the drains so that the water could flow freely, and a flood could be avoided. That is a picture of the results of our acts of forgiveness: The leaves that are blocking the personality are poked out, enabling the healing Holy Spirit to flow more freely through dedicated lives.
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