How to Discern Your Patterns

by Steven Kessler

When you first discovered the book, The 5 Personality Patterns, your first question was probably, "Which one am I?"

So what did you do? Probably you downloaded the pdf of the personality traits of each pattern. Or you searched the big chart in the book that shows the attributes of each pattern. Or you took the time to read the chapter describing each of them. And as you read through each one, you compared it to your own experience of yourself, looking for a match.

Approaching the problem this way is natural, but it's based on the idea that this is a set of types, on thinking of the types as collections of traits and attributes, and that a person is one of the types, just like they are in other maps of personality.

But this is not what the patterns are. They are not types and they are not collections of traits. They are safety strategies. Each one arises out of a particular way of trying to feel safer -- out of a safety strategy. And you are not a type. You are a person who habitually uses a particular sequence of these safety strategies to try to protect yourself from distress.

So the best way to discern which patterns you go into is not to look at your personality traits. The best way is to watch what you do when you get distressed. Watch what happens in your body when you first feel a little uncomfortable with a situation. Watch where your attention goes and what becomes important to you and what you do. Then watch what you do as your distress builds.

Here are the five safety strategies and the actions that flow from each. Notice which safety strategy you go into when you first get scared or distressed:

1. You want to leave. Your attention and energy move away from whatever is distressing you. You feel scared. You think “I gotta get away.” You move away physically or you leave your body to get away.

2. You want to connect. You think they are the solution to your problem.  Your attention and energy move toward them. You're nice to them so they'll like you and help you. You agree or appease or compliment them. You try to give them what they need, even if it's not what you need. 

3. You want to hide. Your attention and energy pull in and go downward to help you hide, or at least to hunker down and endure whatever is coming. You might agree on the outside with what others say, but on the inside you think, “You can't make me.”. On the inside, everything starts to feel heavy and stuck. You don't take action; you just endure.

4. You want to fight. Your attention and energy flow up and out to push against whatever is bothering you. You get big, intimidating, maybe even angry to coerce their compliance to your will. Or maybe you get charming, but your intention is still to control and dominate them. You get bigger and more aggressive.

5. You want to do it the right way. Your attention and energy go toward performing correctly. Your chest and belly tense to dampen the flow of life energy and feeling through you, and your attention goes to how well you're performing. You get tight and rigid. You feel anxious. You focus on correctness and performance.

If you monitor your body and attention carefully, you'll probably notice that you almost always go into the same particular safety strategy when you first get distressed (annoyed, irritated, frustrated, anxious, afraid). This is your primary pattern. As your distress builds, you may stay with that strategy for a short time or a long time, but sooner or later, if things get bad enough, you switch into a another particular safety strategy. This is your backup pattern.

As you monitor yourself in more and more situations, you'll see yourself doing this same sequence again and again: primary pattern, then backup pattern. A few people use a third safety strategy, but most people use only two. I've never known anyone to use four.

So this is the way to discern which patterns you go into. Watch the sequence of safety strategies you use as you go from feeling safe and happy into more and more distress.

This method is much more accurate than trying to match up the personality traits and talents you have with what's on the chart. This is true for several reasons. First, you do two patterns, not just one, so trying to fit yourself into one category will just be confusing. Second, you may have some of the traits or talents of a particular pattern, but not actually use that pattern to feel safer. You may have learned those behaviors from your parents or just been born with those talents. In that case, we can say that you have the gifts of that pattern, but you don't do the pattern, i.e., you don't go there automatically and you don't use it to manage your distress.

I hope this helps you discern your patterns!

  • I don’t seem to fit into any of those 5 ways of dealing with so I’m not sure what to make of that. However I do LOVE the book and find it fascinating.

  • Is it possible that I employ one pattern with family, another with friends and a different one with strangers.

    • No. You may be shifting the way you hold yourself in order to fit in or cope in different groups and situations, but that’s a different thing. The 5 personality patterns arise out of 5 different ways of buffering yourself against feeling your internal distress — any distress, not situationally-specific distress. The patterns a person goes into are automatic and not situational, as they are deeply conditioned into the body and operate unconsciously. They are not under your voluntary control. You may be in the compensated merging pattern and imitating different patterns in order to connect with different groups, though. See “Flavors of the compensation” on page 140.

  • So fascinating, I can think back on so many life events where all I wanted to do was leave, disappear etc. I often think ‘it would be so much easier if I was not on the planet/dead.’. It is a big relief to learn that this is a pattern, a strategy, not who I unchangeably am at my core.
    Thank you!

  • It’s very clear to me that I am solidly in the rigid pattern group. It felt like you wrote that whole chapter about me!

    I feel like I am constantly in the pattern, the inner critic never shuts up and I am constantly concerned with how things are being performed around me, and peoples competence.

    How do I start to get myself out of pattern if I don’t really feel any particular trigger or distress but rather that it’s just who I am all the time?

    • Right — “it’s just who I am” is what we all say at first, when we think that the pattern is who we are. At the end of the chapter, there is a section called Healing the Rigid Pattern. Read that and chapter 13, Getting Yourself Out of Pattern, for more help on getting out of the pattern, in both the short term and the long term.

  • This book is amazing!! I can only read a little at a time and then I have to process. Every couple of sentences holds a gem. Chapter 5 was a wake up call! It is a wonderful book – concise, and eye opening. Things I have known or felt for a long time but strung together and put in such an understandable way. Thank you!!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
    Success message!
    Warning message!
    Error message!