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Tough Time for Realists



I have always thought that our modern world tends to fit certain ipersonic personality types rather more than other profiles. Ursula Huber’s lead article in the recent “Psychologie Heute” (Psychology Today) again reminded me of this subject and in a way confirmed my reflections. In her intro she writes: “The world is an uncertain place. One cannot depend on anything any longer: not on the Euro, not on love, not on politicians, not on job security.” And she quotes the psychologist Ernst-Dieter Lantermann at Kassel University who summarizes: “ Modern living conditions are precarious living conditions.”

Obviously previous generations also had to deal with a variety of precarious living conditions. 500 years before Christ Heraclites in his wisdom allegedly remarked that everything is “fluid”. Changes, transitions and renewal are and have always been understood to be a part of human life and life on earth. Still: I suggest that our present, modern world presents us with very special challenges. For one it is that values and entities providing stability and direction are disappearing leaving us confused and frustrated to our own devices. There is no one unequivocally telling us how we should live our life, what is “appropriate”. Religious and social values continue losing their significance and convictions and traditions are replaced by the non-committal “anything goes”.

We can get married and make babies, but don’t have to any longer – alternatively we can just as well enter into a same sex marriage and create children in vitro, (almost) everything is possible. We can believe in a life after death and a Last Judgment, or in reincarnation, or in Armageddon on 21 December 2012 or everything at once or nothing at all. We must decide on our own whether we are for prenatal screening, vegetarianism, organ donation, the far right, circumcision, online dating or Facebook. Every new day presents us with a never-ending range of opportunities to re-invent and re-orient ourselves at any time with no one able to seriously object. Individualism and self-actualization are the order of the day and in many respects that is obviously wonderful providing us with a plethora of much longed for liberties. On the other hand all those liberties automatically also generate feelings of uncertainty and fear: What if I make the wrong decision?

To top it, in our modern world things move at a blinding speed probably trumping Heraclites’ world by far. Everything around us is subject to continuous changes in breathtaking tempo – something still valid today can already be wrong or out of date tomorrow. Speaking for myself, I already feel totally stressed out by all those never ending technical innovations – again a new mobile model, again a new flat rate contract, again an update for my internet browser . . . and those are relatively unimportant changes one can ignore without serious consequences (for instance, I still don’t have a smart phone because I don’t see why I am supposed to be online wherever I am or why my little life is supposed to be documented non-stop live via real-time photo coverage on Facebook). But how about all those unavoidable changes that simply take over?

The times when one went to school, learned a profession or studied and then worked in the chosen profession for the rest of one’s life (in the case of my father in law even in the same organization!), are long gone. Today the fewest among us can even be sure that they still have a job at this time next year. None of us can’t even rely on the promised pension to which so many of us have contributed, or that our money we are taking to the bank today will be there tomorrow or that it will be at least worth as much as it is today. Maybe the bank goes bankrupt or the Euro still collapses? Who knows? Partnership- and parenthood concepts have not been safe harbors for a while and at least theoretically have been frequently questioned by many. Just last week a young woman told me that she really would like to have children but the fear of being a single mom has always kept her from becoming a mother. And then there is the subject of health: Today those evil fats are the culprits of all health- and appearance evils, tomorrow its going to be the terrible carbon hydrates and what is going to be next day after tomorrow? I am sure there is going to be another new trend that is going to spoil the carefree enjoyment of my next lunch . . .

According to the psychologists, in spite of it all “Ambiguity tolerance” is the important enabling capacity to deal with a world loaded with insecurity and ambiguity. In her article Nuber states “People with a high ambiguity tolerance are not inclined to think in black and white but are equipped to deal with inconsistencies, they are not looking for immediate answers to open questions and don’t automatically react negatively to unclear, irritating information.” Not good news for the “judgers” among our personality types! Bottom line: Judging personality types hate it when their carefully arranged plans are changed at short notice. They prefer maximum control over everything and perceive structure as a helpful orientation guidance, they are very organized and reliable. They make their decisions as quickly as possible because they are a lot more uncomfortable with uncertainty that with certainty. I would think that this brings us to the approximate opposite of ambiguity tolerance . . .

Perceiving personality types, though, are happiest when they have lots of freedoms in their life. They see structure as something confining and tedious. They have difficulties to make decisions and decide on one option. They prefer to keep all options open until the last minute. Neither punctuality nor order are their strengths and routine tasks quickly bore them. On the other hand they are incredibly flexible and adaptable, able to react to the unexpected. Ergo, the ideal prerequisite to actively and constructively deal with the demands of our modern world!

For Realists (in our typology the Reliable Realist, the Determined Realist, the Good-natured Realist and the Social Realist) the prevailing life situation is probably the most difficult. Their “judging” preference is compounded by the “sensing” preference; and both preferences combined turn them into the most conservative, conscientious, responsible and security minded types ever. Incessant changes are precisely that which stresses this personality type the most. He/she requires continuity and predictability in order to feel good. Our time certainly does not help Realists to be happy and relaxed!

Looking at it from an evolutionary point of view and for all intents and purposes it is an evolutionary irony that Realist’s virtues in many ways today turn out to be rather more disadvantageous for their life satisfaction. Looking at it over thousands of years, it made sense to be suspicious of the unknown and change: „I never travelled this road before and I better avoid it – who knows, maybe it leads past the cave of a sabre tooth tiger and I am likely to end up as his lunch.” – “Those mushrooms certainly look appetizing but I don’t know anyone who has already eaten them therefore I‘d rather not risk it, maybe they are poisonous.” No wonder that the Realists are on a percentage basis the largest demographic group – I would even extend myself by claiming that they in certain ways best represent the “primordial” human nature: anticipatory, careful or, as Nuber defines it – “equipped with a ,catastrophic‘ brain that is always ready for the worst and doesn’t appreciate precarious situations”. From an evolutionary point of view, that may have well have frequently saved our posterior, saved us from the fate of the dinos and enabled us to prevail as a species.

Times have changed, sabre tooth tigers are extinct and the information as to whether those mushrooms are edible, or not is easily obtainable via the Internet. “Realist qualities” are out of fashion, instead in the Age of Aquarius the qualities of perceiving personalities are in demand and suitable as happiness guarantors: curiosity, openness, and flexibility. In this respect best equipped by Mother Nature are types like the Spontaneous, and the Dreamy Idealists or the Analytical and the Groundbreaking Thinkers. Even the judging Idealists and Thinkers have an easier time of it than the than the “judging-sensing” Realists because their “intuitive” preference in a way balances their “jugding” preference and therefore makes them more adaptable to something new. While Doers like Realists belong to the sensing types, due to their strongly dominating “perceiving” preference, they are the flexibility kings among our types and therefore also well equipped to face modern times.

Therefore it is time for our Realists to put the old ipersonic-tenet to work: Personality characteristics represent preferences and preferences, are – at least up to a point –modifiable and trainable. That is to say, even as a Realist you can do something to become at least somewhat “ambiguity tolerant”:

Observe yourself for a few weeks and check to what extent you have a tendency to be thinking in black-white categories. For instance, when you are trying to achieve something, are the only applicable alternatives “perfect” or “failure”? In that case I would suggest that you try to capture these thoughts (preferably in writing), and deliberately replace them with something a little less black/white. The next time when you are faced with a failure and for instance think: “I am trying as best as I can, it just won’t work”, consciously replace that with: “Although I am not satisfied, I did not do all that badly. I am in the process of learning to get the hang of a situation. This can take some time but that is ok. I am on the right track.”

Frequently question your need to control. Realists have the strong tendency of trying to control things that are totally beyond their power (for instance the weekend weather or the mood of those around them) only to get upset when it won’t work. Always ask yourself: “Is this, that bothers/agitates me even in my personal area of influence? To how many percent?” Nuber correctly states: “The expectation of being able to control the uncontrollable is a great enemy of equanimity.” It would probably be very helpful if you stick Reinhold Niehbur’s equanimity prayer “God, give me equanimity to deal with those things I can’t change’, the fortitude to change those things I can change and the wisdom to differentiate one from the other” as a reminder on the fridge (and maybe even on the bathroom mirror!!).

In “safe” situations sometimes try the unknown. This means: When not so much is at stake that the mere thought about it frightens you, sometimes consciously do that of which you have no idea where it is going to lead! In a restaurant order a meal that you have never tried before and where the description tells you absolutely nothing (without having the waiter explain it to you!) Take a totally different route to work than the one you are used to. Watch a movie or visit a play that appears to be strange and totally outside of your normal preferences. In these situations you risk a lousy dinner or a boring couple of hours at worst - on the other hand you stand to have an experience that something new can be surprisingly wonderful and enrich your life.

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