The term ‘cardinal personality trait’ (first used by psychologist Gordon Allport) refers to a personality trait that’s so deeply associated with someone that it becomes to the point where it almost defines them. If you were scatter-brained for instance then and prone to turning up late all the time, then people might start to nickname you ‘scatter-brained John’ and ‘scatter-brained’ would become your ‘cardinal trait’. Likewise, if you were the life and soul of the party all the time then people might start to think of you only in that context.
Here we will look at the psychological phenomenon in more detail, at whether or not you might have such a cardinal personality trait yourself, and at whether or not it is a good thing…
What’s Wrong With Cardinal Personality Traits?
Your initial response to the subject might be to presume that some cardinal personality traits would be good and some bad. Surely that would depend mostly on the nature of that personality trait?
Of course being known as ‘captain angry’ among your group of friends is not a positive thing and not something that one should pursue. On the other hand though, you might assume that it would be a good thing to be known for your generosity and kindness. Being introduced as ‘the nicest person I know’ can’t be a bad thing, right?
Well actually it can be – as can any cardinal trait. The reason for this is that nobody should be so simple as to be defined by a single trait – if you are known as the ‘nicest person in the world’ then someone might presume that means they can treat you like a doormat. If you’re known as the life and soul of the party, then is anyone ever going to take you seriously when you ask them if they know of any jobs going?
Furthermore, when we become known by a single trait we can sometimes end up feeling pressured by the expectations that those traits create. For instance, if you’re known for always being kind and friendly then you might not feel that you can kick up a fuss when people start taking advantage: lest you use your ‘nicest person’ status. We all knew a kid at school who was the ‘crazy one’ (‘this is Jeff – he’ll eat anything‘) and we all know how that ended for them… (Jeff is probably now homeless).
The point then is that you can end up being not just defined by your cardinal trait, but also trapped by it and this can affect the way others see you. And if you can’t be completely yourself, are your relationships really going to be as meaningful? Wouldn’t it be nice if your friends knew you as the multi-layered person you really are?
Do You Have a Cardinal Trait? And What to Do About It…
So with this all in mind, the most important thing to do is to first decide whether it’s a problem for you. Are you known for a single trait?
One point here is that you shouldn’t get too worried if you have one trait for which you are just well known for a trait – almost all of us have a trait with which we are particularly associated but that doesn’t necessarily make it a cardinal trait. For instance, it might be that you are known for your jokes, but that people understand that there are other sides to you as well.
The problem comes when you feel like you can’t act in a certain way because it doesn’t fit the consistent picture that your friends have built of you in their mind, or when people start to laugh off things you say ‘What are you talking about? You’ve never been angry in your life!’.
At this point, it’s time to start reflecting on what motivates your behaviour and on how much thought and time you put into crafting an ‘image’ to project to the world. The main thing to aim for, is to let go and just be yourself when you’re in a social setting – whatever that might mean. Don’t second guess what you are doing, and don’t factor your ‘image’ into your behaviours.
If you struggle with this, then you can always try seeing a therapist, or using cognitive behavioural therapy to try and address the anxiety and ruminations that are causing the behaviour. But the main thing to do is to simply experiment with ‘breaking out’ of your mould. Try showing another side to yourself a bit at a time and see how people respond – you’ll find that they actually respect you more for it and that you feel a great burden has been lifted when you’re able to be yourself around the people you care about.