Do character traits hurt? On pain and personality

How does your personality impact the pain you feel? Take a quick quiz to see!

By 
Charlie Merrill, MSPT
Reviewed by 
Dr. Lara Birk, Ph.D
November 2, 2021
6
 min. read

An important part of supporting many people in overcoming long-standing pain is building a case that the body is not damaged or injured, despite pain that is very real. Because all pain is produced by the brain (nervous system), we know that pain can and often does exist in the absence of any physical problem.  This shift in belief about the cause of pain is central to the process of overcoming it. But how people arrive there can differ.  Since the ultimate goal is to support people in making meaning from their symptoms, we’re always looking for the one ah-ha moment where everything suddenly makes sense.  We’ve seen this happen over and over again when people see a list of personality traits that commonly correlate with a more sensitive nervous system. People with many of these traits are more likely to have symptoms that stick around long after the body is healed, or come on with no physical injury at all/

If you’ve never seen the list, we’ll get there. But first a few examples of how normal and common personality traits can relate to pain and create challenging thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in people.  

Julio is a perfectionist who’s made it to the top tier of his company due to his quality work.  However, as deadlines near, Julio gets headaches that affect his relationships at work and at home.  He worries about whether his work will be good enough, despite loads of past evidence that he’s doing well in his job. He also worries that his headaches are due to a medical condition and that he’s stuck with them.  He always gets his work done well and on time, but at a cost to him and those around him.  

Stephanie has always been a caretaker and has been there to bail her friends out when they need her. She’ll drop everything to help, and, as a result,  her friends love her.  She developed back pain that kept her from helping a friend move.  Her friend was upset with her for letting her down and she beat herself up about it.  As time went on, her back pain came and went. She started to notice how her friends expected her to help but how they weren’t always there for her.  Not only were her friends not meeting her needs, but she had not been meeting her own needs.  This was creating tension in her relationships, and anger in her.  Her back pain got worse making it harder for her to help anyone. 

David has a hard time forgiving people and tends to hold onto grudges.  He’s quick to make friends but finds it hard to hold on to them.  Rather than express his feelings when things weren’t going well, David just moved on and stopped calling. He’s always felt like this was a protective trait that kept him safe from the wrong people. His feet began to hurt after working long shifts that required him to stand on concrete floors. As he sought treatment and couldn’t work, he realized he didn’t have anyone close to him to support him or to whom he could vent his frustration. This just made him more disappointed in people so he retreated into a depression, began to experience anxiety, and his foot pain worsened.

Our personality traits can have an oversized impact on our pain experience. But why does possessing more of them, or stronger versions of them, so often result in chronic pain? All personality traits can serve us in important ways, but can also hold us back and/or create stress at other times. We develop and cultivate personality traits because we learned that they keep us safe as we navigate the world. They are important, highly adaptive, and effective coping strategies when we’re young. But when we become adults, these patterns become habit and create challenging patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. They are not your fault because they are a subconscious reflex that is out of your control.

As adults, when these traits become too dominant or show up at inappropriate times, we suffer psychologically and physically. The goal is not to get ride of your personality traits, nor judge them as “bad”. Because our personalities have developed and have been reinforced throughout our lives as a result of nature and nurture, it’s important to appreciate and accept all of our traits. As we become conscious of how they affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we can start to understand why, when, and how they serve us vs when they cause us to suffer. Only then can we make a different choice.

People who are very caring of others, who take a lot of responsibility, like Stephanie , or who have high expectations for themselves tend to be loved by many like Julio, successful in their work, and accomplish much in their lives. However, taking care of others at the expense of oneself can cause stress. Resentment can build along with feelings of overwhelm and sadness when friendships feel imbalanced, like our friend David. 

These subconscious feelings show up as physical pain when we aren’t aware of them and suppress them. Similarly, holding onto grudges may protect us from people who don’t truly hold our best interest.  But failing to forgive negatively affects our friendships and can result in suffering.  Forgiveness, after all, is something we do for ourselves, not just because we’re letting others off the hook. Similarly, perfectionism and high expectations taken too far may result in feelings of “not enough” which, you guessed it, causes physical pain resulting from ongoing stress. 

When a personality trait shows up in an imbalanced way, we can become overwhelmed with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that trigger the danger/alarm system in the brain. Because the brain is in charge of all of our symptoms (pain, digestion, illness), it will choose some way to let us know that we are in “danger” and need to make a change. Pain is a common choice for the brain to make.  These personality traits appear to trigger the nervous system to be on guard a lot.  This is the brain’s danger/alarm system doing exactly what it was meant to do. Protect us from what it predicts is a threat in order to keep us safe.

Because our personality traits lead to increased muscle tension, pain can show up anywhere in the body, including our digestive system. This creates more fear and often more symptoms, especially if our personality traits continue to drive imbalanced behavior.  The more of these traits you have, and the stronger the traits are, the more your pain is likely to be driven by the stress. Luckily, as we start to understand the light and the dark of our personalities, the danger/alarm system will turn off and symptoms will stop.

Below is a list of the personality traits that show up most often in people with chronic pain. You’ll notice that this list defines some of your favorite people.  People who possess many of these traits are likable, high achieving, popular, successful, and the people you want in your lives.  Sadly, many of these people also deal with recurrent or ongoing pain. This list is not meant to stigmatize any of these traits.  The list is also not valuable without some context. Understanding how personality traits show up in your life simply allows you to investigate when certain traits are helpful, and when they may not be so helpful. 

Please take a second to indicate which traits you think that you have.  For reference, I (the author) check 11 of the 15 boxes!  

Which of these describe you? Check all that apply:

____ Having low self-esteem 

____ Being a perfectionist  

____ Having high expectations of yourself 

____ Wanting to be good and/or be liked 

____ Frequently feeling guilt 

____ Feeling dependent on others  

____ Being hard on yourself  

____ Taking on responsibility for others  

____ Often worrying  

____ Having difficulty making decisions  

____ Following rules strictly  

____ Having difficulty letting go 

____ Holding thoughts and feelings in (as opposed to expressing them) 

____ Tending to harbor rage or resentment  

____ Not standing up for yourself  

Ratings:  

How many of these traits do you have? ____ (up to 15)  

After doing this exercise, how much do you feel your personality traits contribute to your pain? Have you made any connections to how these traits show up in your life?  How and when they serve you and when they might not serve you?

If so, can you see ways in which the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to these traits might result as pain in your life? In doing this consciously, we’re able to receive the helpful “message” our brain is trying to share in order to keep us safe.

Lin is designed to help you understand your pain and symptoms in a new way. The platform offers education and tools to help you get more active, sleep better, and reduce stress. This empowers you to gain mastery over your symptoms.  Ultimately, Lin allows you to make meaning from your symptoms so you can continue to grow as a person. We’d love to hear your thoughts, feelings, and reflections about this post. If you’re ready to change your pain, join our community by signing up as a member. You can start by sharing your story with one of our health coaches today.

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