Are you an Apollonian, Odyssean or Dionysian? Each of these personality traits will cope with cancer in different ways.
Will one be more successful at overcoming the disease than another?
Let me explain what these personality traits mean – and how they can help or hinder a battle with cancer. . .
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In trying to pin down what we mean by “personality,” researchers have looked at factors such as optimistic vs. pessimistic, passive vs. aggressive, introvert vs. extrovert, neurotic vs. emotionally stable and truthful vs. untruthful.
Most studies suggest personality traits don’t matter
Three studies found breast cancer patients have shorter lives if they are low on the extrovert scale. Those with non-Hodgkin lymphoma have a reduced life expectancy if they tend to be rigid about following social rules and customs. Women deemed to be highly neurotic don’t survive as long, according to one study that looked at all types of cancer.
However, five other studies could not find any relationship at all between cancer and personality.
A very large study of 60,000 people from Sweden and Finland, conducted over a 30 year period, concluded that extroversion and neuroticism are not risk factors for cancer survival. The researchers said that “the clinical message of this study is that cancer patients should not think that their personality traits may have affected their cancer or cancer prognosis.”
However, the way personality traits are characterized in these studies is rather simplistic, so it’s not surprising that no firm conclusions have come out of them.
The importance of congruence
In Remarkable Recovery, What Extraordinary Healings Can Teach Us about Getting Well and Staying Well, the authors Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch conducted a large number of interviews with nearly fifty cancer survivors. These were patients who had been declared terminally ill and given only a few months to live, yet were still alive and well many years later.
The authors were “struck by the sheer force of individual personalities, by how people’s approach to healing had been a reflection of their own unique selfhood.”
They found the cancer survivors possessed a certain quality which the authors call congruence, “a way to be deeply true to themselves.”
Interestingly, the same word was used by Dr. Johannes Schilder from the Netherlands, who looked at psychological changes in people with tumor regression (i.e. significant healing). They had “a stronger congruence among emotions, cognitions and behavior.” He said both he and some of his colleagues found this to be a striking characteristic.
“Before the remission, there was access to only a certain group of personalities, but afterwards more are allowed to be expressed.”
Sing your own song
Dr Lawrence LeShan is a pioneer of psychological interventions for cancer patients. In Cancer as a Turning Point he says, “You are not responsible for becoming ill, and you are not responsible for your recovery. What you are responsible for once you are ill is to do your best to get better. This means …..changing your life so that your inner healing abilities will be stimulated to the highest level possible.”
Considering the role of diet, exercise, sleep and stress in promoting cancer, I don’t agree that cancer victims have no responsibility for their illness, but let’s set that aside for the moment and stick to his point about personality.
He found that cancer patients were usually passive and suppressed their emotions. They often had unfulfilled passions which were repeated over their lifetimes.
Dr LeShan witnessed many remarkable recoveries by helping people find their zest and enthusiasm for life — to find their life purpose and then live it.
“A person who is singing their own song in life, creating it in ways that fit their personality structure, may well stimulate the body’s self-healing abilities.”
You have to live your life, not somebody else’s. You have to live as the person you are. We may respond to life events in different ways according to our particular personality profile, but the response has to come from our true selves.
Apollonians, Dionysians and Odysseans
After half a century in practice and working with thousands of patients, the late American psychiatrist Dr. Herbert Spiegel developed three clusters of personality traits or ‘mind styles’ as a guide and predictor of how people negotiate their experience.
The Apollonian is difficult to hypnotize and is “highly organized, directive, judgmental, takes an analytical approach to problem solving, is consistent, vigilant, self-assured, will not readily take in new stimuli, but will be most influenced by his or her own pre-existing beliefs, opinions and private agenda.”
The Dionysian is highly hypnotizable, is biased towards feelings over logic, sensitive to the environment and is extremely vulnerable to persuasion.
The Odyssean falls between the other two. He or she can shift as needed between heart and mind. People with this type of personality may use concrete thinking or abstract fantasy depending on the situation.
According to Dr. Spiegel’s wife and colleague Marcia Greenleaf, the importance of dividing up personality types in this way is that each requires a different style of medical intervention.
Asked to study Hirshberg and Barasch’s cancer survivors, Spiegel and Greenleaf found that the ability to recover can be found in all three types; it’s about finding the right path for each person.
For instance, Apollonians will always ask a lot of questions and may be labeled resistant patients for doing so.
But as Greenleaf notes, “if you spend half an hour talking with them, letting them participate in working out their care plan, they are wonderful both on their own behalf and also to the staff.”
Adapting to the patient’s requirements, when you know what they are, helps in their recovery.
Dionysians need positive reinforcement from others and may do well working with a psychologist or hypnotherapist that they completely trust. They need encouragement to express their emotions and require positive input from nature, art and music.
Dr Larry Norton, Medical Director of Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, makes use of Dr Spiegel’s personality types.
“It gives me a method to determine the proper way to explain something to a given patient, the proper way to develop options and the proper way to help them handle difficulties that arise in treatment.”
Apollonians “tend to be very concrete. They don’t like ambiguity. They want a lot of hard facts. They like to make their own decisions and restrict surrendering control to anybody – physicians especially.”
Dionysians “tend to be more poetic in their description of symptoms. They have a greater tolerance for ambiguity. They also tend to be very suggestible.”
The results of Hirshberg and Barasch’s research show that “there is no fixed set of behaviors leading to remarkable recovery” but certain psycho-spiritual factors came out as being the most important to cancer survivors. These were:
Belief in a positive outcome 75%
Fighting spirit 71%
Acceptance of the disease 71%
Seeing cancer as a challenge 71%
Taking responsibility for the disease and its outcome 68%
Renewed desire/will to live/commitment to life 64%
Positive emotions 64%
New sense of purpose 61%
Changes in habits/behavior 61%
Sense of control 59%
Lifestyle changes 59%
The late Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli maintained that the healthiest form of selfhood is one that merges “expressions of vital elements of our being, however negative they may seem to us at first.”
As one survivor put it, her healing came about because she was “becoming true.”
It‘s clear that we can cannot typecast personality. As Hirshberg and Barasch conclude, “Beyond simplistic ideas that conventionally ‘negative’ traits can make us ill and ‘positive’ traits heal us, every ‘type’ of person can find his or her own unique direction to recovery.”
Lee Euler, Publisher