Know your parenting personality
Research on personality shows that we make our way in the world primarily as Attachers, Detachers, or Defenders. My nomenclature–Attacher, Detacher Defender–is based on the respected work of the pioneering psychologist Karen Horney who, in her book, Our Inner Conflicts, describes three broad personality patterns as those of moving toward people, moving away from people, and moving against people. I developed the terminology Attachers (who move towards people), Detachers (who move away from people), and Defenders (who move against people). People are a complex fusion of these three ways of being, but one is always dominant.
Are You an Attacher?
If your predominant mode of being is emotional, you are activated by your feelings, and these moods and emotions you feel each day affect all you do. They’re the inner triggers that direct your behavior. The Attacher motivation can be described as outer-directed behavior, moving towards people, a way of making sense and operating in the world through connection to people and relationships. The emotional context is the Attacher’s environment.
You are aware of the feelings of others and how you are coming across. Therefore, issues of image are important. Some Attachers take pride in denying to themselves that they have feelings. Others suspend their feelings, so they don’t interfere with getting the job done. Yet others are constantly aware of feelings and can lose their agenda if they allow their feelings to overwhelm them. All use feelings to open their hearts to others and to the deepest parts of themselves.
Attachers are centrally preoccupied with where they stand emotionally in relation to others. Do they like me? The major issue is approval. They enjoy recognition. They are aware of the feelings of others and of how they are coming across to others. Their defenses are marshaled around feelings: to make their way in the world, they have to learn to deal with feelings.
Key Issues for Attachers
- Image: “How am I coming across? What image am I conveying? How are people responding to me?”
- Connection: “Am I reaching out? Am I getting through? Am I making contact?”
- Approval: “Do they approve of me? Do they like me?”
There are three types of parenting personalities most commonly found among Attachers: the Helper, the Organizer, and the Dreamer.
The Helper Parent
Helpers connect with others by being helpful. They can feel the needs of others, because they are acutely sensitive to other people’s feelings. What motivates them at work and at home is knowing what others need. Helpers convey feelings of warmth, understanding and genuine concern. Sometimes they feel frustrated because they’re not able to do as much for others as they would like.
To feel comfortable with others, Helpers align by being sincere and quietly empathic, firm and plain talking, or whatever works for the person with whom they are interacting. Their conversation is based on personal appeal. The underlying message is: “Look what I can do for you. You need my help. I am here to serve you.” They pitch the conversation to elicit approval. Approval is the bottom line.
Helpers pick protégés, or champion persons of consequence. They attend to the needs of the group as a whole, but they monitor the progress of several favorites. The selected person is wrapped in a cloak of largesse and service. Helpers work long hours to open doors-and hold them open-with expectations of gratitude and heightened emotional responsiveness in return. They can keep a mental tab running on different individuals’ schedules and agendas, and they provide unexpected, but appreciated, behind-the-scenes support.
Helpers project a positive persona and turn on stellar performances day after day. They develop a gracious environment whether at home or at work. They are usually popular. Their excellent communication skills, together with the special care and attention they turn on for those they deem significant, elicit admiration, popularity and love.
Helpers will give unstintingly of themselves for their family or on behalf of the organization for which they work. They will volunteer to do the additional assignment or spend extra, unforeseen hours on a project. They devote time to developing potential among their peers’, work for their welfare, and take pride in others’ accomplishments. In the process they’re often thinking, “They couldn’t have done that without me.” They work hard at making relationships happen. The allure of someone else’s needs always seems more important than the Helpers’ own needs.
Helpers can feel misunderstood if others think they are trying to manipulate them. They want to be perceived as warmhearted and sensitive, and they don’t like their efforts to appear self-serving. Helpers can feel harried by their constant need for approval (they breathe approval like oxygen). Often Helpers recognize that they have a need to give, but far more subtle insight is required if they are to see that the subtext in giving is a need to be admired. If they feel under appreciated, they can become emotional and demanding. Helpers appear to be independent, but internally they know how much time they spend attending to others.
The Organizer Parent
Organizer parents connect with others by fulfilling expectations. They literally perform, both in the sense of getting the job done, and in seeking recognition. Organizers like to think of themselves as role models-as parents or of their professions-the image is of confidence, brisk efficiency, solid skills, and leadership. They believe that who they are as people is tied up with what they accomplish. Coming first, being a winner is strong motivation for Organizers, who get a great deal of recognition and reward for what they do.
Organizers play a central role in their undertakings; they are unmistakably present. They create the environment, set tasks, direct interactions, and achieve goals. They communicate by persuasion: “This model works for me, it’ll work for you.” They get a lot done, most of it successfully. Organizers play to their family and peers, basking in the applause and approval. They work their audience with skill and a finely tuned ability to pick up on pockets of resistance to their message. They adjust their voice, vocabulary, emotional range and body language until they feel they have their “audience” (even if it’s one other person) “in their hand.”
Organizers are goal directed: they drive themselves and expect the same commitment from others. Get the job done, efficiently, without fuss or fretting, because the results are what count. Organizers see the overall goal as getting from point A to point Z. This goal is sorted into various tasks, prioritized and assigned a time frame-two hours, within a week, this quarter. The larger goal is made manageable in sequential blocks of time. Organizers can juggle several tasks at once, so that time is never wasted. Organizers think in terms of deadlines-an objective measure of progress at any given time. They are impatient with people who waste their time through bad planning and inefficiency. They hate being held up-by illness, incompetence, by equipment that doesn’t work-and would rather complete the task themselves than wait for someone else to do it. Natural leaders, they are also team players when they respect the leader.
Organizers sweep others up in their forward driving energy. They move directly from idea to action with little time lag to accommodate the hesitancy of more skeptical or cautious peers. They know from experience how hard it is for others to resist their goal-directed momentum. Organizers thrive on the energy and excitement generated by their interactions. They will not be bothered with their own or others’ feelings or emotional responses, especially if these reactions stand in the way of completing the task at hand. They feel an illusion of control through constant activity.
In the down time after attaining a goal, Organizers can often be at a loss as to what to do with themselves. There is then time and space to regard others as people with their own priorities, problems and responses rather than units to fulfill the Organizer’s agenda. This is when Organizers experience feelings and become aware of their exhaustion, accompanied by an unwelcome insecurity. Doubts can arise that affect the Organizers’ over-arching self-confidence. Organizers then have the opportunity to reflect on their tendency to glib superficiality and quick-fix answers.
The Dreamer Parent
Dreamer parents connect with others by seeking emotionally meaningful connections. These parents live in a rich emotional world, and they feel their own uniqueness.
Dreamers bring the gift of themselves-unique creative talent and depth-both to what they do and to the people with whom they interact. They’re extremely resourceful, intensely inventive, and they care deeply about people. They take pride in their own and others’ achievements and experience a fulfilling emotional connection at being part of meaningful creativity: “something special.” Yet paradoxically, Dreamers focus not on what they have, but on what’s missing. They think of themselves as different from others and can often feel lonely and misunderstood.
Dreamers embody emotionality, artistry and insight; a dramatic tone imbues their relationships. They regard themselves as sensitive, with the ability to experience feelings deeply. Their emotional depth makes then gifted at empathizing with the suffering of others. Yet they are aware of a push-pull in relationships: they can come across as aloof and self-absorbed, or as vitally interested. This inconsistency is often bewildering to others.
Dreamers often violate boundaries in other people because they yearn for connection to both deep feelings and relationships. They can over-dramatize their feelings, to the discomfort of others. Yet they are authentic, and they appreciate authenticity in others. They like to be liked and to have their efforts appreciated. However, when praise comes their way, Dreamers often deflect it-the glass is half empty. They experience a cycle of expectation and then regret. Dreamers feel the onset of a high with any new venture they’re close to, but regret invariably follows as thoughts turn to what is missing.
Dreamers live with passion and idealism. The daily passage of time, with its routine tasks, is of little consequence to them. They live for the grand scale occurrences that color what they often feel is the dull oblivion of the rest of their lives. The time when deep feelings emerge in interactions or on projects is memorable; yet Dreamers cannot recall the ordinary matters of everyday life. It’s hard for Dreamers to stay in the present moment. Now is filled with nostalgia and memories of options not exercised and “if only” thinking. This year’s highlights are seen in rosy-hued mythic light of significant moments of the past. Dreamers live their lives through dramatic interpersonal events beyond the passage of time.
Dreamers devalue themselves in comparison to others who seem to have more or better. This self-denigration can manifest as competitive envy. Growth occurs when they begin to value the flat, ordinary moments in all undertakings and take their attention off the dramatic high/low extremes. The unavailability of emotional sustenance can lead to melancholy, even depression.