Do It Your Way: How Understanding Your Personality Will Make You a Better Counselor

by Ethan D. Schafer, Ph.D.

So you have decided to spend your summer working with children, and living with them, too. While presenting more challenges than your typical summer job, you can have a powerful impact on the lives of your campers. Before the campers arrive, you are bombarded with information, ranging from your staff employee handbook to research on child development. Between the excitement of the summer and the potential information overload of staff training, it is easy to overlook a critical element of your training: you. We're going to focus on you, or more specifically, your personality — and how understanding it can help you make the most effective use of the skills you learn in staff training.

Your Personality Matters

Personality refers to characteristic styles of understanding and responding to the events and people in our world. Formed by a combination of genes and experience, our "general tendencies" define us — making us the way we are. We carry our personality into every situation and relationship. If you understand your personality, you are more likely to make the most of your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

There are several important facts about personality that matter for you.

First, personality traits tend to be pretty stable across time and situations. This is not to imply that people can't, or don't, change — only that most of us have definable personality traits that tend to remain fairly constant over the lifespan.

Try this if you are not convinced: Call your parents (preferably your mother) and ask her to describe what you were like as a baby, child, and young adult. You will probably hear about qualities that have been present from very early in life. As an example, I am told that as a baby I rarely exerted myself physically — to the point that my mother would have to lean me against a piece of furniture just to keep me upright. Very little has changed, as my wife would verify if she weren't so busy taking care of me.

Second, many researchers agree that there are five major traits on which we can all be measured. Not coincidentally, this is called the "Big Five" model (Nettle 2007 and McCrae 2003). The Big Five traits have been measured across dozens of cultures and even observed in different species (yes, there is such a thing as a neurotic octopus). These personality traits exist on a continuum, not a category. Categories are "either/or" things: you are in one group or another group. Personality does not function as a category, but a complex interaction of the "Big Five" traits. You are not "extraverted" or "introverted," but fall somewhere between these poles, with most of us somewhere in the middle. Also, where you fall on one trait is, more or less, unrelated to where you fall on another one. This means that being high on one dimension (or medium, or low) does not predict where you fall on another dimension. There are as many combinations of personality traits as there are people.

Third, understanding your personality will help you select more effective strategies for taking care of yourself, interacting with other staff, and working with campers. For example, consider a twenty-year-old counselor who enjoys reading, individual rather than team sports, and seeks out a great deal of private time for herself, and seems, by all accounts to be perfectly happy. It would be helpful to know that she might be somewhat "introverted"; that this is just as normal as being "extraverted"; and that she would be more likely to use one set of coping and behavior management strategies more effectively than another (see the description under the heading Extraversion for further information). Personality traits themselves are neither good nor bad, and will be more or less adaptive depending on the environment. If you understand the combination of traits you bring to camp, you will be more prepared to get the most out of your summer.

Defining Your Personality

The following is an exercise to help you start thinking about your personality and what it means for your success as a camp counselor. It is not the same thing as taking a personality test, and certainly is not meant to "diagnose" anything. The point is to increase your self-awareness.

  • Take out a sheet of computer paper and lay it out in "landscape form," so the longer side is facing you.
  • Draw five vertical lines, each six inches in length, evenly spaced across the page.
  • Make a small dash in the middle of each line.
  • Next to the top of each line, write "Very High," and next to the bottom, write "Very Low."
    • Turn the paper ninety degrees to the right, so it is now in "portrait" form.
  • Along the first line, write the word "Extraversion."
  • Along the second, write the word "Neuroticism," followed on each line by the words "Conscientiousness," "Agreeableness," and "Openness to Experience," respectively.
  • Now, read each of the descriptions below and ask yourself, "What am I like, really? How would a very good friend or relative who really knows me describe me?"
  • Then, draw a line toward the top, middle, or bottom based on where you fall.
  • Finally, reread the following section and think about how to use your knowledge of your personality to be the most effective counselor you can be.

The "Big Five"*

Extraversion
Extraversion refers to how strongly someone is programmed to seek positive emotions. High scorers have an intense inclination to strive for things that make them feel "good," meaning happy, or joyful, such as having lots of friends or traveling to new places. In general, they are sociable and enthusiastic. These are the biggest strengths of an extravert, as they tend to get along well with others and seek out fun things to do. Extraverts, however, also have a tendency to talk too much and get too caught up in their "latest scheme," giving less thought to details or how to follow through.

Low extraversion scorers are sometimes called "introverted." They are not unhappy or even shy. The opposite of joy is not misery or anxiety, it is simply the absence of joy (Nettle, 2007). Low scorers are more careful and measured in how they relate to others and how they try new things. Introverts are more "go with the flow," while extraverts are "often on the go." The quiet dignity of the introverted individual (which, incidentally, we do not value enough as a culture) makes them good listeners, but they can also be misunderstood as aloof or uninterested.

At camp, extraverted counselors will be drawn to all of the new opportunities presented to them, and may therefore struggle with follow through. They may be more adept at using behavior management and communication strategies that are direct, verbal, and action-oriented. Extraverts manage their emotions better when they have lots of fun activities to look forward to — usually those that involve other people. Introverted counselors will be more comfortable working with smaller groups of campers and counselors. They will need to schedule more "down time," away from others, to refresh themselves. Thoughtful and analytical by nature, they are more likely to lead by example, and will be more effective using one-on-one, less confrontational behavioral strategies.

Neuroticism
Neuroticism refers to how someone is wired to experience negative emotions like anxiety, sadness, or irritability. High scorers are sensitive people. They genuinely "feel" negative emotions more intensely than low scorers, are more prone to worry, and are more easily upset or irritated by the same things that low scorers shrug off. Of course, we all experience negative emotions. High scorers just feel them more often and to a more intense degree than low scorers. (If you think you are high on neuroticism, you might be getting a bit freaked out by reading this description and realizing it sounds like you. Slow your breathing down, think of something nice someone once said to you, and try not to flip out.) There are positive aspects of being high on neuroticism, and negative aspects of being low.

High scorers can be quite motivated to avoid their relatively "louder" bad feelings and can be quite creative with their coping strategies. They can, therefore, be more prepared for stress because they have more practice dealing with it. Wary by nature, they are more likely to be on the lookout for danger, and could potentially be more alert and protective in a camp setting. Low scorers tend to be cool in a crisis and manage stress with little deliberate effort, but might then be less ready for a big stressor when it comes along. Low scorers might also be less likely to take the emotional distress of others seriously because, after all, it seems like no big deal to them.

Counselors high in neuroticism will need to be deliberate about taking care of themselves. Because their negative emotions are more intense, they need to work carefully on monitoring their emotions, being comfortable asking for help, and having a series of strategies (regular time off, peer supports, relaxation training, etc.) ready to use on the first day. If you think you are high on this scale, just make sure to talk with a supervisor about how you can work on taking care of yourself over the summer. Low scorers will need to be more anxious, since they are less concerned with what might go wrong. Use of provocative stories about what can and does go wrong (like the insurance company's risk management session) are good tools, but daily reminders of risks and safety issues will also be required.

Conscientiousness
Conscientiousness refers, essentially, to self-control, or someone's "stop" system. High scorers are disciplined and organized, while low scorers are more spontaneous and impulsive. High scorers do well when they have a great deal of autonomy with a set of responsibilities, because they are good at generating and following through with an internal set of goals. They can have trouble, however, when a situation calls for flexibility, or when a plan needs to be altered, because they like to do things "their way." They can also be perceived as rigid, or even stuffy. Low scorers do well in situations that are fluid and constantly changing — and tend to be quite a lot of fun, in the sense that they are somewhat unpredictable and laid back, not being likely to feel the need to "get something done" right away.

High conscientiousness counselors can be given more autonomy with organizational challenges and will prefer staff training sessions that are structured and predictable. They will also probably need reminders that this is camp, not an engineering class, and that things don't always have to go according to plan. Low conscientiousness counselors will need more direct supervision and will prefer shorter, more physically active staff training activities. They will also need help following the structures of their camp's daily life and will probably have to work harder on things such as being on time, planning camper activities, and remembering important details of camp's organizational structure. The low scorer's tendency to be impulsive and somewhat prone to risk-taking behavior means that they need to avoid situations where they have made poor choices in the past (you know what I mean).

Agreeableness
Agreeableness refers to caring about others. High scorers are empathic. They are good at understanding another's perspective and their emotions and factor these issues into their behavior. They are described as tenderhearted, nice, trusting — and they tend to have good social relationships. They rarely have long-lasting feuds with others since they are rather forgiving. Low scorers put less weight on emotional factors and interpersonal issues when making choices about how to behave — and tend to be good at making difficult decisions without taking matters personally. There is a fairly pronounced gender difference on this trait, with women routinely scoring higher on Agreeableness then men. Please don't be offended, as agreeableness itself is neither good nor bad. It only refers to average tendencies, and there is still a lot of overlap. It just means that men and women have a lot to learn from each other in addressing interpersonal issues.

Counselors high in agreeableness will be very patient and understanding and are likely to be effective with campers and staff that others find hard to deal with. They need to be careful, however, about sacrificing their own needs too much for the sake of others. Because they are nice and trusting, they are also at higher risk to be manipulated by clever campers trying to get away with something — and might struggle to "put their foot down" when necessary. Low scorers may benefit from some sensitivity training, so that they make deliberate efforts to understand the emotions of other staff and campers and so that they take them seriously. High scorers are natural "good cops," low scorers are natural "bad cops."

Openness to Experience
Openness to experience is the least well understood of the "Big Five" and will therefore be covered only briefly. High scorers tend to be unconventional and creative, interested in the arts and other "cultured" pursuits. Low scorers are more literal and concrete — and tend to be interested in pragmatic, down-to-earth subjects.

High openness counselors add a great deal to camp because they are the artists (meaning art of all kinds) in residence, and their unconventionality and tendency to be free-spirited leads to innovative ways of thinking. Some conventions are good; however, and high scorers may need more direction to value the traditions and structures campers need and enjoy. Low openness counselors will need to make sure their disinterest (note: not dislike) in the arts does not influence their camper's choices. Low openness counselors will be good "workhorses," and can be counted on to do the necessary nuts-and-bolts-type work required for setting up and running camp.

Now What?

Where do you fall on each trait? What does your combination of traits mean for your job as a camp counselor? These are important questions — and reading this article is meant to start conversations using a common language. Remember, you bring your personality with you to camp, just the same as your luggage, your guitar, or your baseball glove. If you can increase awareness of your personality, you can better understand when and where it is effective, as well as when it is not. Learning what works for you is a lifelong process — and one that can start this summer.

*Please note that the information presented regarding "The Big Five" is based on the writings of Nettle (2007) and McCrae (2003).

References
Nettle, D. (2007). Personality: What Makes You The Way Are. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCrae, R.R. (2003). Personality in Adulthood: A Five-Factor Theory Perspective, 2nd Edition. New York: Guilford Press.

Ethan D. Schafer, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at Case Western Reserve University. He has a private practice in the Cleveland area and consults with schools and camps across the country. He can be reached at ethanschafer@yahoo.com.

Originally published in the 2009 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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