10. CultChallenges SpecTemperament - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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10. CultChallenges SpecTemperament

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Born That Way- Termperament Rel

Born that Way, Temperamental Challenges in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Different communities have definite cultural biases about what is positive or negative with high or low tendencies among various temperamental traits.  Studies have examined the propensity of one group versus another group to be higher or more pronounced in one or more aspects of temperament, personality, and beliefs.  The most obvious cross-cultural consideration for working with heterosexual couples differences in is male versus female desirability of various traits.  For example, Samuel and Charlie's more assertive or aggressive personalities are generally more acceptable for men and boys, but more frowned upon for females.  Aliya's emotional sensitivity may be regarded as relatively normal femininity, while Charlie's emotional sensitivity may be treated as something to reduce for the man he is to become.  In addition, there are variable ethnic, historical, class, and experiential cohorts of culture in many individual and relationship assessment.   It is very important to note that different cultures including the culture of particular families will be more or less supportive of the different traits in a temperamental profile.  For example, mainstream American culture is much more supportive of boys and men being physically active.  Samuel and Charlie exemplify such high activity.

In many areas of mainstream American culture, high adaptability is tolerated and supported in order to promote exploration and extension of technology and processes.  Innovation in technology is especially supported in modern society.  In contrast, in societies where it is inappropriate or even dangerous to veer from the status quo, adaptability would be seen as a negative trait.  In a family environment where one can be punished severely for doing something "wrong", the most prudent course would be to avoid any innovation.  Fundamentalist societies or religious communities tend to be severe in this manner. In societies where it is safe to take chances and there are great benefits to seizing opportunities, high approach in new situations would be supported.  On the other hand, if potential punishment is extreme and severe whether from a societal response or family response, then the training of individuals- in particular, children would be to avoid and withdraw from new situations or opportunity.  It may be useful to do further examination for every particular trait, to specify which situations and contexts it is productive to have high versus low characteristics in traits.  Some cultural frameworks posit that it is never or always appropriate to be one way or the other.  For example, a rule that one should always move slowly and carefully or risk getting into trouble advocates low approach to any new situation.  Individuals coming from communities with major punishments for mistakes would be more likely to believe this.  Or, individuals having lived with a three-generation extended family setup in a small two-bedroom apartment!  

Societies and families where there are a lot of activity and stimulation, would also be the places where developing a high sensory threshold would be supported.  If Aliya could develop a high sensory threshold, it would make a world of difference to her in the family.  On the other hand, a more placid environment would not demand a high sensory threshold to be successful.  Aliya would love such a household.  Intensity or passion can lead to spontaneous and impulsive behavior.  Within societies, individuals and families from commercial areas such as ports or large cities would tend to be more tolerant or familiar with high intensity versus individuals and families from rural areas.  Support for intensity or the expression of intensity versus the suppression of intensity and passion would depend on how safe or dangerous it is to be spontaneous or impulsive.  In totalitarian communities or abusive families, spontaneity is a poor choice.  On the other hand, in some circumstances aggression may be well served by passion.  

The following statement has an implicit social reference.  "Repeated unregulated expression of some temperamental characteristics such as extremely high activity level or intense emotions may be viewed as dysfunctional, particularly if the behaviors do not change in response to interventions (Teglasi et al., 2004, page 15).  This may be true in a mainstream American classroom, but literally a few hundred yards away in the playground or in the neighborhood, it may not be so dysfunctional.  If being aggressive is essential to survival, then being passionate or intense increases aggression's effectiveness.  Especially in some circumstances for adolescent males in inner-city situations, for example are most effectively handled with high passion and aggression.  In communities where there are multiple challenges- each of which can be dangerous, high distractibility causes individuals to more actively scan the environment for potential issues.  In other situations where the survival demands tend to be simpler or singularly focused on one aspect of the environment or one task (for example, a community that lives off of a single natural resource, or an assembly line workforce), then low distractibility would be more supported.

Individuals may come from families, communities, or societies where it is highly prudent to be extremely vigilant because of the environmental and social dangers that exist.  Experiences of war, ethnic violence, and totalitarian governments as well as abusive and chaotic family environments would promote greater vigilance.  Their families or communities will tend to allow for certain types of distractible behavior since distractibility serves vigilance necessary for survival.  Examining whether the current situation including the relationship requires such vigilance, may allow for individuals to commit themselves to be less distracted.  Someone who may be temperamentally emotionally reactive and already prone to hyper-sensitivity and hyper-vigilance would further intensify these tendencies if there are familial or cultural values and/or personal experiences of vulnerability and harm- especially, trauma.  Aliya is an example of this experience.  As is often relevant, there may be greater tolerance of male distractibility versus female distractibility.   Girls and women may have a greater expectation to stay focused on meeting the various needs of the family due to cultural standards.  In societies with rigid traditions, the cultural expectation may be for females to be submissive and passive when dealing with males.  Being highly adaptable in finding an alternative to confront inequities or problems could be discouraged.  There would be a cultural mandate on how to be a girl and a way to be a mother that a female would be supposed to adhere to.  On the other hand, being adaptable may be acceptable if it means finding another way to deal with the same situation, while maintaining a cultural sanction against confronting others or authorities.  Many women approach conflicts within the couple indirectly to avoid conflict, however with inconsistent results.  The therapist should explore the personal-temperamental and cultural directives to approach or avoid conflict as they may affect the couple's dynamics.

Some societies or communities as a whole tend to be more regular or irregular.  More industrialized societies would tend to be more regular since much of industry (or factory work) requires very regular and more precise processes that would be required in agrarian societies.  Within societies, the work or vocation of the individual may also require more or less regular processes.  Regularity may be relevant in respect to highly educated and/or upper class families as opposed to irregularity being more common with working class or under-class families.  The therapist should examine for potential class issues between pairs of people such as partners in the couple, as well as class issues or transitions generationally between partners and their mutual parents and grandparents.  Persistence depends a lot upon how it is received or perceived by others.  In principle, a tolerant society or family that has protections for persistent but annoying behavior will support the development of this trait and direct it towards productive outcomes.  Persistent behavior that serves the family or cultural expectations will tend to be supported while persistent behavior that is counter to expectations may be labeled stubborn or defiant and punished.  Authorities both parental and societal that are stable, functional, and can tolerate dissension are more likely to shape individuals to be appropriately persistent as opposed to reacting harshly and punitively.   

Individuals from very intense communities: family, work, organization, or society tend to be less tolerant of additional sensory stimulation from members or others.  This would be low sensory threshold or high emotional reactivity on a larger scale beyond the individual.  This could be a larger community, a family, or a vocation.  The community or organism could be seen as being in a fragile state of time and energy expenditure balancing stimulation demands.  At the edge of being overwhelmed, any additional stimulation or challenge is intrusive and often resented.  This could be a parent in a family maintaining a precarious balance of time and energy dealing with multiple children, multiple sports and music lessons, homework, housework, and work demands flipping out from a request to make brownies for a scout meeting.  Communities under high stress from economic, political, military, or other pressures will be less willing or able to constructively manage additional demands or energy.  They would experience new stimulation as challenges to their tentative balance.  The cultural standard that individuals may internalize may be to hold back from expressing oneself, especially anything that may challenge the status quo.  On the other hand, individuals from communities that readily manage frequent and intense challenges and change would be tolerant of additional stimulation.  Rather than holding stimulation or maintaining equilibrium through exhaustive energy and resource draining actions, such communities more successfully problem-solve and release stress.  As a result, such communities as some individuals will do, functionally raise their sensory threshold or release sufficient stress so that their relatively low threshold is not overwhelmed.  The therapist should explore the formative communities that the partners individually may have acquired values regarding various temperamental traits and other characteristics.

Individuals who have low approach to new situations may have developed this partly in response to its survival benefits in a dangerous community- be it family or society.  Trying out new behaviors or innovative activities in a conservative intolerant community: family or society may be figuratively or literally suicidal.  Helping such people understand that such an instinct to withdraw may not serve survival in the new situation of the relationship or community.  Committing and coming to therapy itself is often experienced as radical behavior.  In addition, the processes of therapy may be highly unfamiliar and uncomfortable to individuals with low approach.  New communication and behaviors to facilitate change and functionality will also be difficult for anyone raised with conservative instincts.  The therapist may find it useful to promote a cross-cultural transition on several levels towards exploring different behavior and values.  Families and societies with high value of innovation, risk-taking, and exploration and discovery would tend to acculturate its members to the matching behaviors.  Therapy is a community of therapist and one or more clients that requires risk-taking, exploration, and discovery that may or may not be culturally familiar to individuals.   The therapist may find some individuals to be readily cooperative and invested in therapy… and others uncomfortable and resistant.

Positive and negative moods may be supported by the culture of the community or family from which individuals originate.  Being negative or pessimistic helps one avoid being disappointed when bad things happen.  Bad things… horrific experiences occur normally and frequently in oppressive non-democratic communities.  Hope is dangerous as it may cause one to invest dangerously in revolutionary activities.  Being pessimistic, as well as dampening the mood for others, especially ones children becomes a survival tactic.  Negativity and discouraging hope in one's children protects them from optimistic risk-taking that can be deadly.  This can create a familial or society-wide culture of depression.  On the other hand, being positive may help in avoiding the overwhelming negativity of life, while admittedly being unrealistic at times.  It promotes risk taking.  In relationships, families, and societies where risk taking is often rewarding and is not inordinately punished, optimism is not only viable but also productive.  Individuals who come from such positive experiences are more likely to be hopeful despite disappointment and failures.  They will be more likely to initiate and invest in therapy.  The therapist should explore the valuing of optimism and pessimism in the clients' experiences.  Therapy can reveal how such moods have supportive and survival value in prior circumstances.  It can honor the dynamics for individuals previously developed.  From this honoring, optimism and pessimism can be examined in the light of present circumstances and needs.  How has optimism or pessimism served them, and how do they serve or not serve functioning or the relationship currently?

The most difficult circumstance to deal with in relationships may be when there is both a temperamental inclination and a cultural support for low adaptability with one, both, or more of the members.  Cultural tendencies to maintain the status quo of a society are relevant to all traditional societies.  In this sense, traditional societies do not evolve significantly from generation to generation.  When environmental demands do not change from generation to generation, conservative maintenance of established cultural patterns that previously promoted and secured survival is logical.  Non-traditional societies or societies with rapid development that create different survival requirements will be more open to change, flexibility, and adaptation.  Such societies are relatively new in human history.  There are arguably only a few modern societies with sufficient rapid technological progress to change dramatically in a few generations.  And these societies have not yet fully internalized or institutionalized these values and behaviors.  As such, the cultural instincts to resist change and adaptation persist even in more technologically evolved countries.  The individual, a couple, or a family must be led to realize that their persistence with the same dynamics has and will continue to fail them.  They serve personally archaic and ineffective relational processes.  The therapist must establish him or herself as the cross-cultural guide towards a more effective process.  Asserting or being allowed this authoritative role will allow the therapist to become the resource for the low adaptable clients.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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