The Gray DIvorce Podcast: Episode 21 Know Yourself! The Big Five Personality Tests - Tools for Growth After Gray Divorce Part 1

Andrew Hatherley |

Announcement: Welcome to The Gray Divorce Podcast, hosted by divorce financial analyst and retirement planning counselor Andrew Hatherley. Join Andrew and guest experts as they help late-life divorcees build the financial and mental foundation for a meaningful future. There is life after divorce. Now on to the show.

Andrew Hatherley: Hi everyone! Welcome to episode 21 of the gray divorce podcast.  

You've heard me say many times on this podcast that there is life after divorce. And it can be a period of great growth and personal enrichment as we emerge from a situation that wasn't right for us. It's an opportunity for us to start over, to hit the reset button and yes, of course, rebuild.  

If we're emerging from mid to late life divorce we realize, usually much more than someone in their 20s, 30s or even 40s, that we've got a limited time on earth. So, it can light a bit of a fire under us 

As Andy Dufresnes’s character said in the Shawshank Redemption “Either get busy living or get busy dying.” 

In my work as a certified divorce financial analyst and chartered retirement planning counselor I work with people on the financial aspect of rebuilding or protecting their financial foundation to lead a more contented life after divorce. 

But I know, having gone through gray divorce myself, that mindset is such an important part of the equation to living a more contented life. And a big part of my mindset shift after my divorce came with being open to learning more about myself and understanding aspects of my own personality. This required an appreciation of the truth and accepting some things about myself that weren't particularly flattering. 

Before I got serious about some real self-reflecting, I'd be tempted to describe myself to others in terms of what I consider to be my best characteristics. I might even mention my astrological sign or my Myers Briggs personality type. For instance, I might say to someone who knew something about astrology that I'm a typical Cancer, the crab, kind of hard on the outside, soft on the inside, sensitive, hard working. Pretty tame stuff and of course pretty much all positive.  

The Myers Briggs personality profile is a step in the right direction scientifically but still, those of us who know something about Myers Briggs and the 16 personality types, still tend to fly a flag for our particular type. For instance, I'm an INTJ, a loose acronym standing for an introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging personality. INTJ's are described in one of the popular Myers Briggs websites as “thoughtful tacticians who love perfecting the details of life, applying creativity and rationality to everything they do. Their inner world is often a private complex one.  

Wow! Go team INTJ! Now, some of that may be accurate, but really what it is is cheerleading for our personality type. It might be a fun cocktail party conversation so far as helping us seriously understand ourselves I don't think it really gets us very far in the self-reflection department. 

What I want to focus on over the next two episodes of the gray divorce podcast are a couple of serious psychological tools I found very useful in helping me understand myself and look to grow after my divorce at age 52. I want to share those tools with you in the hope that you find them as valuable as I did in helping to set a course for a new life.   

Specifically, in this episode I’m going to talk about the big 5 personality assessment or test and, in the next episode, the second part of this discussion, I plan to talk about the VIA classification of character strengths and virtues. 

These tools, The Big Five Personality Assessment, and the VIA Strengths Finder, complement one another but at their core they're both helpful in helping us come to terms with who we are. To help us understand our strengths and our weaknesses and to move forward with that knowledge in our back pockets. 

Now, I imagine some of you are metaphorically raising your hands in the air saying: “But I do know myself. It’s other people who don't understand me.” 

I get it.  

Many of you are probably thinking I've been living with myself for 60 years. Nobody knows me better than me. Or maybe you're thinking uhm what does this have to do with moving on after divorce. 

Well, please bear with me. Stick around for a few minutes and we'll discuss: 

1) how we really don't know ourselves as well as we think we do,  

2) why it matters that we develop a better understanding of ourselves and  

3) what it is about these tools that can help us. How do they work and how can we apply these exercises to live a more authentic, meaningful, purposeful life and maybe become a better person in the process. 

My discussion today draws from my own experience and four sources for which I've provided links in the resources section on the podcast page:  

So? How well do we know ourselves? If you're a regular listener of the gray divorce podcast, chances are you've been living with yourself for at least 50 years …you've had what Adam Grant calls backstage access to your own mind.  You probably think you know yourself very well. 

But Grant argues that that backstage pass access to your own mind sometimes makes you the worst judge of yourself. He suggests thinking about it like owning a car: just because you've driven it for years doesn't mean you can pinpoint when and why the engine broke down. 

Before you dismiss that as a cute metaphor know that a lot of psychological research done over the years suggests that other people's assessment of your personality is a better predictor of your behavior, on average, than your own assessment. The truth is, we don't know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do.  

The psychologist Simine Vazire did a study that pointed out some of our human blind spots and how predictable they are. That there are certain types of traits where we can't see ourselves clearly, but others can. She asked people to rate themselves and four friends on a variety of traits, ranging from emotional stability and intelligence to creativity and assertiveness. Then to see if they had predicted their own personalities better than their friends had, they took a bunch of tests that measured these traits. 

She found that yes we do have some unique insight into our emotional stability. In the study we outperform our friends at predicting how nervous we'd be about giving a speech or how we felt about their bodies.  

But we do no better than our friends at forecasting how assertive we’d be in a group discussion.  

And …this is interesting: when the test group tried to predict their performance on an IQ test or a creativity test, they were less accurate than their friends.  

In his article in the Atlantic Monthly, Grant concludes that people know themselves best on the traits that are tough to observe but easy to admit, like emotional stability.  

On those traits which others can observe, like intelligence, kindness, assertiveness, creativity, Grant finds that frankly we are untrustworthy interpreters of ourselves.  

And it makes sense, doesn't it? We’d love to convince everybody and ourselves that we are smart and creative and kind and funny.  

But studies show that we consistently overestimate our intelligence. And yeah guys, this is a pattern that seems to be more pronounced in men than women.  

For a rather extreme example consider when Donald Trump claimed that he was “a very stable genius” I think we can safely argue, regardless of one's politics, that's a rather dubious psychological self-analysis.  

So, it's probably best that we don't talk about our intelligence. And just prove it through our actions. 

Grant references the comedian Patton Oswalt who said about humor, that the only person who goes around saying I'm funny is probably not really a funny person. If you really were funny, you'd just make people laugh. 

A recent article in Psychology Today discussed psychologist Timothy Wilson's book Strangers to Ourselves. In the book Wilson summarizes decades of research on what he calls our adaptive unconscious, showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day — what we think, how we feel, the goals we pursue and the actions we take — is happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it's not directly accessible to us at all. 

It makes sense. If we had to do everything we do consciously, then we'd be so busy remembering to breathe and not fall over that we couldn't get much else accomplished. By handing operations over to the nonconscious mind — including high-level, complex operations like pursuing goals — we make productivity possible. 

The downside, of course, is that when things go wrong, we have a difficult time figuring out why, given that we weren't completely conscious of what we were doing in the first place.  

So, how we feel internally isn't always an accurate reflection of reality.  

Understanding our personality tendencies allows us to say to ourselves, "Hang on a minute, you're doing that stupid thing you do again."  

It creates a mental reset, an opportunity to course correct. For me as an example it shows up as a split-second moment where I think before I say something that might just come off as a little aggressive. It's a moment where all my brain cells are firing and I'm thinking “before you get yourself into trouble, say this in a different way it'll be best for you and everyone else.” 

Fortunately, psychologists have been working for years trying to find ways to help us get at really what's really going on underneath our surface to help us answer these questions about ourselves. Ultimately, this will allow us to do more of what we're really good at, to better understand what type of work we best suited for, to help us better navigate relationships, to better enjoy our leisure time, and to help us develop strategies to counterbalance our weaknesses.  

But a cold fact is that many avoid learning about our personality for fear of the truth.  

Remember Jack Nicholson from the movie A few good men? You can't handle the truth. I'm pretty sure that a lot of us can't handle the truth about ourselves. 

I'm in the camp that the truth is a good thing and self-knowledge can only help us harness the power of our strengths and perhaps reign in or at least be aware of some of our deficiencies. 

So, The Big Five Personality Assessments can help you to learn more about your own personality and where to focus your energy and attention. The first step in effectively leveraging your strengths and understanding our demons is to learn what they are. 

American psychologist Lewis Goldberg may be the most prominent researcher in the field of personality psychology. His work focused on five primary factors of personality. 

THE BIG FIVE that Goldberg identified are: 

  • Openness to experience 
  • Conscientiousness 
  • Extroversion 
  • Agreeableness 
  • Neuroticism 

Take the first letter of each of these factors you have the acronym OCEAN. 

This model became known as the big 5 and served as a framework for thousands of studies of personality and is arguably the most accepted model of personality today. 

A typical big 5 personality assessment poses a series of statements that the person taking the test can answer as either being in agreement or disagreement with.  Or perhaps answering that the statement is an accurate reflection of their personality or an inaccurate reflection. It's not an either-or answer, there's a spectrum or a gradation of five places between the extremes of accurate and inaccurate or agree and disagree. 

For example, given the statement “I feel comfortable around people” on one side of the spectrum you might agree and on the other you might disagree. In between those responses there may be slightly agree, slightly disagree or neutral. 

Another statement might be something like of “I am the life of the party.” At one extreme you may find that statement completely inaccurate, at the other extreme accurate or various levels in between. 

Let's discuss the big 5 using the OCEAN acronym: 

So, O for openness to experience. This concerns people's willingness to try new things, to be open to new ideas, to be vulnerable, to have the ability to think outside the box. It's sometimes been described as the depth and complexity of an individual's mental life and experiences. 

Common traits related to openness to experience include imagination and creativity, cleverness, intellect, originality. 

An individual who is high in openness to experience is likely someone who has a love of learning, enjoys the arts, engages in a creative career or hobby, and likes meeting new people. 

On the other hand, an individual who is low in openness to experience probably prefers routine over variety and is less likely to venture outside their comfort zone. 

Artists and writers , for example, are uncommonly high in openness.  

People high in openness, seeking out novelty, often can create incredible things. But on the downside, are far more likely to engage in risky behavior. 

Psychologists suggest that those high in openness to experience should capitalize on their advantage and explore the world, themselves, and their passions.  

Conscientiousness is the next key trait and can quite often be found in people that are able to delay gratification and plan and organize effectively in pursuit of goals. 

Key traits within the conscientious factor would include persistence, ambition, reliability. 

Conscientious people are likely to be successful in school and in their careers, and to pursue their goals with determination. People low in conscientiousness are much more likely to procrastinate and to be impetuous, and impulsive. 

This trait, probably more than all the others, is one people seek to strengthen. Being highly conscientious is correlated with many positive life results because most things worth doing require long term commitment. 

Knowing you're low in conscientiousness can be a bit of a shock. But it will give you awareness that there are some things you just need to do, regardless of whether you want to do them. Being able to see the bigger picture, and the positive outcomes your actions will bring about, might be enough to remind you to overcome your lack of conscientiousness. 

A downside of being very high in conscientiousness is that it can cause you to be judgmental and put off by the failures of others. Highly conscientious people are very much committed to personal responsibility and tend to be convinced that those who work hard should and will be rewarded and those that don’t deserve their failure. Unsurprisingly, highly conscientious people are more likely to be politically conservative rather than liberal. 

E for Extraversion has two familiar ends of its spectrum: extroversion and introversion. 

The best explanation I've seen of extroversion looks at where someone draws their energy and how they interact with others. In general, extroverts draw energy from or recharge, by interacting with others, while introverts get tired from interacting with others and replenish their energy with solitude. 

Typical traits associated with extraversion are being sociable, assertive, talkative, and fun loving.  

People high in extroversion tend to seek out opportunities for social interaction, where they are often the “life of the party.” People low in extroversion are more likely to be people “of few words” who are quiet, introspective, reserved, and thoughtful. 

While there are many ways a self-understanding of this trait might help us, the most clearly obvious is in our career choices. Someone high in extraversion will suffer if put in a job that requires long periods stuck alone at a desk. Conversely, someone low in extraversion will probably not enjoy a job in sales. 

If you find yourself hating your work, your personality, and particularly this trait of extraversion, might be the very first place to check. So often, when we select a career, we're young and inexperienced. Not knowing what to do, we follow someone else's well-meaning advice. Or we do what our family or society expect of us. But this might be a recipe for disaster, if, for example, you're high in extraversion but the family has 'always done' accounting. 

Factor 4, Agreeableness concerns how well people get along with others. While extroversion concerns sources of energy and the pursuit of interactions with others, agreeableness concerns one’s orientation to others. It considers how an individual generally interacts with others. 

Traits such as helpfulness, friendliness, amiability, kindness, modesty fall under the umbrella of agreeableness. 

Agreeableness is an interesting one because you figure that we'd all want to be agreeable right? But being high in trait agreeableness is not all good, nor is being low in agreeableness all bad. 

In fact, people who are low in agreeableness, while potentially being abrasive, are often very successful because they don't mind speaking their mind. In fact, being low in agreeableness is positively associated with earning more money. 

Agreeable people seek to avoid conflict. While this might be generally positive, there are times when taking a stand for yourself is important -- when negotiating a salary for example. 

So, a person low in agreeableness might want to learn to soften themselves in certain situations while a highly agreeable person may need to stand up for themselves more, maybe even consider assertiveness training. 

The final factor in the ocean acronym is N for Neuroticism.  Neuroticism is a measure of general sensitivity to negative emotions such as pain, sadness, anger, fear, and anxiety. These are typical traits along with insecurity, lack of confidence, and hypersensitivity. 

Neuroticism has been linked to poorer job performance and lower motivation, and addiction. It likely comes as no surprise that instability and vulnerability to stress and anxiety do not support one’s best work. 

Individuals who score on the low end of neuroticism are more likely to feel confident, sure of themselves, and adventurous. They may also be brave and unencumbered by worry or self-doubt. 

While high neuroticism is related to added difficulties in life, including addiction, poor job performance, and unhealthy adjustment to life’s changes, scoring high on neuroticism is not a sentence to a life of misery. People with high trait neuroticism would benefit from investing in improvements to their self-confidence, building resources to draw on in times of difficulty, and avoiding any substances with addictive properties. 

Understanding that you're higher in neuroticism can be a true doorway into your own mind and can put feelings of anxiety and depression into perspective. And, in some cases, knowing this tendency may help alleviate these feelings. 

Ultimately the real benefit of the big 5 aspects scale is just to get a better insight into our own minds. As I said at the outset, an understanding of our own personalities allows us to course correct. To recognize our strengths and to use them for good in our lives and our interactions with others. And allows us to better appreciate aspects of ourselves that we may need to work on or at least acknowledge. 

There are all sorts of personality tests using the big 5 aspects framework on the Internet. And they all follow a similar methodology. Some are free, some have a small cost. I did the big 5 personality test at the website which costs about 10 bucks. But as I said there are plenty of free options out there. 

When I took the test, it forced me to come to terms with some aspects of my personality that I hadn't properly acknowledged. For instance, I mentioned earlier that most of us probably want to think of ourselves as agreeable. Well, it turns out I'm pretty disagreeable!  

Now, for the most part, this has worked out well for me in life because I will stand up for myself and my principles. And to do that you have to run the risk that some people are going to be offended. But recognizing my “disagreeableness” it has encouraged me sometimes to take a breath and try to express my thoughts in perhaps a more polite way.  

Another area of the big five test that didn't exactly fill me with joy was that I scored higher in neuroticism than I thought I would. But it has helped me learn to deal with my moods and irritability and I can say without a doubt that I've become a more grateful, mindful person over the past few years. 

Other aspects of the test that didn't surprise me so much were scoring high in conscientiousness and average in openness to experience. I was surprised to find that I'm a little bit more extroverted than I thought. I've always enjoyed quiet time with a good book. But I came to realize that the test’s results regarding extroversion were probably accurate because here I am now giving public workshops on divorce education, I’m 21 episodes into a podcast and discussing my big 5 personality traits in public. 

Anyway, I encourage you to at least look at the big 5 personality assessments on the Internet or at your local library. That's a place some of you introverts may know about. I think you'll find Yourself inclined to take the test. I bet you'll be intrigued by the results. 

I look forward to continuing the conversation in the next episode of the gray divorce podcast when we discuss the VIA survey of character strengths. 

That's it for now. Take care. 

Announcement: Thanks so much for tuning into this episode of The Gray Divorce Podcast. To learn more or get in contact with your host, you can visit Andrew's website at Also, please feel free to rate, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. That helps others find the show and we greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again for listening, and we'll catch you in the next episode.

Andrew Hatherley: Information provided is educational only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Each situation is unique and should be discussed with your tax or legal advisor prior to implementation. Andrew Hatherley is not an attorney and does not provide legal advice. Information provided is financial in nature.

Advisory services offered through Hatherly Capital Management, LLC. Divorce Financial Analysis Services offered through Wiser Divorce Solutions and affiliated company