The Big Five, DISC, Myers and Briggs, the Enneagram — all these personality systems help you understand yourself and other people better. By learning your own personality traits and those of others, you can begin to understand the inherent strengths and potential pitfalls we all possess.
But if you want to take that knowledge and turn it into wisdom, you need to go beyond the personality profiles. You need to understand what it takes to change behavior. And that answer lies in your physical body.
The word “embodiment” is making the rounds in the world of personality systems, psychology circles and transformative practices for good reason. Science has proven over and over that putting a physical practice, like meditation, yoga or martial arts, around your mental thinking is the key to creating lasting change. You don’t think your way into new behavior—you move your way into it.
Rewiring your brain
The brain is an incredibly complex organ, and the neuroplasticity of the brain means that it is malleable: you can literally change your mind. The path to this change happens in your physical body and is the result of dedicated, focused work.
Imagine you are an Enneagram Type 8 or a DISC Type D (for Drive). You know your anger response can be intense and at times inappropriate. You also know that studying a book about anger management and why you should slow down your anger response isn’t going to change your rage the next time someone challenges your authority in a meeting or cuts you off in traffic.
The text you study will help you understand your reaction, but to change your behavior requires something more. Your anger response is the result of neural pathways repetitively grooved into your brain based on how your personality interprets threats. In order to change your brain’s response, you need to move out of the old grooves and build new neural pathways. You have to essentially perform a renovation of your brain.
Is your nervous system a thin paper cup or a large metal pot?
The first step to change your behavior is to strengthen your nervous system. The nervous system, a combination of your brain, your spinal cord and your nerve endings, is essentially the container within which you experience the world.
Imagine your container is a small, thin paper cup. The events of the day pour in and quickly overflow your fragile container, overwhelming you. Small things might set you off. For example, you get cut off in traffic, your co-worker is late for a meeting, or your spouse leaves dirty dishes in the sink. All of these seemingly minor events become triggers in your day interrupting your sense of calm and your emotional balance.
But what if your container is a thick, metal pot? Those exact same events pour in, but now you have space for them, the trigger feels less intense, and you don’t become so overwhelmed. You ignore the person who cuts you off in traffic, you have a few sips of coffee while waiting for your late co-worker, you calmly clean the dirty dishes in the sink while focusing your mind on all the things you love about your spouse.
With a strong nervous system, you can choose your behavior. With a weaker nervous system, you are like a machine, reacting to trigger after trigger, feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
I’m physically strong. Doesn’t that mean I have a strong nervous system?
No, it does not. There are lots of physical practices that help build your nervous system, but it is important to understand that having a strong nervous system is totally different than having a fit body. In my 30s, I was a surfer, a triathlete and a runner and yet my nervous system was really weak. The messages going from my brain to my body kept me anxious, and I often felt on edge and overwhelmed. I could swim two miles in open water in the Pacific Ocean, but simple things like running late for a meeting would be an intensely anxiety-provoking experience, and I would, inadvertently, take that anxiety out on everyone around me.
It wasn’t until I started a physical practice that developed my breath and spinal flexibility that I began to feel what life is like with a strong nervous system. Your experience in life is completely different with a strong nervous system. You feel more at ease.
In conjunction with strengthening your nervous system, you need to develop powerful breath control.
Your breath is the steering wheel for your thoughts
In many forms of embodiment training, we see the metaphorical image of a horse, a rider and a chariot. The horses are your thoughts, the chariot is your life, and the rider is your Higher Self. For most of us, the horses are in control, dragging the chariot all over the place while the rider stands helplessly by.
Have you ever had a negative stream of thinking you just couldn't stop? That’s the horses galloping out of control. Ideally you want the rider, your Higher Self, steering your chariot, your life. And metaphorically, the reins, the only thing you have to control the horses, is your breath. The message is that if you can control your breathing, you can control your thoughts.
The goal is to act, not react
Embodying a personality system is a process, and there are lots of systems and tools to help you on the journey. I myself use the practice of Kundalini Yoga. This form of yoga, called the “yoga of awareness,” focuses deeply on both the breath and strengthening the nervous system.
I came to the practice as a way to help heal from a relationship breakup and was pleasantly surprised to experience how it helped all facets of my life. My Enneagram Type 7 issues of anxiety started to fall away, and my Type 7 gifts of gratitude started to emerge. My DISC Influencer issues of being scattered and overly optimistic started to fade away, and my focus and balanced thinking increased. My ENFP tendency to get stressed out easily started to relax, and I became even more creative in my thinking. The physical practice of Kundalini Yoga coupled with my knowledge of my inherent strong points from the various personality systems has helped me share my strengths, not my weaknesses.
Kundalini Yoga worked for me, but different embodiment practices work well for different people: QiGong, other forms of yoga, meditation that incorporates breath work, dance therapy, biodanza; the list is long. New systems are emerging as well. Ginny Whitlaw, a Zen Master and biophysicist who spent most of her career working at NASA, has developed a system called FEBI that integrates the mind, body, and behaviors based on four aspects of personality, four ways of moving, and four essential modes of leadership. Stephan Segatori, an MBTI coach and former athlete, has developed We-Flow, a system that works to integrate flow into business. Find a system that resonates with you, just look for an established physical practice that trains your breath and builds your nervous system in a focused and systematic way.
The benefits of embodying a personality system are many. If you want a more harmonious, peaceful world, change starts from within, and true change happens when you rewire your brain. When you understand how much work rewiring your brain requires, you’ll feel more compassion for others who seem stuck in their patterns. And at the same time, it's uplifting to know you can breathe and move your way to a brighter future. The answers are all within you, and with a physical practice to complement your personality system knowledge, true wisdom can be found minute by minute and breath by breath.