Book Review: The 5 Personality Patterns by Steven Kessler

Your Guide to Understanding Others and Developing Emotional Maturity

*** 3/3 ***

You are going to start thinking that I am not discerning since I give all the books I read 3/3 ratings!  The truth is that I read voraciously and don’t want to waste your time with the crap that I plow through that doesn’t make the cut—and there is a lot of it!

A close friend who knows me and my “colourful” internal landscape, as well as a big part of the journey I am on handed me this book the other day.  The book’s subtitle is a very accurate description of what it contains (also this post’s subtitle), and I found it a highly rewarding read.

It is a long book clocking in at over 350 pages, and part of me wishes that it was crisper and shorter, but it is also very thorough.  And just as with The 5 Love Languages book [reviewed here], every now and again a book comes along with a simple concept that really serves to explain things in ways that result in many ah-hah moments.

The Central Premise: Presence v. Pattern

The book is predicated on the idea that when we are stressed, in order to cope with the situation, we each have one of five different “survival patterns” or coping strategies that help us to get through it.  This is in contrast to simply being “present”, which is our most natural and healthy state.

These survival patterns were established in each of us at a young age, based on the dynamics of our early lives, and were developed in each of us as our most effective means of dealing with those stresses.  The goal of the book is to help us each identify what our patterns are, how they emerged, how to recognise them, and how to get out of pattern and back into the ideal state of “presence”.

[I am struck by how much commonality there is between the philosophical and psychological steps described in this book and the practices of D/s that I have experienced.  Especially the concept of presence.  I have written a few times about how much it means to me when Mistress holds me in place, asking me to stay with her, to be present, particularly at those moments when something is happening with my body or mind that might take me to another place].

The author defines presence as “meaning that all our attention is here, in this time and place.”  This occurs when we feel safe, and should be our default way of being v. a state of alert, conditioned into us by past trauma.  He also notes that in a state of presence, our thoughts and feelings are not distorted or filtered by the past.  He describes this as the conditions for healthy response and interaction.

He contrasts being present with being in pattern.  The patterns are one of the five personality patterns outlined in the book.  They are “survival” patterns, and are default modes of being and seeing that we switch to when we feel threatened or stressed.  

The author goes on to argue that these survival patterns are not who we are, but rather defence mechanisms that we needed to get through life, most likely formed in relation to early traumatic events.  External, stressful stimuli can overload our emotional circuits.  This was particularly true as we were small and growing, truly dependent on the world outside of us for safety and protection.  The survival pattern (s) we default to are essentially those ways of being and acting that helped us get out of the “overload” situation.

The 5 Developmental Stages

As we emerge from the womb and develop, there are 5 basic stages that go through as we grow.  They are:

  • Embodiment: the process through which the soul and consciousness fuse with the body before, during and the first few months of life.
  • Taking in: is about receiving, holding, and digesting…the caregiver understands the child’s need and provides it.  This stage ties with the first two years of life.
  • Putting out: action and self-expression begins from the age of about 18 months.  The child begins to explore separation and learns to act and achieve.
  • Trusting others: during the third and fourth years of life after finding independence, the child needs to discover boundaries, the presence of goodness, strength and solidity
  • Trusting self: a child learns from age 4/5 to think for itself, to discover and bend rules, and to develop inner wisdom and common sense, to think things through.  

Being thwarted at each of these developmental steps is what causes the pattern to develop.  Not surprisingly, should the child fail to develop a stage, it is unlikely that it will go beyond the developmental stage they get stuck in.  The survival patterns or personality patterns describe at which developmental stage a person got stuck.

There is no value judgement about which pattern a child adopts.  They are sequential in the sense that one passes through a developmental stage and moves on to the next one.  Most commonly, everyone will have a primary pattern and a secondary one…but not more.  The individual will default first to the primary pattern before then switching to the secondary one should the first one not work.

The 5 Patterns

The book goes into great detail to describe each pattern, how it arises, how it manifests, what it looks like, what it feels like, how to overcome it…All of which is way beyond the scope here.  If you don’t see yourself in one or more of the descriptions below, well, you’ll just have to read the book.

Each pattern grows out of a strategy that a child deploys to cope with feelings that overload its emotional circuitry.  Here they are in very summary form:

  • Leaving.  The wound happened very early, as early as during pregnancy…and the baby’s incoming spirit did not feel safe enough to come fully into its body.  Think for a moment of a mother experiencing intense stress, for whatever reason.  The baby feels it too.  The developmental task during gestation is “embodiment”…when the soul of the child goes into the physical body and physical world.  If the body is stressed, this process may not happen successfully.  This means that something is shocking the spirit from entering the body with enough intensity and frequency that the spirit seeks to leave the body.  Such a child grows into a person with a fragile sense of self, one who can be overwhelmed easily.  On the positive side, these people tend to be the most in touch with the spirit world, aware of our energy and aura, and be highly creative, sensitive people.
  • Merging.  Here the child was not nurtured enough, and never found satiation.  This child was tense and waiting for someone to help, and this leads to an adult who either waits for others to satiate and support or one who projects the needs onto others and then solves the needs of the other—become the parent the child never had.  This profile has a tendency to clinginess, fragility and a need for attention.  The gift of this style is an ability to sense need in others and provide for it.
  • Enduring.  This pattern arises from the age of 2 when a child begins to discover its autonomy and learns to say no.  If the parent meets this child’s exploration with domination, the child can only resist so long.  Eventual, outright resistance will become passive resistance, and the enduring pattern is born.  Such a child withdraws inside to protect freedom.  “You can’t make me.”  The strength of this profile is silent perseverance, grounded-ness, and stamina.
  • Aggressive.  The unmet need for this child is the sense of being held by something bigger and loving. The child won the battle for autonomy.  But when the chips were down, and the child felt a real threat, it was to find that there was no backstop—that survival had to come from within.  This child feels betrayed by the caregiver, and trust in others is what is shattered.  This situation may arise when the child has parents who acquiesce too easily, giving it the sense that it faces the world alone.  In dysfunctional families, one parent may seduce the child into coalition against the other.  Such a seduction may be sexual or otherwise, but what is happening is that the child is being used to meet the needs of the parent.  The child feels betrayed.  The gift of this pattern is that these people tend to be people who make things happen.
  • Rigid.  The trauma for this child is that the parents did not value a child’s inner experience.  They focus on the child’s appearance and performance, and as a result the child loses the sense of value for their own inner world and comes to rely on rules and structure as the sources of value.  Such a person experiences the world through words rather than feelings and tends to be rational above all.  Such people may not have much feeling, creativity, or color in their lives, but they are often the most outwardly successful—perfectly turned out, perfect lawns, everything like a picture.

This is all a gross over-simplification.  Indeed, when I first glanced at these descriptions I saw myself definitively in one.  But as I read the book, I found my own profile lay clearly elsewhere, in two other patterns I had not considered for myself.

Discussion of Energy

The book also touches on the flow of energy in our lives and through our bodies, and how these personality types also correspond to such energy flow.  I have not really covered that here, but it is an interesting aspect of the book and a topic that gets little coverage in serious books such as this.  It is a welcome line.

Exercises, Healing, Growing

The book presents exercises in each section, both to help you identify your pattern, but also to help you break out of it.  A lot of it has to do with learning to feel what each pattern feels like, and to therefore be able to recognise it as it comes on.  I found these exercises very simple and easy to follow, but also found that they worked and accurately conveyed the feeling of each pattern, regardless of whether it was a pattern that was represented in me.

Pairs of Traits

Because the book suggests that everyone has two types, a primary and secondary, it also summarises the key points of what each potential combination is like.  This is also very helpful.


I don’t typically read this type of book as I find them hokey.  This book broke that mould.  I found it highly descriptive of the issues that I have faced in my own life as I have sought peace with myself and the world around me, and tried to grow into a fully functioning adult.

What this book has in spades is the diagnostic side—you will most definitely be able to identify yourself, identify your triggers, your original trauma, and thereby begin to heal yourself.  This makes it a worthwhile read.

Where the book falls down is what to do about it.  Indeed, the shortest chapter in the book is “getting yourself out of pattern” the very last, and arguably most important.  At a mere 8 pages v. close to 40 covering each of the patterns, this feels like a major oversight.  That said, the book is still worth a read…after all, you can’t fix what you don’t understand.

Application to myself

What am I?  A combination of “leaving” and “aggressive”.  Before I read the book I assumed I was going to be “merging”, knowing that my mother was unable to breastfeed me, and knowing how important that is in developmental psychology.  But it happens that the seeds of my parents divorce were already present when I was conceived, and this appears to have affected me more fundamentally.  Indeed, one of my friends used to call me the “save the marriage child”—and her wry comment and teasing never failed to touch a nerve, because no child can “save a marriage” but all of us try.  That sense of relationship failure stays with us.

In my own life, the “leaving” profile has translated into a willingness to walk away…in good ways and bad.  Combined with the “aggressive” type, it might be better described as pushing away the ones I love.  Indeed, with my SO, I previously wrote about how the condition of our marriage was that I go to a therapist.  [I wrote about that here].  What I didn’t write about was how for two years of dating I was constantly testing her, pushing her away, finding out if she would leave me or stay with me.  Thankfully she was stronger than me.  I remember running away from her one time—not for anything that I can remember, but just saying I couldn’t take it anymore, and I was blubbering on the phone to her sitting in my car.  And she just said calmly, “it’s okay.  There’s no reason to throw everything away.  Why don’t you just go home for a while and I’ll come by this evening and see how you are doing.”  It was calm, substantive, and just ignored that I was willing to walk…and I just said, “okay,” and I will tell you what.  I can still feel decades later exactly what I felt like when she walked through the door to my apartment that evening.  How I needed her, how I trusted her, how I was so glad to see her…

She was right to insist on therapy.  What she did and what my therapist helped me do was to stop running away.  To find that it was safe to stay and be with her.

The other pattern, the “aggressive” pattern, is about unmet need.  The need is love, but perversely, by pushing others away through their aggression, they ensure their need never gets met, and they feel justified in not trusting others.  The fear of depending on others, which is something they have to do to break the cycle, is the hardest thing an aggressive-patterned person does.  In my life, striking first when I sensed danger, was a safety mechanism I deployed to prevent someone getting close enough to trigger the “leaving” pattern.  This was a self-protection mechanism.

As I have grown in my life through experience and therapy, I have discovered that seeking love and making myself vulnerable, is a key way to grow and develop.  That doesn’t mean for one second that I have outgrown these weaknesses.  They are still present, and not just with the people I love, but also at work, with friends, etc.  My willingness to write people off even when I care about them [written about here] is in part in recognition that it is just so darn draining for me to do the work that is necessary either on myself or on the other person to make a relationship survive.  That’s also why I concentrate on having a small number of friends and still manage them at a distance—one can only handle so much!

Balanced with the bits I don’t like about these patterns, and myself, are bits that I really love and appreciate.  The challenge is to continue to work on the issues while continuing to show and cultivate the good bits.  There isn’t a deep relationship I make, however, where these issues don’t come into play.  I shall enjoy exploring these with all of the people in my life who are romping around in my psyche.

If you have read the book do pop me a note and let me know what you thought.  If not, pick up a copy and read it.  Incidentally, my wife is also the aggressive pattern, and it is usually two patterns that match that understand each other…only when she gets made at me it takes me a long time to recover, and when I get mad at her, she bounces back pretty fast.  But that’s because her secondary style is “enduring”, whereas mine is “leaving”.  Thank goodness for that!

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