The psychological world can be roughly described in terms of “head people” and “heart people” – those who are more rationally driven and those who are more emotionally driven. But it’s not black/white, either/or. Each of these types can be thought of as capturing some tendencies that individuals have in varying degrees. Both have their strengths, both have their challenges.
Here’s how they break down:
At the extreme end, we stereotypically think of Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock with his logic, or those who instinctively gravitate to telling you how the processor in your computer works rather than how they feel at any given moment. But we associate the most head-centered folks with a strong rationality; they make decisions based on facts; have an emotional evenness; and a planful, sometimes cautious, problem-solving approach to life.
Because intimate relationships are often based on complementarity, these folks can serve as good ballast for those who are more emotional. When the heart folks feel emotionally overwhelmed, a partner’s calm rationality can temper the situation. For the head person, a heart person offers a counter to the steady planning: their spontaneity can not only seem exciting, but can push them one out of their cautious, more planful comfort zone, expanding it.
That being said, what can start off as a good match can gradually become less of one. The once-appreciated spontaneity of their partner can over time seem too impulsive; the emotional exuberance can sour into just too much drama.
The head folks can fall into analysis paralysis, where they keep weighing facts and gathering ever more information in an effort to make the right decision, leading to confusion, anxiety, indecisiveness, and self-criticism, which in turn can impact productivity and performance. Or they may swing to the other side, seeming rigid – once they decide what is right they stick to it – and/or controlling of others, wanting those around them to follow their advice and do things the “right” way.
Finally, if they stay too much in their heads, focusing too much on the shoulds and what’s right, they can bypass the important information that comes from knowing what they want, leading to periodic resentment or blow-ups, or a life that doesn’t fully represent who they are.
These folks are emotionally driven. The good news is that this fuels their appealing spontaneity, and if they are artistically inclined, can drive their creativity. And because they are so connected to their own emotions, it makes it easy for them to connect to the emotions of others.
Again, the head person can seem like the perfect ballast. But over time this stable head person can appear to morph into a stick-in-the-mud (with all the planning), making everyday life can seem too staid and unexciting, their rationality making them seem cold or unemphatic.
Being more emotionally driven can lead to being scattered, an “If I don’t feel like it, I don’t do it” stance, undermining productivity and performance and even reaching personal goals. Just as the head folks can get bogged down trying to find the right solution, heart folks can get bogged down by too many emotions – their own and those of others – leaving them feeling overwhelmed and indecisive.
Finally, their sensitivity to others can lead to their being over-responsible, make it difficult for them to set boundaries, fueling burn-out, or just as easily triggering their feeling offended or fed up, creating blow-ups or cutoffs.
Moving Toward the Middle
From Buddhists to ancient Greeks, there’s a strong belief that the good life is the one in the middle. What this translates to is that both the heads and hearts need to move towards the middle, with the head person integrating their emotions into their heady life, the heart person incorporating more head.
Here what that means for each:
The head folks need to get out of their heads and more into their gut. This means paying attention to the feeling of what they want and don’t want, and using these feelings as information to shape decisions. If they are burdened by analysis paralysis, their challenge is taking the risk of making decisions more quickly. If they are rigid or controlling they need to slow down, learn to listen better, and practice tuning into the other’s emotions, rather than jumping into their default logic and problem-solving mode.
They need to balance out their lives by getting their rational brain more online. Slowing those impulses, practicing doing things even if they don’t feel like it. Yes, they want to keep their empathy, but they also need to set boundaries so they don’t spread themselves too thin and lose sight of their own needs. And when they feel emotionally overwhelmed, rather than leaning on the head guy to bail them out, or cutting others off, they need to have ways of calming themselves down, and then rationally deciding the best next step.
How to Do It
This is as always about taking baby steps and working on one thing at a time. If you’re more of a head person, practice for a week just listening to your partner rather than jumping in to fix; slowing down and asking yourself how you feel several times a day, and then taking the risk of acting on those feelings. If you’re more of a heart person, practice for a week tackling that project that you don’t feel like doing to build up your willpower and discipline. Show empathy but deliberately set boundaries on how much you can/will help someone who’s struggling.
So step back, look at the larger landscape of your life, identify those places where too much head or heart is getting you in trouble, and then map out specific, concrete behavioral steps to reverse those patterns. This is a matter of practice, not personality, a matter of moving against your grain, increasing your comfort zone, your skills.
Take baby steps toward the middle.