What’s in Play Here? DiSC Style or a Nervous System Adaptation? Or…. ?

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When I learned classic DiSC, I was told that I was an SC. I was also told that S’s and C’s like to work slowly and methodically. This is the classic orientation:

But I wasn’t steady. I was revved up. ALL. THE. TIME. Go, go, go! Do, do, do! I always felt rushed even when no one was rushing me. People always said “Jessi can’t sit still,” and that was a compliment. Except… it’s not.

Years later, when I became a polyvagal geek, it dawned on me that though my “preferred styles” were S and C, I was living my life in the YELLOW state — the biological spacesuit’s physiological setting for sympathetic activation. The setting that’s meant to be “on” for just a life saving moment or two. We are not meant to live our lives all revved up with sympathetic activation.

I’m also a New Yorker (worked in NY, NY), which means I was living within a very fast-paced culture. This made me want to delve further into what was really at play here… Classic DiSC style or adaptation? Classic DiSC got a lot right, but didn’t address trauma, chronic stress, or neurodiversity. Marston addressed the assessment of locus of control and safety, but current neuroscience and psychology adds a third element: Who do I need to be to be loved and accepted?

I realized that D, i, S, and C were parts. Multiplicity of mind (we have personality parts) has been established in the field of psychology and psychotherapy for many years. We are not 1 personality. We have lots of personality parts. So whereas classic DiSC told me I was an SC and I operated as a steady pace, the reality was that my S and C part often took center stage, however…

My traumatized “steady-paced parts” on the run:
Another Example: A “Fast-Paced” D Part in RED (Physiology of Immobilization)

Learn about the body’s physiological states here (fun video series and free PDF). Learn about how D, i, S, and C parts tend to show up depending on the physiological state that our biological spacesuit is in.

Is DiSC Still Relevant?

Yes. So much of what Marston was correct. I wouldn’t even say that anything he came up with was wrong. But here we are about 100 years later. Let’s simply clarify and add a few things:

  • This is not about “I am a D” or “I am an S,” but rather a reflection of personality parts. Which personality parts are regularly taking center stage in your minds eye?
  • We have more than 4 parts.
  • We are neurodiversity affirming and encourage people to get to know all of their parts and have a relationship with them.
  • We can foster more internal harmony between parts.
  • There is also a “part that’s not a part.” In evidence-backed IFS (internal Family Systems) they would call this Self. In the DiSC Disco, we call it Ominversal Self… Meaning this is the persistent presence / I-am-ness throughout waking and sleep. We also needed a cool phrase that stared with an O. (Alternatives included Open Awareness, Open Presence.)

Is Your C Part Asking a Lot of Questions Right Now?

Mine too! Do the DiSC personality parts affect which brain systems are active or do the brain systems that are more active affect with personality parts take center stage in the mind’s eye? Does the way the brain works affect the mindstuff, or does the mindstuff affect the way the brain works? Do brain waves affect the neurochemical cascades, or do the neurochemical cascades affect the brain waves?

The answer is: there’s no either or. And to say “it goes both ways” would be an understatement.

Of course our personality parts light up different regions of the brain. Of course the health and activity of the different regions of the brain and the different neural networks affect how our parts perform on stage… and if they even show up on stage. The way our brain functions affects the mindstuff, the way we direct the mindstuff affects the brain. Bottom-up processes (neuroception, affective emotional circuits, physiological states, etc) affect our thoughts. Thoughts affect our physiology and emotions. Genes direct protein synthesis, and thus what biochemical reactions will take precedence. But our lived experiences — and the lived experiences of our ancestors — affects gene expression. As Dr Aimie Apigian says: our genes represent a metaphorical library of books and epigenetics decides which books to check out.

Brain Systems and DiSC Parts

Each DiSC personality part —D (Dominance), i (Influence), S (Steadiness), and C (Conscientiousness)—can be likely be linked to different patterns of brain activity. For instance:

  • D (Decisive) parts might be associated with brain regions involved in decision-making and control, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is active in planning complex cognitive behavior and personality expression.
  • i (Influence) parts could engage brain systems related to social cognition and empathy, activating areas like the mirror neuron system, which plays a role in understanding others’ emotions and intentions.
  • S (Supportive) parts might correspond with brain areas that regulate stress and emotional responses, such as the amygdala and hippocampus, influencing how we react to and perceive stability and change.
  • C (Conscientiousness) parts could be linked to the brain’s attention to detail and analytical thinking, possibly involving the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is important for working memory and organization.

To illustrate this point, I include here a sketch I made based on Dario Nardi, PhD’s work. His work focused on mapping MBTI (16 personalities) to the brain via EEG research, and I share this here to illustrate that a one particular brain will have tendencies to have different areas more or less active than another brain.


Epigenetics comes into play by affecting which brain systems are more active or less so, thereby influencing the development of certain DiSC types over others. This epigenetic influence is shaped by a variety of factors, including:

  • Environmental Factors: Stress, diet, physical activity, and exposure to toxins can cause epigenetic changes that affect brain function and, consequently, personality development.
  • Social and Cultural Influences: The values, norms, and practices of our culture can epigenetically influence brain systems by shaping the experiences we have and the behaviors we learn, thereby impacting our DiSC parts.
  • Early Life Experiences: Experiences in early life, including attachment styles and early stressors, can lead to epigenetic modifications that affect which brain systems are more actively engaged, influencing our personality traits and coping mechanisms.

This all resonates closely with the theories and findings presented in Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand.

  • Tight vs. Loose Cultures: Gelfand distinguishes between cultures that are “tight” (having strict norms and low tolerance for deviance) and “loose” (having more permissive norms and a higher tolerance for deviance). This distinction is crucial in understanding how different societies organize themselves and enforce rules.
  • Perceived Threats and Government Control: One of the central findings of Gelfand’s research is that societies facing more threats (e.g., resource scarcity, invasions, natural disasters) tend to develop tighter norms and grant more control to government and authority figures. The rationale is that stricter rules and more centralized control can enhance group cohesion and coordination, which are vital for survival in threatening environments.
  • Safety and Less Government Control: Conversely, in environments where threats are less prevalent, societies tend to be looser, with fewer restrictions and a greater emphasis on individual freedom. These societies can afford to prioritize personal autonomy and experimentation because the imperative for tight coordination and conformity is less critical for survival.
  • Cultural Evolution and Flexibility: Gelfand also discusses how cultures can shift between tightness and looseness over time in response to changing environmental conditions and societal needs. This flexibility indicates that the degree of government control and the strictness of social norms are not static but adapt to the historical, economic, and social context of a society.

Perhaps high-context cultures might epigenetically enhance traits associated with S and i parts, which excel in nuanced, indirect communication and relationship-building. Low-context cultures may activate D (Dominance) and C (Conscientiousness) parts, where directness and clarity are valued and necessary for effective interaction.

The POSSIBLE Influences of Early Development

  • D (Decisive) Part: This part may emerge more prominently in individuals who perceive they have control over a favorable environment. It’s characterized by assertiveness, decisiveness, and a focus on results. The D part is comfortable taking charge and making quick decisions, reflecting a sense of empowerment (wide scope of control) and efficacy in influencing their surroundings. Their development might also   be influenced by environments where assertiveness and achievements were linked to receiving love and acceptance.
  • i (Influence) Part: The i part could be more active in those who view their environment as favorable and seek to maintain control through social influence, persuasion, and relationships. This part thrives on interaction, enthusiasm, and the ability to motivate others, often seeing the environment as an opportunity for collaboration and connection. The i part may develop in settings where social skills, influence, and the ability to connect were valued, leading to love and acceptance. Thus the i part thrives on interaction and enthusiasm, reflecting a learned association between social engagement and positive reinforcement.
  • S (Supportive) Part: This part may be predominant in individuals who see their environment as favorable but may feel they have less control over it. The S part focuses on cooperation, reliability, and support. It’s characterized by a calm, patient approach to working with others, valuing stability and harmony, and often acting as a balancing force within the environment. The S part may pop up on stage in environments where maintaining the harmony of a group was linked to receiving love and acceptance.
  • C (Conscientiousness) Part: The C part might be more prevalent in those who perceive their environment as unfavorable or challenging and respond by trying to exert control through attention to detail, accuracy, and analysis. This part is driven by a need for quality, precision, and structured environments, often perceiving the world as a place that requires careful navigation and thorough understanding. If getting things right was linked to acceptance and love, then the C part may have taken a prime spot on the internal stage.

Life Experiences: DiSC styles can also be shaped by various environmental factors and life experiences. Our upbringing, social interactions, cultural influences, education, and personal experiences all play a significant role in shaping our behaviors, attitudes, and communication styles. Over time, these external influences can contribute to the development and refinement of our DiSC style because our brains are subject to neuroplasticity. The biological spacesuit is always making helpful/helpful tweaks. Additionally, physical brain injuries can manifest as a change in DiSC style as well. How we use our brain, will change our brain. What we learn will change our brain. As we grow and adapt to different social and professional environments, we learn and adopt specific behaviors and communication styles that are rewarded or reinforced by others. For example, someone who receives positive feedback for being analytical and detail-oriented may strengthen their tendencies towards Conscientiousness. Similarly, individuals who are encouraged to be more expressive and sociable may enhance their tendencies towards Influence.

Trauma and “Parts Patrol” (Role Shifts)

The Parts Patrol roles listed here are not meant to be prescriptive, but rather to give you an idea of the roles our parts take on and why that happens… Why these new or extreme roles are helpful/”helpful.” In taking on a role shift, these parts possess a hypervigilant quality even in states traditionally considered safe. They are primed and ready to respond to potential threats, reflecting their origins in trauma or significant experiences that have shaped their readiness to protect and their heightened sensitivity to environmental cues. It’s their way of trying to be helpful, based on past experiences where this “new role” was deemed necessary for survival: Taking on this role in the past may have very well have saved the person’s life. This role shift has helpfully/”helpfully” stuck with them, like a shield they carry. Some roles seek to prevent the occurrence of a similar, wounding, event. Some will jump in anytime a similar event happens.

D (Decisive Part) Picks Up The Protector Shield (Hyper Control, Hyper Achiever, Risk Taker)

  • Possible Role Shift(s): Initially, this part may take on the role of overprotection through control and assertiveness, aiming to shield the self from vulnerability or perceived threats to success.
  • Possible Positive Intent: This part seeks to ensure safety and accomplishment, demonstrating strength and leadership. Unf*ck-with-ability. Tons of reasons for this role shift; Perhaps this person was bullied as a child, and bullying ended when this part rose to annihilate the attacker.

i (Influence Part) Picks Up The Connector Shield (Chameleon)

  • Possible Role Shift(s): This part adapts its behavior and presentation to fit in and gain approval, often changing colors like a chameleon to match the emotional or social environment. This adaptability can be a strength but may also lead to losing touch with one’s authentic self, as the part prioritizes connection and approval over personal authenticity.
  • Possible Positive Intent: Its aim is to create harmony and positive relationships.

S (Supportive Part) Picks Up The Harmonizer Shield (People Pleaser, Soothsayer)

  • Possible Role Shift(s): In its effort to maintain peace and stability, this part might become overly accommodating, neglecting personal needs.
  • Possible Positive Intent: It seeks to create a safe and conflict-free environment, prioritizing the well-being of others, possibly because this is how the part kept the person safe, e.g. during early childhood abuse. In its quest to maintain peace and avoid conflict, this part might also predict potential problems or conflicts before they arise, often worrying about future scenarios that could disrupt harmony. This anticipation can be helpful in preventing issues but may also lead to anxiety and stress as the part becomes overly preoccupied with maintaining stability at all costs.

C (Conscientiousness Part) Picks Up The Guardian Shield (Inner/Outer Critic, Perfectionist Architect, Heady)

  • Possible Role Shift(s): Driven by a desire for perfection and order, this part may become overly critical or rigid, focusing on details to avoid mistakes. Or, maybe this part calibrates to become a perfectionist architect — meticulously plans and structures every detail of projects or tasks, seeking to construct a flawless outcome. While this can lead to high-quality results, it may also result in rigidity and an inability to adapt to changes or unexpected challenges, driven by fear of failure or criticism. This intellectual overreliance can serve as a defense mechanism, protecting the part from facing uncertainties or emotional vulnerabilities directly.
  • Possible Positive Intent: It aims to ensure reliability and quality, protecting the person from external criticism or public failure.

The example roles of Protector Shield, Connector Shield, Harmonizer Shield, and Guardian Shield are essentially about protecting more vulnerable parts (wounded parts) of ourselves from further harm. It’s possible for everyone to make shifts towards a state where their protective parts feel secure enough to relax their vigilance, allowing the wounded parts to be healed. When this happens, the Parts Patrol parts take on more beneficial roles AND the wounded parts can come out of hiding… now healed and shining with their own beautiful resourcefulness.

If you are interested in learning about healing traumatized parts, evidence backed Internal Family Systems (IFS) is your new BFF. You can attain inner harmony, heal traumas, etc. Don’t believe those who say otherwise. All parts have helpful intent. Do not bash your parts. Get to know them with their permission and help them to drop their burdens. Note that IFS is used in a coaching (human development) and therapeutic sense (for diagnosable disorders). Based on your specific needs, seek out a qualified IFS professional or content produced by one.

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