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Streep Wise Personality Trait

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In the January, 2010 Vanity Fair cover story, Leslie Bennetts describes Meryl Streep as a woman who imageis vital, expressive and spontaneous – a personality trait that the late great psychologist Abraham Maslow would have recognized as one that the healthiest psyches share.  Bennetts, however, is more interested at first in Streep’s box office clout and the fact that she is rewriting Hollywood’s playbook on how to produce a blockbuster.

But the more interesting story isn’t about ticket receipts or even clout.  It’s about personality -- Meryl’s.  This is a 60-year old human being who’s profoundly healthy psychologically.

To start, the woman who has given us so many memorable performances is keenly objective, even detached about her self, her work and her image.(See Maslow Traits below. This is #7)  No self-absorbed “Star” here.  For instance, almost three decades ago, at the age of thirty-eight, Streep recognized and fully accepted the notion that her approaching middle age would slow if not stop her upward trajectory.  Thankfully, she was wrong.  

That objectivity is just the second healthy personality trait that Meryl Streep has.  There are nineteen in all and they’re Abraham Maslow’s – traits that he theorized, were evident among the top one percent of the populace in terms of temperamental strength.  Read on, for a description of seventeen more that Streep exhibits.  Each trait is numbered.

Most of all, in this and other Streep interviews you hear a high quality human being who is marvelously integrated (3), Meaning that she’s consistently true to herself and others.  She has high integrity for her own work and behavior and thus is easily the same, spontaneous, authentic person to everyone. 

You can also see the calm that high integrity brings to Streep in her photographs.  Accompanying the article, there are twenty-four mesmerizing pictures by Brigitte Lacombe and they reveal beguiling bits of Streep’s spirit.(5)  Which is natural for a healthy psyche – they are less guarded,(4).  They can be.  The photos also reveal a person of deep beauty coupled with modesty.  The pictures  capture one trait in particular – her kindness, or even more than that, her empathy… for us.  This is what Maslow would have called her identification with all humanity, (11).  It should be no surprise.  Streep’s vast range of performances confirms her ability to wholly become other characters. 

But few actresses and even fewer “Stars” can look at a camera with such honest, vanity-free goodwill towards others.  Not surprisingly, Streep’s favorite photograph of herself  is a different one – one where she has no make-up, no artifice, because as she puts it, “they scraped all the crap off my face.”

meryl streep personality traitBut it’s not just her self or the rest of us that Ms. Meryl sees so clearly and deeply.  Like all very healthy psyches, she sees everything with less baggage and in a penetrating way.  John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the play “Doubt” (Streep starred in the movie) says that, “on one level she is just like a big mischievous cat – like a cat who sits in the corner and watches everyone and her tail twitches.  She’s going inward and assessing outward.” Streep is a great observer and has almost a child-like freshness of perception.  That helps her see reality better and with less effort (1) than most of us.  How?  One way is that she simply shuts up and absorbs what’s going on.  Try it sometime.  You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

Shanley also describes a human being who is “completely open to free association… and she doesn’t assume she knows the answer.”  In other words, she’s comfortable with experimentation. She’s also fine with simply not knowing.  These traits are being open to experience (2) and being comfortable with mystery and the unknown (15). 

It’s hard to tell if Streep is an egalitarian or has what Maslow called a “democratic character structure” (12) but no one’s ever written that she’s haughty or arrogant.  She’s obviously creative (9) and can take abstract ideas and descriptions and turn them into tangible results (10).  But she’s also quite private (6) and very likely someone who likes her alone time.  A rarity these days, she’s a celebrity who shields her family and avoids the press.  To Bennetts, she’s even a bit camera-shy, declaring, “I hate having my picture taken!” 

As for love, Streep appears to have that trait as well – in that she has just a few, deep and enduring relationships (13) – notably with her mother, whom she quoted on the Golden Globe Awards, (where she won on her 23rd nomination) and with her sculptor husband, Don Gummer.  Despite all the movies, Streep has also reared four grown children.  We don’t know much about them except that they have inculcated her good sense to resist the prying, public eye.
Most of all, Streep comes across as a woman who is deeply accepting of who she is (14).  Part of that is demonstrated by her comfort with her own sexuality (she’s playing romantic leads at the age of 60!).  The healthiest among us are good animals with good appetites.  Streep is also quite comfortable with her growing power, no matter what directors or others want.  This is part of being confident and able to shoulder responsibility, (16).  Part of this for an actor is that she’s able to reveal herself more fully despite what others expect.  As Streep puts it in Vanity Fair, “As there begins to be less time ahead of you, you want to be exactly who you are, without making it easier for everyone else.”

Streep hasn’t made it easy for casting directors who may have wanted to pigeon-hole her.  The woman who seemed perfect for only tragic roles after Oscar-winning performances in “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Sophie’s Choice” then wowed us with her comedic talents.  Because of her status as a cultural icon, this is a personal form of resisting enculturation or pushing back on what others would have you be, (8).  For the rest of us, we have to resist others’ opinions and expectations too. We ought to do this by rejecting advertisers’ pitches, faddish thinking and the current zeitgeist.   

Mike Nichols, who has directed Streep four times says that you can “feel” her excitement at each new day on the set.  Maslow called this a freshness of appreciation (17).  Streep takes it further, “I’m very fucking glad to be alive!”  Nearly everyone interviewed also describes a woman with an effervescent sense of humor.  Presumably, Streep’s humor is also “non-hostile,” giving her yet another trait (18).  It’s certainly unself-conscious.

Without speaking direclty to Meryl, I don't know if she's exhibited Maslow's nineteeth trait -- a greater frequency of peak experiences.  These are sublime moments that most human beings experience at least once -- moments of great sensory perception, where one feels great unity with nature or one's surroundings, moments that evoke notions of the divine and everlasting.  They are by their very nature moments that change one's perception of what's possible.  Top flight performing artists and athletes have more of these moments.  Presumably Streep has more than her share simply because of her talent, if not her healthy outlook, (19). 

Sadly, according to Maslow, people as strong and healthy psychologically as marvelous Meryl, make up make up just one percent of the population.  But that means there are still three million of them in America alone.  Be on the look out for them.  Then find a way to have them in your life, your work, your play.  They’ll rub off on you and make you stronger, happier and more successful at the one job that we all share – to be one’s self, well.

Check out Donald Van De Mark's series on the 19 Personality Traits of the Best Human Beings

Donald Van de Mark is a motivational speaker and has interviewed hundreds of leaders in business and politics including: Andrew Weil, MD, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, Jack Welch, Starbucks' Howard Schultz and Intel's Andy Grove, in his nearly 3 decades as a correspondent and anchor at CNN, CNBC and public television. He is the host of The Wisdom of Caring Leaders and The Wisdom of Teams, training videos used by corporations and schools to teach leadership skills.

Donald integrates practical tips from these great leaders to provide a riveting motivational speech on the personality traits of successful people.

Cheers from Sonoma,


Abraham Maslow's 19 Traits

1) Clearer, more efficient perception of reality
2) More openness to experience
3) Increased integration, wholeness and unity of person
4) Less Guarded: Increased spontaneity; expressiveness, full functioning; aliveness
5) A real self; a firm identity; autonomy, uniqueness
6) Need for privacy
7) Increased objectivity, detachment, transcendence of self
8) Resistance to Enculturation
9) Recovery of Creativeness
10) Ability to fuse concreteness and abstractness
11) Identification with Humanity
12) Democratic character structure
13) Ability to love, deep interpersonal relationships
14) Zest in living, happiness or euphoria
15) Calmness, serenity (even with mystery)
16) Responsibility, confidence to handle problems or stresses
17) Continued freshness of appreciation
18) Unhostile sense of humor
19) Greater frequency of “Peak Experiences”

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Donald Van de Mark is a speaker and author of, The Good Among the Great. He is the voice and talent on many of Success Television's videos. He has interviewed hundreds of leaders in business and politics including: Jack Welch, Starbucks' Howard Schultz, Intel's Andy Grove, in his nearly 3 decades as a correspondent and anchor at CNN, CNBC and public television. He integrates tips from these great leaders to provide a riveting motivational speech on the traits of successful people.

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