What’s a personality? What makes me, me?

This question is really where both psychotherapy and psychology begin. Why do I do what I do, feel what I feel, think what I think, and how can I change it? Why does the bully bully, the blowhard blow hard, the flincher apologize so relentlessly, the control freak live at such a frenetic and uncomfortable level of tension? Is it a gene? Hardly. Genes provide the foundation of our personality, and some of the limits. The rest of who we are comes from what happens to us and what we learn from it.

Imagine a one year old child reaching out for something that grabs his interest, as is the habit of a child that age. But his mother (or whoever is raising him) is anxious. Maybe she always is, maybe it's because this is her third child in as many years and she's getting fed up and stressed, maybe it's because her husband just left her, maybe she just left him, whatever. In any event, she barks anxiously at her child in a voice too loud and strident, then rushes over and whisks him into his high chair for safety.

Now assume that this is not a single occasion of mom's bad mood, but a common occurrence, her usual reaction to her son's exploration of his environment. What happens to him? Does he say to himself, "Ah, well, Mom's uptight. I mustn't take this personally. I can explore the world later when she's calm or when she's not around." Not likely. He's barely a year old, remember; all he knows of the world, it's dangers, it's pleasures, its meanings, comes from this person.

No, he does not put mother's behavior into this kind of adult perspective. Instead he learns that this is the way of the universe: Small actions lead to catastrophic reactions. (Bear in mind that mother’s outburst might be only a mild stressor to another adult, but to a small child who depends on this mother for all his physical and emotional sustenance it is a very frightening assault.) Always expecting a blow to fall, an explosion of anxiety and displeasure, a criticism, a censure, he could grow into a "flincher" -- one of those people who is endlessly apologizing, timid, and tense. In another scenario, he might learn to battle that same anxiety by blustering his way through the world, acting as if such feelings could never happen again. Such is the bully, the braggart, the bull in the china shop. Or he might become one of those super-competent, always-in-the-know people, in that way never again suffering the anxiety of doing the wrong thing. (Whether this "control freak" adaptation is successful or drives people away depends on a lot of other things -- intelligence, flexiblity of other defenses, etc..) In any case, he grows up focused to some large degree on coping with a world fraught with the danger of sudden chaos. This is especially likely if his genetic makeup is one of high sensitivity, making him particularly attuned to his mother's moods and fearful of her outbursts.

As they mature, the flincher remains solitary, timid, constricted, while the bully loses most of his friends, learns nothing in school or elsewhere to give him a place in society, and eventually graduates to more serious antisocial activity. We on the outside look at their useless, counterproductive behavior and say that they are "maladjusted", "troubled", "in pain". We struggle with such terms because they have a judgmental sound, but we all roughly agree on what they mean. We recognize a lost soul, a person who behaves (or feels or thinks) irrationally, both from our point of view and in terms of what they themselves want. Psychotherapy is about understanding that irrationality. It is this understanding which enables patients to change their attitudes and behavior -- the whole point of the process. (see What’s the cure?)

Important: These irrational patterns of feeling, perception, and behavior are not chosen or established on a conscious level! Clearly most of us would not persist with such silly behavior on purpose. But these habits develop outside of awareness, not just nonverbally but pre-verbally, where we can't get at them.[Bully, Ed - II, Ron]

This is clearly the barest thumbnail sketch of personality development, a subject that has filled many a weighty volume. But the consultant who helped me put this website together insists I should keep each "page" down to a couple of pages. So I’ll continue the discussion in the next section.

Personality - II

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