How Human Personality is Formed and How It Shapes Our Identities
Who are you really? I know this may seem to be a strange question, but do you really know who you are? Let me explain. Much of our identities are not all what we think are our identities. Our identities are mixed up with what other people want us to be. This is an area of psychology, which has been extensively studied and can lead to both good and bad results, depending upon the situation.
There are several theories of personality. Some are based on biology stating that our genes form personality. We are good people, bad people, happy people, sad people and so on, based on the composition of our genes. For the most part, as a counselor I have to agree that much of what we are in terms of personality has been passed down through our genes, but that is only half the story. The other half of the story is that we are also a product of our environment.
The term product of our environment has been tossed around quite a bit and has become a buzz phrase that has been used to explain away responsibility in many situations, but nevertheless there is a lot of truth to this statement and this is the core theme of this article.
First let’s dispel the myths that people should not be accountable for their actions. People are accountable for their actions and that is why we have a legal system to make sure that people follow the rules of society and do the things they have to do to be good citizens and good people in general. Rules are applied everywhere in a society from rules pertaining to legal matters, rules that apply to school, work, family, and societal norms. Rules are incorporated to make a society run smoothly. Of course we know that is not always true, but that is idea behind having rules. Most people follow these rules, and sometimes we bend them. We can also say that is conforming to rule, bending them or breaking them are a part of human nature and the human personality.
In certain cases people break the rules, and they are not responsible in the ethical and moral sense of the word. We can see that in the case of an insane person who has committed murder, but if so mentally ill that he or she is not accountable for his or her actions. However, the issue of being accountable for our actions is at the core of our legal system and has also been a defense against legal consequences.
Defense attorneys have used the nature (or genes) or the nurture (the environment) as their defense essentially arguing this is our personality, our nature, and we cannot change that. We could not have done anything differently. We had to play the hand we were dealt. This applies to our genes, our lot in life, how we live, what we learned, and the social issues such as poverty and high crime rate in our neighborhood, These are just a few examples of how our nature and our environment form our personalities and makes us into the people that we are.
The questions that are argued in court remain; were we born this way and therefore we couldn’t help our actions or did society make us into the people we are? Is a killer born or made? Is a thug born or made and so on? These are the basic questions that personality theorists try to answer.
Okay so we looked at how our personality is formed because our genes dictate that we will be that way. Now let’s look more deeply at how nurture not nature plays a role in the development of our personalities.
The psychologists who believed the opposite in the great psychology debate of nurture versus nature said that our genes had very little to do with our personalities it was our environment that played a key roll in fashioning our personalities.
John Locke a political theorist and philosopher (1632-1702) was one of the first people to define the tubular rasa theory, otherwise known as the blank slate. He proposed that every baby is born into this world with a blank slate meaning there is nothing in the brain that would be at the basis of personality. Everything that the baby learned from the outside world would be what would fashion personality.
Combing nature versus nurture
Sigmund Freud and other psychologists also elaborated on this notion some of these psychologists like Freud added a biological element to the blank slate idea while other kept it pure.
Sigmund Freud’s theory of the structure of personality
First let me say that Dr. Freud’s work will be covered in more detail in a later article, but for now we just need to know a few things about what he believed about how personality is formed.
The child is born with the most basic instincts, which Freud called the id in his three-prong structure of personality. The id is a very self-centered preserving human condition. The id regulates hunger, thirst, the need to be diaper changed and to be comfortable and so on. Basically the only thing that interests a baby is that he or she is well feed, and has a clean diaper. The baby only cares about his or her own needs. This is true of all babies and it is the most basic human need according to Dr. Freud. Freud believed that our core personalities were actually developed by the age of five.
The ego, which is the second level of personality, is formed over time with the help of nurturing.
The third and most advanced level of personality is called the super ego and this does not really develop before late adolescence or early adulthood in certain people. The superego is our ability to be conscious of our actions, to know right from wrong, and it is the stage where we develop our morality. It is when we develop a conscience. The superego is directly influenced not only from our internal mechanism, but also by the mores or rules of society.
A young child may not know he or she is doing something wrong, and may only stop that action of doing something wrong because of threat of punishment. When humans reaches the superego level of development, they don’t need the threat of punishment to know that something is wrong, their instincts and social conditioning will remind them.
Basically Freud maintained that humans grow according to different stages of development, we will ignore the sexual aspect for the purpose of this discussion and look at it more closely in another article.
The first stage of development is the oral stage because a newborn is incapable of doing much of anything besides eating. They experience life through putting things in their mouth, they learn about life by tasting things. If you ever noticed your baby at six month old, he or she is putting everything in his or her mouth because that is the way he or she learns about the environment and his or her world.
Freud postulated that we all progress through the different stages of development and sometimes we get stuck in a certain stage if our needs were not met at the stage. This is what he called a fixation. Adults who did not successfully move on from the oral stage in life, for different reasons; perhaps because they were not given enough food as a child, or they were not bottle fed long enough and so on may develop an oral fixation. These people will show the need to use their mouth and the sensations that come from it excessively, later on in life. For example, they become nail biters, smokers, drinkers or have a fixation on food.
The second stage of personality development by Dr. Freud was the anal stage. This is at the time when the toddler is being toilet trained. How this is effectively done will have a bearing on the development of the personality. If the child is supported, he or she will grow up with a good personality and be well balanced, but if the parents are too strict or too lenient with toilet training the personality will suffer for it.
If the parents were too lenient then the child will grow up to be a messy person, and they could be wasteful, and even destructive. Freud called this the anal-expulsive personality. On the other hand, if they are too strict the child will feel shamed and embarrassed and grow up with an anal-retentive personality where he or she will be too orderly, (neat freak), very rigid in thoughts and behavior, obsessive, not easily able to try new things or enjoy life without taking it too seriously all the time.
The third stage is the phallic stage. This is the stage that is most controversial. In this stage Freud contended that little boys are jealous of their fathers and little girls grow up to envy men and wish they were men. This theory led to his famous penis envy theory. I don’t really wish to address this aspect of personality at this time it will be covered at a later date.
The 4th stage of personality is called the latent stage where the ego and the hint of a superego develop. The child is off at school learning new things, developing friendships and beginning to socialize and understand the outside world.
The final stage of personality is the genital stage, in this stage the child develops sexual attraction for others, it is the stage where he or she has a sexual attraction for the opposite sex (same sex attractions were not even thought about in Dr. Freud’s day as they were not considered normal or healthy). I will elaborate about that in a later article as well.
Dr. Erik Erikson added an additional 3 stages to this theory of personality. Also to be discussed in a later article.
I have presented just a few theories of personality and there are many, many more. You can see how both biology and the environment play a role in human personality. Now let’s look at who we are which my first question was.
Do we really know who we are? Or, are we who other people want us to be? As you all know the parents play an important role in the development of a child, but they are not the only influences. When children begin to explore the world, they go out to school, they make friends, they join social groups, play sports and so on. All of these people whom they come in contact with influence personality. Sometimes children grew out of these influences if they do not find any meaning for them anymore. However some of these influences will play major roles in their personality type as they grow up.
A school aged child who is told anything by a peer or a mentor will believe it. Teachers are one of the main influences on a child. A child who is told he or she cannot learn, more often than not gets discouraged and does not try to learn, or take on new challenges, simply because these feelings of inferiority have been ingrained. These children begin to feel they are stupid based on someone else’s assessment of them.
Teenagers who have trouble making friends, or who have trouble with dating, can grow up shy and avoid people, or just not try to get a date thinking nobody wants them anyhow. Without friends, children and then adults have poor social skills, which further isolates them and makes it even harder to make friends. The introverted personality is a personality type for the person who is often a loner and prefers to be alone. Introverts are not unhealthy in anyway unless it goes to the extreme where they don’t want to be around anyone ever. An introvert is just a personality style. Introverts would normally prefer to read a book than to go out and socialize with a group of people.
If children are supported and validated throughout their home life and schooling they will be confident, they will try new things, they will be less afraid of people or challenges and they are generally more successful in life. People who are self confident are more likely to say what is on their mind than people who feel their opinion is not important or they are afraid to say what they feel in case others will disprove.
There are just too many aspects of personality to cover in one article. However, I believe you are getting the gist what I am saying here.
So who are we anyhow? Are we individuals who made our own choices in life or have we been influenced by what other tells us we are and what others tell us to do?
Think about some of the choices you have made in life. Have you gone to a certain school more because your friends were going to that school than whether you really cared about the school at all?
Did you not date or marry someone because your parents didn’t approve even though you really loved the person? Or did you marry someone only because your parents, family, friends expected you to even though you were not in love. Maybe got married only because your friends were getting married and you didn’t want to be left out or feel inferior in anyway?
How about your choices in careers? Did become a doctor, lawyer, welder, or laborer because that is what your family did before you and you really didn’t think about it, you just followed them?
Do you sometimes act a different way than you really feel in front of certain people? Think about it, when you do that are your really being yourself? Do you really know who you are and what you want in life or do you want what others want for you?