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Mar 2015 by PCI College

The Psychology of Me

First published in Reflections Winter 2014, Jade Mullen reflects on developmental psychology and psychotherapeutic theories on how our personality is formed

An eternal question in the field of psychology and psychotherapy is what drives human behaviour? What make us tick? What makes me, me? There is a lot of debate in the world of psychology and psychotherapy when it comes to tackling this question. The biological psychology paradigm weighs heavily on the side of nature, with theorists such as Eysenck (1944), positing that there is a strong link between our genetic make up and our personality outcome. There are also crossovers between psychological theories and psychotherapeutic theories which hypothesise that we are not influenced by biology alone but rather that our environment exerts a major influence into our person. Psychological theorists such as Watson (1924), Erikson (1964) and Bronfenbrenner (1971) would support Fritz Perls’ assertion that an individual cannot exist in any sense separate from his or her own environment. (Fadimen & Frager, 2002). So how would developmental and behavioural psychologists say our personality is formed?

Erik Erikson (1964) was the first theorist to propose a theory of developmental psychology that evidenced our development as occurring across the lifespan. Known as the ‘Eight stages of Man’ (Erikson, 1964), Erikson’s theory highlights how, as we progress through our life, our personality is formed via an interplay with our environment and experiences. At each identified stage in our development, we are faced with a task which will leave us with either a positive or negative impact on the person we are and how we perceive the world. For example, in the first few stages of life we are tasked with overcoming Trust versus Mistrust and Initiative versus Guilt. The trait which we develop stems from our early interactions with caregivers. If trust is not established in our first stage of development, we are left with an imprint of mistrust and our perceptions and interactions in the world will represent this.

This sounds bleak and as if our healthy personality development is solely in the hands of our early caregivers, however from a psychotherapeutic perspective this adds valuable insight into why certain patterns of behaviour may be reoccurring in a client’s life. Understanding what has been imprinted in a client’s schema can help therapists empathically understand the world from the client’s perspective. Working through these early schemas by employing some inner child work (Bradshaw, 1990) or breaking through core beliefs from a CBT perspective (Beck, 2011) can help clients overcome these negative early experiences and encounter the world in a healthier way.

Behavioural psychologists, such as Watson (1924), Pavlov (1928) and Skinner (1938), proposed a theory of human behaviour based on the premise that people are conditioned to feel and behave in certain ways. We are conditioned by our surroundings and this conditioning is reinforced by our environment, further amending our thinking, feeling and behaviour. This theory is evidenced through a number of famous experiments demonstrating conditioning at work, for example Watson and Little Albert (1924), Pavlov’s Dogs (1928) and Skinner’s Rats (1938). Today, conditioning and reinforcement theories are applied effectively when working with autistic children and children with challenging behaviours, illustrating further how our behaviour can be shaped. In everyday living it is easy to understand how our environment influences how we learn and behave, for instance we are conditioned to follow rules and obey laws, this is reinforced by the consequence of not following through with the expected behaviour.

In the therapeutic world, there is a lot of emphasis placed on our ‘conditions of worth’ (Rogers, 1959). Conditions of worth are given to us in our early years and refer to the conditions we operate from in order to feel worth, our behaviour and feelings of worth are thus shaped. This is akin to the learned behaviour that the behavioural psychologists refer to, which has a defining impact on our personality.
While at times we operate as individuals and our life journey is unique to us, man is not an island in this world. Ecological psychologist Bronfenbrenner (1971) identified 5 different social systems that we are all interacting with at any given time and states that the way in which we interact with these systems and indeed how they interact with us, plays a major role in our personality development. This systemic social world that we are imbedded in works best when there is healthy interaction across each system that we are attached to. Conflict within any one system has a ripple effect on the others and where the systems are compatible, the development of personality progresses more smoothly. Sugarman (2011) puts it best when she states: “The life course is like a river, whilst having a force and momentum of its own, it is also shaped and modified by the terrain over and through which it flows. In turn, the river exerts its own influence on its surroundings. It is somewhat artificial to separate the river from its habitat; a more accurate picture is obtained when they are considered as a single unit.”

Systemic family therapy, the work or Satir (1984) and Bowen (1978), is heavily rooted in this ideology that as rivers we are shaped by our terrain. While a lot of this ‘shaping’ can be set down in our early life, our environment and life experiences can continue to modify and change us as we progress throughout life. Having this understanding of human behaviour in the therapy room can instil hope for both client and therapist in that the new ‘terrain’ of the therapeutic experience may bring new awakenings.

Psychological theories of development and behaviour inform the ever expanding research base in the psychotherapeutic field that evidences multifaceted strata of human behaviour. The client in the therapy room is considered as a systemic individual with complicated layers of conditioning and influence from both within and without. When considering myself and what makes up the version of who I am today, I too must remember this and try to apply some well deserved self-compassion to my life, that is to have a little more understanding as to what I have encountered and overcome on my life’s path. This also involves recognising that I am not alone in feelings of inadequacy and self doubt – this is a common human experience and that I can choose to deny or try to change how I feel about myself or I can accept myself for who I am and what I have been through, without judgement (Neff, 2011).

The answer to how we become the person we are is complicated and there are far more explorations that have not been addressed here, however no matter where we have come from, biologically or environmentally, we can choose to relate to ourselves in any given moment with judgement or with compassion and this choice may impact greatly our ability to accept who are we, whomever that may be.

Jade Mullen (December 2014)
PCI College Lecturer

(This article as first published in Reflections, Winter 2014)

Beck, J. (2011). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guildford Press.
Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.
Bradshaw, J. (1990). Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child. London: Judy Piatkus Publishers.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1971). The ecology of human development. USA: Harvard University Press.
Erikson, E. H. (1964). Insight and responsibility. New York: Norton.
Eysenck, H.J. (1944). Types of Personality: A factorial study of 200 neurotic soldiers. Journal of Mental Science, 90, 851-861.
Fadiman & Frager. (2002). Personality and personal growth. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: Harper Collins.
Pavlov, I. P. (1928). Lectures On conditioned reflexes.(Translated by W.H. Gantt) London: Allen and Unwin.
Rogers, Carl. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.
Satir V. (1984). Step by step: A guide to creating change in families. USA: Science & Behaviour Books. 
Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behaviour of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.
Sugarman, L. (2001). Life-span development: Frameworks, accounts and strategies. New York: Psychology Press.
Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: Norton

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