Personality Theory

Personality theory is about why people are different. Mothers say that they can feel what their children are like when they are inside of them. A mother, who has had several children, says that each child had a unique quality or energy that the mother senses before the child is born. Personality theory answers the question about how to talk about these seemingly inherent differences, a feeling or a sense that we can’t actually explain. Children at one week seem very different; some are calm, some are so distressed that there appears to be no solace, some want stimulation, some want none. Back in ancient times, Plato said that there were four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic. These were picked up by Goethe and then operationalized by Rudolf Steiner’s creation of Waldorf Education in 1912. He created a school to balance these temperaments with watercolor exercises, movement, and stories for the children. Waldorf Education was created for the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette plant’s workers’ children to release them from a life of drudgery to a life of freedom. Jung also built on Plato’s temperaments and changed the European three-fold way (mind, body, and emotions) to a quadterny (mind, body, emotions, and spirit). And supposedly the Meyers Briggs survey was designed to apply Jung’s theory to find an individual’s basic style in approaching the world. We don’t know why people seem so different from each other, and this difference seems so embedded in their being that they are born with it. The ancient Sufi ennegram is also a way of identifying difference and, further, can be used to help people work with their difference when it gets dysfunctional. Some North American Indian tribes used the wheel as a way of helping an individual grow towards wholeness and balance. Each direction had a certain energy, and by finding out one’s energy, one could do ceremonies to learn the other energies of the wheel to gain balance and harmony in one’s life.

Historically, personality theory has dealt with aberrations of the personality. Why are people so different from each other, that they are actually crazy; either neurotic (unrealistic fears) or psychotic (a reality that isn’t shared by most of the people in their society)? I would say that Freud is the first personality theorist, and it behooves a student of personality theory to understand the broad strokes of his theory (stages of personality development, the psyche or amount of personality energy, the role of trauma in trapping and suppressing this energy, and the role of dreams and nonrational processes in releasing trapped energy). His short book, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, is a quick and dirty way to get this.

Many psychological theories do not deal with personality. For example, behaviorists are interested in taking a person from where they are and moving them to where they want to be, regardless of their past and their unique personality (Bandura, Ellis). Humanists (Rogers, Maslow, Perls) don’t worry too much about one’s uniqueness either; they are more interested in awakening the creative force/Atman/Self/actualizing tendency in a person to help him or her grow towards its next step. I don’t think that feminists (Horney, Godlberger) are interested in personality either, since they don’t care where you are, or how different you are, but rather they are interested in your exercising your voice. But there is an underlying sense that humans are different, and their differences matter, and it is important to get in touch with this difference. Since the 1950s, psychology has not been so interested in what’s wrong with people (i.e., abnormal personality development) but instead has been interested in how to help people develop into healthy beings and what are the limits or extensions to possible human development.

This interest is reflected not only in the behaviorists, humanists, and feminists above, but also in contemporary developmental theory that has some interface with personality theory. There is Wilber who maps the path to enlightenment, and there is Kegan who maps ego development to the post formal, inter-individual stage, where the ego comes to a state of health and paradoxically releases itself to become more permeable, transparent, and less dense. An assumption here is that humans need to develop a healthy ego and then once the individual has a clear sense of him or herself, they can surrender this egocentric orientation. The ego becomes less rigidified in its grip on explaining reality and suppressing information in the unconscious that may threaten one’s stability; this then opens the person’s personality from being ego driven and focused on one’s unique individuality, differences, or temperament and allows the individual’s awareness contact with what the Jungians call the deep self or Self. This shift in awareness then creates the stage for spiritual development beyond the individual personality.

Therefore, at the current stage in psychological theory, we could say that the study of the personality is one that will allow one to implode the ego’s identification with uniqueness to move towards spiritual development or awareness. The study is paradoxical because the humanists (Rogers), psychoanalysts (Freud), and developmentalists (Piaget, Kegan, and Wilber) teach that the ego, which is identified with the psychological personality, must be developed or move into a state of stability and safety before the ego or personality becomes transparent and allows conscious awareness and contact with the Self, leading to spiritual growth. Some say it is like the Buddhist parable where the practitioner walks up the hundred-foot ladder to develop the ego, and then jumps off into the energetic dimension.

I find the neo-Jungians (Edinger, von Franz, Woodman) as the most helpful in exploring personality development towards wholeness or a spiritual release of the personality into whatness. As opposed to the developmentalists, where growth and progression is upward. In Jungian thought growth is downward or inward, into the being. The Jungian paradigm provides a framework for explaining and working with individual personality and also develops a framework for understanding that when one brings awareness to one’s differences, or one’s unique personality, even that part of one that is unknown or the shadow, then the ego or the personality is settled down or calmed, and one’s awareness naturally joins and communicates with the Self (spiritual self, outside of personality).

I have heard this growth process explained as bringing all elements of the personality into consciousness. One might think of the being as a Mandela, and we are only aware of certain aspects of our being as in the JoHari window. There are techniques for emotional health that bring more and more of one’s Mandela into view, even that which is in the shadow or what one does not know about one’s self. Often working with an archetype could accomplish this, since as an energy pattern in the unconscious, it will expose hidden characteristics and attributes. When one’s awareness admits the existence and awareness of this information then the metaphoric reality of archetypal awareness will allow the ego to release its hold on this information. Through this process, material in the unconscious is released and a clear window, aperture, or conduit is formed to the Self, which is growth producing and health oriented, leading the person to his or her next stages of development. The Self in effect catalyzes health in all its forms, which ultimately is spiritual in nature. It should be noted that one does not change basic temperament or personality; rather one creates wholeness in the being so that the Mandela of the person is fully present and there is an interplay with the Atman, or spiritual self from Hindu thought that is beyond the personality. The ego and personality have their role in the human persona as an energy matrix without having a hold on reality and preventing communication with the Self.

Because of this above framework, I am most interested in working with students who will study a neo-Jungian approach, or a spiritual development approach of an archetype, such as Sophia. Awareness of a current state of one’s consciousness in present time will facilitate growth, as opposed to some upward hierarchical path.

Edinger, E. (1992). Ego and archetype. Boston. Shambhala.

Kegan, J. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. New York.

Naranjo, C. (1994). Character and neurosis: An integrative view. Nevada City, CA: Gateways/IDHHB, Inc.

Schaup, S. (1997). Sophia, aspects of the divine feminine, past and present. York Beach, ME: Nicolas-Hays.

Vivekananda, S. (1956). Raja-yoga. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

Von Franz, M-L. (1996). The interpretation of fairy tales. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1984). The developmental spectrum and psychopathology. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(1), 75-118.

Woodman, M., & Dickson, E. (1996). Dancing in the flames: The dark goddess in the transformation of consciousness. Boston. Shambhala.