“Our life is beset with so many problems at different levels. We have not only the physical problems, but the much more subtle and more intricate psychological problems; and without solving the psychological problems or even trying to understand their subtleness, we seek merely to rearrange their effects,” J. Krishamurti.
To briefly summarize a theory of personality feels like trying to pass the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. Personality theory is like looking through a kaleidoscope—each time it’s turned and looked at from a different angle, it looks completely different than before. This isn’t surprising—we humans are the product of everything that has happened in the universe since before the beginning of beginningless time. We are the tip of the spear that stretches back eons until there is nothing but the absence of nothing. How curious some of us humans are to try and unravel such a huge mystery. It’s only through the evolutionary accident of consciousness that we find ourselves in this predicament of being a living paradox—creatures craving meaning in a universe apparently absent of it; creatures conscious of our mortality and then thus so terrified of it that much of our lives are spent repressing the “ability” that makes us most human; creatures whose lives are largely a flurry of accumulating and achieving even though in the end everything will be lost.
But what is consciousness? It can't be measured. It's not understood, yet it causes profound anxiety. How complete can any theory of personality be while we still have little understanding of the basic "thing" that makes us human and different—assuming panpsychism is a fallacy—from other forms of life? As a result of having no means to date of truly understanding consciousness, we are left to grapple with easier problems in psychology, even though these simpler psychological problems are still typically too complex for the tools, processes and tests currently available. In this examination of personality theory, I want to discuss some of these not-so-simple simpler problems in the realms of neuroscience—including trauma and disorders, genetics, culture, narratives, and the difficult, untestable concept of self-actualization. Finally, I want to talk about the role of psychotherapy.
Without going into a prolonged history of homo sapiens, we can let the timeline of the journey of decoding personality theory begin with Freud. Freud gave us the subconscious mind, anxiety, defense mechanisms, and many other concepts—some more indefinite than others—that gave us a foundation to work from. However, even at this early point in the history of psychology, the grandfather of all personality theorists acknowledged that all of his contributions would ultimately find their roots in biological structures and processes. Today, we call this field neuroscience.
Neuroscience and related technologies have given us insights into how our brains function. However, we still understand very little. By studying fMRI and high-resolution MRI, neuroscientists recently created a vastly more detailed brain map than any that had come before. They found 97 new areas to explore on top of the 83 already known. That the number of new areas exceeds the number of previously known areas illustrates the infancy of the field.
Nevertheless, neuroscience is the direction of the future. Neuroscience confirms that our brains are electromechanical although vastly more complex than the prior concept of the brain as a sort of computer. Through neuroscience, we now know that our brains are put together as an amazing ecosystem of intricate subsystems. Our brains are also neuroplastic: We can use our decision-making ability to alter the very wiring of our brains. The significance of this can’t be understated. Our brains have evolved to be adaptable systems that contain a subsystem capable of generating decisions and willpower that, in turn, actually change the physical shape, structure, and connections between subsystems. If you went on vacation and arrived home to find that the kitchen had installed gas pipes and replaced the electric oven, you’d be astonished, yet the human mind does far more amazing things than this over the course of a lifetime, and we think little of it.
While, as Freud predicted, neuroscience is providing amazing new insights into the biological foundation of personality theory, a danger lurks there. The danger is that we become too reductionist in our approach to ourselves, that we become what Evan Thompson calls neuro-nihilistic. We aren’t fMRI scans. We are organisms that have lives that are enacted within environments. In fact, we are part of the environment, and our lives are the reciprocal dance between what we identify as ourselves and what we identify as the other or everything that is not ourselves. A personality theory must account for how our lives are enacted and not just how our structures look from various instrumentation outputs. Ultimately, what matters is how the individual experiences their life as an enacted process, not just how the individual’s brain looks on an fMRI or through the filter of a diagnosis.
In spite of these reductionist dangers, I believe that the next big scientific discovery that no one will want to believe will come from neuroscience. Neuroscience must be the basis of our theories of personality. However, intuition, ethics, and compassion must be used as filters for this knowledge so that we can apply our theories humanely and pursue ends that lead to easing suffering and enlightening humanity, not merely reducing our existence to that of carbon-based machines. Regardless of whether or not we are merely aspects of the physical environment that happen to embody a mind with consciousness, we see ourselves as human, as something more than just physical processes, and we must address that in our personality theories.
Evolution has created humans, and it’s our genetic code that contains the history of how the environment—which we are part of—turned us into what we are. We’ve unraveled the genetic code only to discover epigenetics and a rabbit hole deeper than we could have imagined. While scientists chip away at this, one thing is obvious as it relates to personality theory: There’s an inherent variability within the species that is necessary. While our genetic code makes us one species, variability makes us all individuals. There’s no genetic or epigenetic snapshot that is the model for what a human being should look like on a molecular level. We don’t know what genetic and epigenetic expressions will lead to survival over the longterm. But beyond breeding, we all play a part in perpetuating the human species. Don’t individuals who don’t breed play some other parts in humanity? Don’t individuals contribute more to a species than just passing on genetic material?
The point is that we are genetically diverse as a result of the complex interplay between genetics, epigenetics, and the environment. Genetic drift creates opportunities for transmission of various genes when the environment changes in ways that prevent other genes from being passed on. As a result, personality theory can celebrate the diversity of our genetics and epigenetics while also seeking ways to ease the suffering of those whose genes and epigenetics have left them with struggles and unique challenges in our society, whether physical or social-emotional. The shift toward nonbinary gender roles and identifications is one example of how the field of psychology has leveraged the facts of genetics and epigenetics to make the public more aware of and compassionate toward those whose genetic code doesn’t fit into a narrow expression.
Trauma and Disorders
While humans must acknowledge our differences in genetic and epigenetic makeup, there are those who suffer from real organic malfunctions in the form of trauma and genetic disorders. These people truly suffer, and personality theory must also acknowledge that some people are afflicted before or after birth with minds that don't function in a healthy way. The DSM is the catalog of these diseases and conditions that professionals in the field will encounter and how we might identify them and treat them. As a living document, it will change as developments in neuroscience and research provide more accurate diagnostic information and statistics. As a result, a requirement for any personality theory is to be flexible regarding diagnosing and treating these disorders.
A forward-looking theory of personality must also be prepared to deal with inevitable results of biohacking. Underground communities are already pursuing ways to alter their own bodies and genes. This trend will increase in the near future. Teens will rebel against parents not by getting tattoos and doing drugs but by altering their genes and epigenetic code to push themselves away from their parents not just emotionally but on a fundamental genetic level. We will likely see the therapists’ couches filled with people in their 20s and 30s who seek us out because of the biohacking remorse they feel as they mature and are faced with a grown-up’s perspective of the consequences of their youthful folly.
Sex and Death
Freud emphasized sex and death as it relates to human behavior. While less emphasized in later theories, these two realities of the human structure are, I believe, primary driving forces. The fact that we have qualia, or subjective phenomenology, only further complicates our relationship to both the sexual drive and fear of death. The drive to procreate and engage in sex compels much of human behavior across cultures. A significant percentage of activities can be accounted for by associating them with the need to attract and keep a mate, including pursuing a career, maintaining an attractive physique, and even cultivating our personalities.
Many other behaviors that people engage in are ways to repress the anxiety of death. Whether it’s escape through food, religion, sex, power, or drugs, humans have an unlimited capacity for avoiding the feelings associated with mortality. Most want to avoid the thought of death and the implications it would have on our decisions if truly faced. In fact, if the thought of mortality can be repressed, most people are only too ready to fritter away time on something more superficial.
Social and Cultural
If the 20th century was the century of the "self," then perhaps the 21st century will be known as the century of the "social." It’s during this century, more than any other to date, when it will be vitally important that humanity’s psychological paradigm focus on the ability of each person to function in a world where shared representations will be more difficult to achieve on a large scale. Smaller subgroups will likely feel more closely connected because of coded representations that only these groups appreciate. Soon, with the advent of augmented reality, it will be normal for each person to interact with the world using multiple veneers selected by them, their friends, corporations, and other organizations and immerse themselves in the world in a way that is unique to them and possibly few others.
Culture won’t be as tied to geography as it was in the past. Culture will be more dependent on the relationships people have to products and online communities. As a result, a matrix of layers of augmented reality will alter each individual’s subjective phenomenology. In fact, it might not be too far in the future where, if I decide to, I can live in a world where the sky is purple, and if you decide to, you can live in the same world with a sky that is red. But the expression of symbols in matrices of augmentation generating by digital relationships will be much more complex than that. Symbols will be layered upon symbols and only small subgroups will have the understanding necessary to decode the meanings of these symbols when encountered in a world augmented with technology. A future-oriented theory of personality must account for the fact that common ground will be more difficult to attain as future generations adopt more radical ways of using technology to engage with the environment.
Western Interpretations of Eastern Philosophy
There are concepts that have been found in Western interpretations of Eastern philosophy that have affected modern psychotherapy and personality theory. I hesitate to call it Eastern philosophy because so much has been filtered on its way across the world. Because of these hermeneutics, I emphasize that what is referenced as Eastern philosophy are Western interpretations. Nevertheless, the concepts that come to us have opened up an entirely different view of life, consciousness, states of being, existence, and who we are compared to any of the theological explanations that Western culture has thrived on for millennia.
Beyond the repression of the knowledge that all of our lives will enter the black morass of death, some believe that we each repress an even more immediate fear—the fear that “I” do not exist. If we keep digging deeper as we grow older and our symbols and metaphors perhaps grow tired, we may find, behind all of the illusions, that even the self is an illusion, and beyond that all that we identified with is an illusion and so on until all that exists is an unidentifiable awareness. Groundlessness is a term that encapsulates this state. We may see many people struggling against this groundlessness, with the outcome being great anxiety and depression. They can’t reconcile what is with what they believe should be. In groundlessness, nothing should be. Existence is acknowledged as being of a nature where there is no point in grasping it and holding on to it. Letting go is a first step toward acceptance and acknowledging that what we feel life should be can never be.
Meditation is a way to practice this. Letting thoughts come and go without clinging to them helps us train our minds. From studying brain-wave patterns of monks, neuroscientists have learned that expert meditation practitioners change the amplitude of gamma waves in their brains to a very significant extent. Gamma waves are closely associated with being in the state beyond the illusory self and in a state of pure awareness. The monks whose brains had physically changed from years of practice had engaged in mediation of “pure compassion.”
Western psychology is now taking these findings from Eastern culture and incorporating them into Western practice to help patients heal by learning to deal with groundlessness through contemplating compassion for oneself and the world. Mindfulness training has been shown to heal psychological problems and ease suffering. Hopefully, the true extent of deep, meditative practice can be brought to the surface of Western culture, and psychotherapists will remain leaders in that regard.
Beyond meditation, groundlessness, and piercing the illusory nature of existence, many just need a new way to see themselves and the world. Most people will not go all the way to the void and back in their minds. It’s a frightening journey—not for the faint of heart and mind. The anxiety of putting your entire being on the fringes of what is and is not real, where all meaning ceases to be, isn’t a practical solution for most patients.
This is where Adler’s fictional goals and lifestyles, and the techniques of the existentialists such as Rollo May, are important components in personality theory. People have the capacity and freedom to change their lives. In fact, people have the personal responsibility to change their lives. Humans get to make decisions and plenty of them. Heidegger’s throwness put us in these bodies at this time and in this culture; that was all determined. However, after a certain point of human development, our brains are wired to make decisions and be responsible for ourselves. The sum of these decisions shapes the trajectory of our lives, and the sum of everyone’s decisions shapes the trajectory of humanity. We need personal narratives to help us change, and humanity needs to change our species’ narratives to go beyond our aggressive, warring past and toward a state of compassion.
Much of the history of personality theory deals with the animal aspects of our human nature rather than the parts that make us human. This is logical since homo sapiens are animals, yet with some interesting brains. When personality theory has attempted to address consciousness, self-actualization, and higher forms of human existence, it has drifted into nebulous ideas without credible scientific testing. Where does that leave us?
From our perspective, when we are born, the entire universe is born. As we grow, so does the universe. And when we die, the entire universe dies. Self-actualization deals with how far we expand our universe before it dies. For most, a person is a family member and a citizen of a country, affiliated with a political party and religious denomination. Thoughts and actions, dreams and desires that don’t fit within these narratives are repressed or denied. Self-actualization is the process of seeing past these illusory narratives and extending ourselves and our universe much further.
But how do we get there, and who can get there? In some ways, self-actualization is an elitist concept if we view it from the perspective that it should be the aim of every individual. If personality theory holds self-actualization up as the primary goal for everyone, we are drawing a line and implying that those who live differently have failed. However, the goal of self-actualization can also be perceived as elitist if we don’t view it as within the reach of anyone. Why should we assume that the beer truck driver can’t be self-actualized, whatever that means?
Self-actualization in the light of realizations from Eastern thought and enactive cognitive science can be thought of as non-self-realization. When we maintain less of a fixation on I-me-mine and accept the nature of ourselves as enactive processes with embodied minds in a lifelong dance with the environment that produced us and is part of us, we have less to struggle with. We don’t have to find ourselves in some independent form external of our bodies and minds, nor are we merely illusion. Our selves emerge continuously as a process interrelated to everything else around us. Some believe that from this realization compassion emerges spontaneously. There’s no evidence today that it does, and so this statement requires further research. However, the more we develop our connection with pure awareness as we meditate on compassion, we are training ourselves to feel part of everything around us, which means we are engaged with our lives. Whether compassion emerges spontaneously or not is of little consequence.
In a future-oriented view of personality theory, I believe the challenges will be to leverage technology to introduce meditation, mindfulness, and interbeing into our culture in a way that makes it accessible to everyone. We should stop thinking about self-actualization as an elitist endeavor. Look at where mindfulness and meditation came from—the poorest areas of the world, India and China. How arrogant it is to assume that some of different socioeconomic status and backgrounds would have no interest in it. But to reach more people, a change in the marketing materials and tone will be required.
Psychotherapy isn’t magic. It’s applying methods in the context of a trusting relationship between a patient and a therapist. Building trust is the critical factor, and that is why not every patient will succeed with just any therapist. If most of my problems come from my father, I will likely not have much success with a therapist who reminds me of him. Cultural differences and sexual orientation can also play a role. If I’m gay, I’m likely to trust someone who has shared the same struggles that I have rather than a straight person who I might see as belonging to the group that oppressed me. If I’m from a part of the country that values directness, I might have trouble with a therapist who uses an approach that is more reserved and indirect.
If a patient and therapist can forge trust, then progress can be made using practically all of the techniques available. A therapist will likely employ only the techniques they find value in and the ones that match their personality. A psychotherapist should be able to be honest about whether or not trust is present in the relationship and, if it isn’t, make a referral if it appears that trust is unlikely to grow. A therapist should also be willing to grow, adapt, and change therapeutic techniques as new research helps to refine therapeutic methods and processes. In the end, I do believe the most basic lesson is that therapists can serve their patients by being a good model of human being, a wounded healer stumbling through life together with their patients.