What is personality? Who we really are? Who are we, really? Who really are we? Really, who are we?
This is a question I just can’t get my head around, no matter from how many angles I approach it. Really. The question of personality or should I say character (or the self rather) is fascinating and intimidating at once. Do we really know the person we love? Do we know the people we associate with? Or better, do they know themselves? Do I know myself? Well, if you allow me the poetic licence of speculation I would say: No! Not really. Perhaps, we are so much surface that we are simply infinitely depthless, if this makes sense. All of us are withdrawn from one another, no one ever directly feels what the other person feels, and we are withdrawn also from ourselves in that the reactions and personal preferences, habits, beliefs, desires and whatnot that characterize us springs from dynamic sources that are beyond the narrow pale of private consciousness. My physical body does not determine who I become any more than my symbolical environment. Or, my neurophysiological being determines my character as much as my normative and cultural milieu. Childhood development matters a lot, even in the womb. That’s a fact. Of course, our early (most prominently) experiences also weigh a lot in the personality equation. An important point to note in this regard, I think, is to emphasize that it is not simply the experiences that count but how we make sense of those experiences. In other words, the way we make sense of disturbing things around us depends to a large extent on our genetic predispositions. If an individual with a sensitive nervous system couples with an instable family dynamics the result may be an anxious personality.
But is it this simple? Somehow I feel trapped in an outdated nature-nurture dichotomy here, missing the holistic dimension of persona-genesis. But still, I feel compelled to ask whether it is possible to believe in a core, in a kind of an essence that during development either blossoms into a harmonious and highly integrated personality or due to negative influences is distorted into a fragmented one? Is there an essence? Is there a me that is more than the current me? Or is everything, everybody an utter contingency and nothing more than a bundle of coping strategies, techniques and adaptations, a synergy of genetic and cellular and neural and social and cultural processes?
I guess, more spiritual-leaning thinkers would say that there is an essence but that has nothing to do with presonality. Personality is the isolative narrative that the ego weaves of itself, while the true self is something like pure awareness, an opening, a oneness with everything else. But still, the advice ’’just be who you are’’ seems a valid enough spiritual advice as well. Yeah, I’ll just be who I am….but wait, who am I? The present moment? The pure non-judgmental awareness occupying the present moment? Well, I better leave this here, for, given that I know next to nothing about this particular angle of the issue, I cannot go into these matters.
Reverting back to my developmental strain of thought let me propose the following scenarios, though. Leaving aside the chicken-egg dilemma let me start in media res. If a girl feels alienated from her emotionally barren/chaotic surroundings and almost totally withdraws into her private world (of books, for instance) and adopts the strategy of being on her own, by that strategy she might just enter a trajectory of being that gains more and more momentum as it provides the girl with a sense of identity and meaning. Let’s suppose this is possible, and let’s see what could happen as a result when later in life, this girls marries and gives birth to a child. Now, given the withdrawn character of the mother sometimes the child seeks out emotional reinforcement in vain, the mother just cannot be giving to the extent that the child may need it. (What is more, we could add to this mix the by chance overly sensitive nervous system of the child – further aggravating the situation). So, as the child ’’realizes’’ that s/he does not receive the care s/he desires s/he starts to gradually withdraw in order to successfully cope with the situation. And thus the child is set on the same psychological trajectory as her mother, growing into a person who (as if trying to prove his/her worth) becomes a kind of a maximalist, let’s say, and who seeks reinforcement from without but always by keeping a distance from other people (turning into an aloof and egotistical person in their eyes). Etc. Another such ridiculously simplistic in medias res sketch could take account of a person (a woman, say) who being enmeshed within a difficult family environment never learns to listen to her feelings and more importantly to assert those feelings and who therefore slowly grows to be constantly caught in a vicious loop of guilt and instability (whenever she feels contradictory feelings in herself). This person identifies with an order that constrains her freedom in many respects. Once she gets married and the husband only reinforces this instability in her she might just develop stress-related diseases as a result. And similarly to the previous example the child she gives birth to will enter an inhibiting milieu. Here, the child will enter an out-of-balance family dynamics in which no real self-assertion takes place, only subdued tensions. As every child, this child tries to do the best s/he can and adapts to the dynamics by learning to suppress tensions and thus becoming conflicted with regards to her own demands and needs. Later in romantic relationships this may result in the repetition of the same pattern if s/he ends up with the ’’right’’ kind of partner for that. Sometimes stress-related problems are a good sign of this kind of cycle.
Once again, as opposed to my previous posts on this blog, I have nada knowledge of the actual research done on these topics, all I am doing here is simply trying to understand things by speculation. And the central questions that I pose to myself in this inquiry seem to be the following: Is the personality of these individuals trapped? waiting to be released? or is their personality the coping mechanism itself, the trajectory they ride in their interactions early and later in their life? Tricky question. Is a person struggling with stress-related diseases never really his or her true self? If there is any chance at all for gaining a purchase on this deeply complex question I would propose that perhaps the best measure is well-being in general. In other words, the extent to which an individual feels liberated and connected and significant (in his or her relationship to other people). But then again, there are short-term and long-term dimensions involved in this and a host of blissful social illusions… so, at the end of tha day, I am totally clueless. Nevertheless, I ask: is there a personality behind the trajectories that the individual rides throughout his/her life? Or rather: Is there a particular trajectory that helps to disinhibit one’s ’’true’’ personality?
Somehow, I am drawn to draw an analogy to object-oriented ontology (or OOO for short) here. Briefly, in this school of thought it’s objects all the way up and all the way down, reality is nothing but an infinite multiplicity of objects. Furthermore, these objects are autonomous beings withdrawn from all their relations possessing a kind of essence that characterizes them. This essence is never directly accessed because what appears in the (transactive) interaction among objects (as between individual human beings, mothers and their children or even dolls and pillows), is only a partial translation of it. But without going into further details here I would just shortly conclude this post by saying that maybe, in the dynamic realm of social relations, human objects in their interactions are sent on trajectories of styles of being that either resonate with their essence or not. Maybe, what one really needs in life is to find resonance… Maybe not.