What is “personality”, and how is it formed?
Personality: Nature or nurture? Fixed or fluid?
It’s a complex question. But a good one. Most probably, as studies are increasingly showing, it is generally fluid and largely shaped by nurture and experience. At birth we may be born with different energy levels, and different fundamental characteristics that are biological or genetic, a temperament that we tend toward — but so much of how we are and how we tend to react is influenced by our environment. Epigenetics shows that even our genetics are changed by our environment.
Either way, at some point in your life you’ve probably taken at least a minute to look at yourself and think “Yes, I am like this or that” or “I do tend to be introverted/extroverted/uptight/laidback/optimistic/pessimistic” (delete as appropriate…).
Over the years a few “tests” have been developed to help give us some insight. The famous Myers Briggs personality test is one of them. This link gives a simplified version of the test. Although we should be wary of labelling ourselves too rigidly, particularly as doing so suggests that as people we are fixed, the Myers Briggs analysis can be a trigger to understanding your current preferred — or habitual — ways of behaving and relating.
Similarly the Big Five personality test, a more modern method, can give us some clues. It can help us see ourselves more clearly, and anything that holds up a mirror can be a great tool, when interpreted with moderation and without swallowing the results whole.
For we are complex creatures. Made up of our genes and our biology yes, but — crucially — made up of all the ways of behaving, thinking and feeling that we learnt or copied from all the things we’ve witnessed, heard and felt throughout our entire experience to date. Phew.
This means there are thousands of small unconscious rules and habits that we live by every day, that tell us how to be accepted in the world. Some are helpful (saying please) and some aren’t (sulking). Those that go back the furthest are the deepest. Many we learnt from our parents — from the ways they thought, acted or felt — which in turn they inherited from their parents… and so on. It’s an intricate — and powerful — cycle but one that, if we are aware of it, can be broken.
Our minds are made up of a rich, deep, medley of these learnings. They all interact to affect our current personality — and current is the right word. For we are different in different situations. We evolve as we get older. We learn to manage ourselves (or we can do). As humans we are fluid.
That said, empirical observation and research has shown that there tends to be a pattern in how our personality is expressed. There are different elements to us — a “parent” part, a “child” part and the adult part. The parent part of us is the part that we copied from our parents. The thoughts, feelings and behaviours we learnt from them. It’s the “Good boys don’t cry” part, the “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again” part. It’s the part of us that harbours stereotypes, fixed attitudes, mottos and prejudice. It can also hold our morals. If we never question it, it can hold us hostage.
The child in us thinks, feels and behaves in the same ways we did as a child. It is the place of fantasy and fairy tale. Of demons and monsters. It’s the part that makes us retreat or attack when we’re scared. It’s the part that is triggered in stress and extreme situations. It is also the part that holds creativity and play. It’s both positive and negative.
And then there’s the adult. The grown-up mind living in the here and now, taking responsibility for our actions and emotions and exercising our reason in response to the current reality we are experiencing. It’s the part of us that reasons with those parental “truths” and says in reply “I’m a man and I’m sad and I feel like crying” or “If at first I don’t succeed, I’m going to try a different route”.
We need all three of these aspects of our personality, but it’s helpful to recognise when each is at play. That can be hard work. But it’s worth it. For then we can start to observe ourselves and interact in a way that is more authentic and more free.
And not worry so much about what those tests say…
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