What is personality? Most of us think we have a good grasp of it. But there appear to be some issues and contradictions surrounding the concept which can inhibit us from attaining a clear understanding.
One problem is that the term personality has been used to refer to something public, yet in other instances it has been used to refer to something hidden and private. Perhaps it is due to years of social tradition or perhaps we can blame pop-psychology but obviously it can not be both. Unfortunately, even popular definitions do little to clear up the misunderstanding:
“Personality – The unique self, the totality of someone’s conscious and unconscious cognition and interpersonal behavior and related emotional responses.” – Stedman’s Medical Dictionary
“Personality is a stable, organized collection of psychological traits and mechanisms in the human being that influences his or her interactions with and adaptations to the psychological, social and physical environment surrounding them.”- Personality Psychology by Randy Larsen and David Buss
Because of definitions like these we might conclude that a personality is:
- Our unique self
- The sum of our conscious and unconscious cognition
- A stable mechanism which influences our interactions
I’m sure you see the contradictions. First and foremost, how is it possible for one to experience unconscious cognition? Secondly, how is a personality stable yet adaptable? Thirdly, how could personality be us (our unique self) and at the same time influence us?
Perhaps a few accurate definitions are in order:
“Personality is the observed quality or qualities that constitutes the uniqueness of being a distinct person.” – Oxford English Dictionary
“The complex of all the attributes — behavioral, temperamental, emotional and mental — that characterize a unique individual.” – Wolfram Alpha
“A personality is “…the totality of inherited and acquired psychic qualities which are characteristic of one individual and which make the individual unique.” – Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into The Psychology of Ethics by Erich Fromm
Utilizing these more accurate definitions we can clearly see that personality is:
- A pattern or a complex of attributes
- An observable process belonging to a distinct individual who possesses those observable patterns and/or attributes.
So, to treat personality as if it were your identity (your unique self) is analogous to declaring: “I am a dog” versus “I have a dog”.
The Many Masks We Wear
Those educated in psychology are familiar with the origins of the word “personality” which is derived from the Latin “persona” meaning “mask” and was in reference to the masks used in Greek and Roman theatre to typify a character. The origin of the word is very telling. It suggest that those in antiquity knew something that modern society and culture have since lost.
The masks we wear and the roles we play in life are “personas” or versions of ourselves that we choose to display to others that suit the moment and environment. In selecting a persona we in essence become actors, not in the sense of being fake and untrustworthy but rather like an actor who shapes and molds their character to lend believability to a story.
Often we switch personas so quickly we are often not aware of the change. Have you ever been told: “Wow, you act like a completely different person when she/he is around. I hardly recognize you.” In that moment you were “called on the carpet” as it were to provide a reason for shifting your role.
To further illustrate the concept, notice that you do not speak to your mother or father the same way you speak to your spouse. Nor do you speak to your boss the same way you speak to your children. Your demeanor, style and use of language are different depending on the person you’re conversing with. To do otherwise is socially unacceptable.
Our personalities must be flexible, adaptable and creative in order to keep pace with our social world. You are constantly adjusting your personality, exchanging one mask for another, applying the one which is most appropriate for the situation or to gain something you want. Of course you do this naturally and without much thought.
Over 79 years ago this was summed up very nicely by the Philological Society (a group of scholars in Great Britain dedicated to the study of language):
“We are born individuals. But to satisfy our needs we have to become social persons, and every social person is a bundle of roles or personas.” – Transactions of the Philological Society, 1935
This “social person” is your personality which is simply a bundle of personas that you use to make your way through life.
The Capabilities of Personality
Here are some simple questions that can be asked as a means of determining what a personality is capable of:
- meet and befriend the personality or the individual?
- communicate with the individual or their personality?
Does your personality…
- make decisions for you?
- perceive and interpret your surroundings?
Does a personality…
- set goals?
- get angry?
- feel stress?
- fall in love?
- think, know or feel anything?
- contemplate its existence or purpose?
These questions should naturally lead you to an obvious conclusion, one you already intrinsically knew to be true. You are not your personality.
So if personality is only one half of the equation, what is the other half?
Revelation of a Split Mind
In his book, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” Carl Jung recalls a time when he was 12-year-old waiting for a school mate when another boy shoved him causing Carl to fall striking his head on the curb and nearly losing consciousness. He had suffered what we call today a concussion which resulted in fainting spells for up to 6 months leading his doctors to believe that he might have epilepsy.
Later, as he reflected upon that episode he found that he was not angry with the boy because he realized that on some level he was responsible. He realized that the boy had “been put up to it” and the incident was his fault. He felt rage against himself for the incident and above all shame. He knew he had wronged himself and vowed it would never happen again. This new understanding and acceptance took the form of a moral stand.
All at once he knew that he had finally discovered himself: “Previously I had existed, too, but everything had merely happened to me. Now I happened to myself….Previously I had been willed to do this and that; now I willed.”
There was a newly revealed authority within him, driving his actions which earlier had been hidden. He concluded that: “…I was but the sum of my emotions, and the Other in me was a timeless, imperishable stone.”
Jung became aware that there were two functioning aspects of himself working in concert which he referred to as Number 1 and Number 2. He saw No.1 as the changing public self and No. 2 as the “timeless imperishable stone” and “authority” responsible for his inner source of moral convictions.
We can now identify Jung’s No.1 as his outer self of personality and personas. But what are we to make of No.2?
Your Invisible Timeless Self
Much like Jung, all of us have a strong sense of a timeless, unchanged self. This enables you to reflect on and relive feelings of past experiences. This is your stable identity, and from this identity you receive the notion that you are the same, unaltered person you have always been. When you recall events throughout your life whether positive or negative there is no question that it was “you” who experienced those things, the same “you” who is now actively recalling those events. This “you” never changes despite the fact that your physical body is completely replaced (through cellular mitosis) every 7 years or so.
To illustrate, take a moment to relax, close your eyes and conjure up a picture of yourself when you were just five years old and relive that time in your life for a moment. Try to recall all the sights, sounds, smells and other sensations. Now do the same for age twelve then again for ages sixteen then twenty-one. While you hold each of these mental pictures of your past self ask yourself: “Who is it that is looking back in time and making this observation?”
If this question seems puzzling to you simply recognize that you at the ages of five, twelve, sixteen and twenty-one are all very different physical states and phases of your life. Yet, they are all tethered to something that allows you to say: “That is me” while at the same time having the sense: “That is not me”. This seemingly contradictory notion is due to your awareness that you have most certainly changed through time, grown up, matured, grown older, become wiser. Yet, there is a part of you that always was and remained unaffected.
In performing this exercise what you are witnessing is your hidden “inner self” looking back in time at versions of your observable “outer self” where your personality and it’s personas reside.
Both your visible personality and invisible identity have their importance. However, your personality does the bidding of it’s master and is just the tool you use to express your hidden identity which is the real wellspring of everything you do and believe.