Sunday, June 26, 2011

Personality and Self

Historically, the concept of personality refers to a stable set of dispositional traits and tendencies that describe who a person is and how he interacts with the world.  There are several factors that appear to influence personality: genetics and epigenetics; pre-natal/in-utero environment; childhood environment; traumatic events; and psychological development, to name a few.  The prevailing view is that personality develops over the course of a person's childhood; by the time a person reaches young adulthood, his or her personality is, for the most part, fully formed.  After that, personality change becomes exceedingly difficult and highly unlikely.

I find it interesting that the term "personality" stems from the Latin word "persona," which means mask.  This suggests that personality is little more than the various personae people adopt to fulfill certain roles.

While there is undoubtedly some substance to a person's personality, an individual is more than just his or her personality.  Think about the different "personalities" we all have: the responsible me who follows rules and fulfills obligations would hardly recognize the lazy me who stays in bed half the day or the carefree me who goes out with friends and dances the night away.  Plus, my "preferred way" of interacting with the world frequently changes, depending on my mood.  (Sometimes I enjoy a long talk with a friend; at other times I don't feel like talking to anybody).

In her book, "Radical Acceptance," Tara Brach explains that if we sit quietly and observe our internal world we will discover that it is made up of the coming and going of various thoughts and sensations.  There is no stable "self" that remains present; the internal "self" is constantly changing from moment to moment.

Almost all spiritual or religious traditions teach that a person is more than just his or her bodily incarnation and its accompanying thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  Some refer to the Holy Spirit that lives within each of us.  Many refer to a soul that is non-material and distinct from our physical bodies.  Still others suggest that the essence of the universe is consciousness; this is also the essence of all living things within the universe.  Although various traditions conceptualize it differently, they agree that there is more to a person than what we typically identify as "self."

If you really think about it, this is sort of a radical concept.  For most of us, when we refer to our "selves" we mean our personalities.  Who among us would disagree that an individual's personality defines who that person is?  The fact is, we all need or personalities or "personae" to successfully function in our world.  The practicalities of daily life demand it.  To survive, we as humans must have a way of interacting with one another that makes sense to us.  Personalities meet this need.  My personality tells me how I feel comfortable behaving in different situations and helps me to identify effective ways of interacting with my environment in order to get my needs met.

It is important, however, for each of us to remember that we are more than just our personalities.  What we call "self" is really just the ever-changing flow of experience.  Take your thoughts, for example.  We consider our thoughts to be one of the most intimate parts of who we are.  Yet if we pause and turn our attention inward, we will notice that our thoughts aren't really "ours" at all.

In his article "No self or True Self," Jack Kornfield ( explains it as follows: "As we look, we find that we neither invite our thoughts nor own them.  We might even wish them to stop, but our thoughts seem to think themselves, arising and passing according to their nature."

So what does this mean for us?  It means that victims of rape or child abuse can stop viewing themselves as "damaged."  What happened to their bodies did not -- COULD NOT -- touch or taint the essence of who they are.  It means that people who are depressed can stop telling themselves that they aren't good enough.  We are all part of the same flow of experience, all created of the same essence -- nothing we do or fail to do can change that.  It means that worriers can stop believing their thoughts.  Thoughts are just thoughts.  They don't define who we are and are often not even an accurate reflection of reality.  Worriers don't have to identify with their thoughts, thereby enabling them to arouse anxiety.  They can just allow them to arise and then pass without clinging to them.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


"In order to be happy I need [fill in the blank]."  Seriously, take a few minutes to fill in the blank.  We might know that the "ideal" answer is, "There is nothing I need in order to be happy in life."  Still, probably none of us can honestly give that response.  So think about it.  What are the things you need in life in order to be happy?  Here's my list:

*Family to love and who love me
*Friends to love and who love me
*A place to live
*Food to eat
*Clothes to wear
*A job

That's just the bare minimum!  If you were to ask me what I need in my life in order to be truly fulfilled the list would be a lot longer.

My list reveals something about me that I believe is true of many people; I equate happiness with comfort.  Comfort is defined as a state of ease or well being; relief from affliction, grief, etc.; physical ease; and contented well being.  I am happy when all of my physical and most of my emotional needs are consistently met -- when I am comfortable.  How I admire those people who have little but who always seem to be in good spirits.  Their happiness stems from being alive.  Would I be happy if I had to grow or kill everything I ate?  Would I be happy without running water, heat, and air conditioning?  Would I be happy if I couldn't find a job?  For me, the answer to these questions is a resounding NO!  That tells me just how far I have to go in terms of accepting whatever arises in the present moment.  It shows me just how attached I am to comfort.

The one thing I can say in my own defense is that I have a strong appreciation for just how fortunate and blessed I am.  I don't take anything or anyone in my life for granted.  Gratitude is not equanimity, but it is a virtue in itself.

I recently read a profound perspective on the pitfalls of living a comfortable life that really made me think.  It came from a website called from a user named "brain in a jar."  He defined comfort as the feeling of not having any urges that need to be satisfied; it is what we feel when we have no strong need for anything.  The problem with living a life of comfort is this: Pleasure is derived from satisfying a strong need.  Living a life of comfort means anticipating our needs and desires before they arise and satiating them before the desire to do so even arises.  In other words, comfort impedes pleasure.  Maybe that's why so many people seem bored and no longer find anything enjoyable.  This is what we mean by getting "too comfortable;" it takes all the pleasure out of life.

I don't have the answer; I'm definitely not ready to give up the comforts in my life. What do you guys think?

Sunday, June 12, 2011


The other day my husband told me I need to be more flexible.  This isn't the first time someone has told me this, but it's the first time in a long time.  This is not because it ceases to be true.  Rather, the people who know me and love me well have accepted that flexibility is not my forte and understand that telling me to be more flexible isn't going to help.  My husband, on the other hand, has not yet come to this realization.  On the occasion I mentioned earlier, he attempted to persuade me to completely abandon my during-the-work-week routine (for an entire week!) by making a rational argument for why doing this made sense.  I grew frustrated and walked away.  It's not that I'm unreasonable or that I cannot be persuaded to do something if a rational argument is made in favor of it.  In fact, my husband's argument was very rational and he made a lot of good poitns.  Heck, I even agreed with him.  The problem is that my somewhat compulsive desire for structure does not come from my rational mind.  My lack of flexibility is purely emotional in origin; reason and rationality have very little to do with it. 

Now I will not go so far as to say that my structured lifestyle is irrational or unreasonable.  There are, in fact, a lot of good reasons for structure, routine, and organization in life.  It enables me to accomplish the things I need to do in a timely manner.  It allows me to make time for all of the important people in my life and still have time to do things that are important to me (like exercising).  It helps me to be reliable and responsible.  People can depend on me to do what I say I'm going to do; it will never "slip my mind" and I won't "run out of time" for it.  These are all great things that would not be possible without structure, organization, and routine.

The problem is that it is very difficult for me to deviate from my routine.  When I say difficult I mean anxiety provoking.  Now I'm not one to back away from something just because it makes me anxious.  In fact, I've developed a number of ways to cope and as a result have become a lot more flexible than I used to be.  For example, I give myself permission ot take vacations from my routines and when events arise that are important for me to attend (like a family gathering to celebrate a birthday or something for one of my nieces).  If I know something is happening on a Wednesday at 6 pm I start mentally preparing myself on Sunday by reminding myself that I won't have time for the gym after work and that I'll probably get to bed later than usual.  I might feel a little guilty on Thursday morning for missing Wednesday's workout but it's nothing I can't handle.

So here's what happened recently.  My parents have a time share they go to for a week in June every year.  I always try to take at least part of the week off to join them.  Because I just had a week off in May to go to New York I only had enough vacation time to take one day off.  My stepdaughter just arrived last weekend and will be here for five weeks.  On Monday night before I left the time share my husband and I let my stepdaughter decide whether she wanted to stay there for the rest of the week (my two young nieces were also staying the week) or come home with us; she wanted to stay (it wasn't a difficult choice).  My husband works about fifteen minutes away from the time share and doesn't go in until around 930 am.  He decided to stay the week at the time share too and just drive to work each day.  My work is about 45 minutes from the time share (and about 45 minutes from my house).  I have to be there at 8 am.  My husband wanted me to come to the time share after work each day and leave for work from there in the morning.  He had lots of good arguments about spending time with family; as I said before, I agreed with him about this.  Yet the stress of driving back and forth during rush hour traffic, of not getting to bed until late (ever tried to go to bed in a room full of people on vacation?), and waking up at the crack of dawn, of trying to get ready for work from a suitcase and without waking everyone else up, and of trying to function at work while being sleep deprived and stressed out -- it just seemed too overwhelming for me. 

But how could I explain this to my husband?  He is my opposite: relaxed, never in a hurry, very flexible, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.  He just can't understand the anxiety provoked by that kind of departure from routine.  I'd probably be so anxious it would be difficult for me to enjoy myself.  I'd be on edge and irritable.

It's frustrating when my husband tells me to be more flexible.  I DO try to be more flexible.  The fact is, I'm NEVER going to be laid back and easy going; it's just not me.  The world needs all types of people.  So when my husband says to be more flexible I wonder, "Why can't I just be me?"

Sunday, June 5, 2011


I never thought much about culture growing up.  I’m from a small town where ethnic diversity consisted of white people, black people, and one half-Filipino kid that went to school with us.  College was an eye-opening experience for me.  I went to school in Richmond, VA which, despite its history as the capital of the Confederacy, is a surprisingly diverse place, both ethnically and culturally.  In college, I had an opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries.  The undergraduate social work curriculum also placed a lot of emphasis on diversity and cultural sensitivity.  The class that made the biggest impression on me was one called “Oppressed Groups.”  It made me realize that not being discriminated against was something I had taken for granted.  For example, I remember being surprised when my Korean-American roommate told me about a sales associate who was rude to her at 7-11.  “I think maybe she doesn’t like Asian people,” she said.  This was a completely foreign concept to me.  I’d never had to wonder if the guy at the store was rude to me because of the way I look.  If someone was rude to me I’d always assumed it was because they were just a rude person.  

By the time I finished graduate school I had started to lament my lack of culture.  I became more interested in my own ethnic origins.  I’d always known we were primarily “Spanish,” but I started looking into what exactly that meant.  (I’m about 25% Spanish; my maternal grandfather’s father came from a place called Orense in the northwest of Spain.  My paternal grandmother’s father came from somewhere close to Madrid, the Spanish capital).  I started talking to my family and asking questions about our cultural background.  What I learned was disappointing.  My maternal great-grandfather came to the country to find work.  He changed his last name to sound more American.  While he continued to speak Spanish at times he never taught his children the language and never talked much about the home he’d left behind.  No one knew much at all about my paternal great-grandfather.  He didn’t change his last name but at some point it lost its original pronunciation and transformed into something distinctly American-sounding.  

I felt cheated; my ancestors had abandoned their culture and passed nothing on to me!  I went on a request to recapture what I’d lost.  There was very little actual Spanish culture to be found nearby but I discovered a very rich local Latin American culture (a lot of Latin American people live in the area because there are so many military bases nearby).  I spent years trying to immerse myself in Latin culture.  I took a few Spanish classes and practiced speaking Spanish whenever I had the opportunity.  I became interested in Latin music.  I even started dating Latin men.  In the end, though, I still felt like I was trying to be a part of someone else’s culture.  

One day about a year ago, I was chatting with a coworker who had become sort of a mentor to me.  We started talking about culture and I told her how I felt about being “culture-less.”  She empathized with me and said she used to feel the same way.  Then she took a trip overseas to visit some friends.  They began talking about culture and she said to them something similar to what I’d just said to her.  Their response was, “Well of course you have a culture.  You are DEFINITELY American.”  After telling me this story she said, “You’re completely American too, Melody.  You just don’t realize how distinct American culture is because you haven’t spent time much time in other countries.  Once you do, you’ll realize just how American you are.”
It’s not that I had never realized I am American; it’s just that I’d never thought about “American” as being a culture.  I guess I was so identified with my culture that I didn’t recognize it as a lens through which I experience the world.  Because I’m American I value independence and believe it is very important that a person be able to take care of him or herself.  As an American therapist, when a patient has a dilemma I say to him, “You have to decide what is best for you.  Then I help him to identify his needs and to explore which option is most likely to meet them.  Not everyone would agree that “what’s best for you” is a priority.  Perhaps in more collectivist cultures the primary concern would be how to best represent the family or how to best serve the community.  Individual needs might not even be a factor.  I believe that being able to put individual well being first is a privilege, but even that belief is influenced by culture.  

There are so many facets of American culture: individualism, a focus on achievement, a belief that anything is possible, extreme impatience.  For Americans, what do you think defines our culture?  For non-Americans, I’m particularly interested to know how American culture is perceived in other countries around the world.  What does American mean to you? 

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