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Personality formation

In psychoanalytic thought, the personality is typically conceptualized within the context of development.  Depending on early experiences, general upbringing/family environment, etc., the personality is likely to have gotten stuck at certain developmental phases.  These sticking places, although likely entirely unconscious, go on to significantly affect adult personality development and expression.  For this reason, one of the primary aims of psychoanalytic psychology, and depth psychology in general, is to sort out various developmental factors that have likely contributed to an individual's present experience of his of her self and its surrounding environment.  In this context, three primary schools of psychoanalytic thought currently prevail:

Each of these is summarized in Build A Better Buddha as follows:

Classical drive theory:  Freud originally believed that the individual’s sense of self was developed in relation to the management of early instinctual drives, which Freud defined as libido.  In the first six or so years of the child’s life, said Freud, these instinctual drives passed through three stages: oral, anal and genital.  Consequently, the caregiver’s response to these various stages would have highly significant formative effects on the individual’s adult personality.  For example, let’s suppose an infant doesn’t receive sufficient food when passing through the oral stage of libidinal development.  Later, as an adult, this person is likely to still be stuck at this stage.  If he feels that he is not receiving enough affection, career fulfillment or sexual satisfaction, he may substitute the comfort of food, thereby unconsciously translating his adult desire into this unresolved infantile need.  Similarly, if the individual encounters significant obstacles during potty training, for instance, she may suffer from poor digestion as an adult, or manifest other “anal retentive” characteristics such as compulsive housecleaning, etc.  The individual who feels particularly rejected or overstimulated during the genital phase, likely encountering much guilt and shame at the onset of puberty, may later find it extremely difficult to engage in a normal adult sexual relationship.

In many psychological circles, classical drive theory is considered rather archaic.  Nonetheless, the idea that the difficulties the individual encounters early on play a very important role in the development of the self still pervades psychological thought.  Moreover, examining the differing effect of emotional conflict at various early stages of personality development is still considered an essential means to understanding and addressing adult personality traits.  For that matter, Freud’s oral, anal and genital stages aren’t nearly so arbitrary and odd as they may initially sound.  Correlations between personality organization and these developmental phases have been well documented by both early and contemporary psychologists.  The anal retentive, individual for example, commonly has dreams with various problematic bathroom scenarios—situations in which she is unable to hold her bladder, can’t find a suitable restroom, etc.  Likewise, an individual partially arrested at the oral stage of development commonly dreams of enormous feasts, experiences frequent dream scenarios in which adult sexual hunger is somehow mingled with childish food hunger and so on.  Intuitively—however bizarre we may find Freud’s early ideas at first glance—most of us seem to find some significant merit in classical drive theory as, to this day, phrases such as oral fixation, anal retentive, penis envy and so on, are quite common in popular culture.           

Ego psychology:  Freud introduced this approach to personality later in his career.  Although it doesn’t exactly counteract his earlier drive theory, it does suggest a different emphasis in understanding the individual’s experience of self.  Although ego psychology continues to be expanded upon and refined even now, the basic structure Freud originally suggested is still more or less intact.  Loosely corresponding to the oral, anal and genital stages of drive theory, ego psychology is concerned with the three structures which make up the personality: id, ego and superego. The id is present at birth and consists of strong, undisciplined urges for self- preservation, love and sexual satisfaction, as well as unrestrained aggressive desires and destructive impulses.  Operating on the pleasure principle, the id wants all of these desires gratified, and fast—the fact that many of these urges are mutually exclusive being beyond its understanding.  At about six months of age, the ego develops.  Introducing the reality principle, the ego mediates the conflicting demands of the id, essentially teaching it that not all desires can be fulfilled all the time, but must sometimes be postponed until the appropriate circumstances arise.  When the child is about five years old, the superego emerges.  Whereas the ego seeks, rationally and realistically, to merely postpone the gratification of the id’s conflicting desires, the superego wants to permanently cancel them.  For all practical purposes, this aspect of the self is the moral or ethical conscience of the individual, representing learned social rules and standards.

The ego psychologist works with the patient to integrate these three layers, or aspects of self—the primary emphasis being on strengthening the ego.  The ego is the location of the “coherent organization of mental processes,”2 Freud said, or, in Jung’s words, the “center of the field of consciousness.”3   As this center acts as a kind of referee between the id and the superego, working to strike the most comfortable balance between childish desires and restrictive moral conscience, the therapist attempts to cultivate a more flexible, resilient ego within the patient’s personality.  Weak or inflexible egos are easily overpowered by the id’s childish urges, manifesting in habitually impulsive and irrational behavior in the adult.  Similarly, when the ego is dominated by the superego, the individual is frequently overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame, unhealthily restraining his or her instinctual desires.  The psychotherapist works with the patient to bring more awareness to the imperfect workings of her ego, allowing her to better recognize, and rationally manage, the various battles that persistently wage between the id and superego.   

Object relations:  For our purposes, this is the most current development of psychoanalytic thought in regard to the development of the self.  Psychologists such as Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Margaret Mahler and Otto Kernberg have been pioneers in the cultivation of this influential contemporary theory.  (There are, in actuality, numerous other significant schools of psychological thought such as Heinz Kohut’s self-psychology and Adler’s individual psychology, which—due to the limited scope of our present discussion—will not be addressed.)  As its name suggest, object relations is concerned with the ways in which the self relates to external “objects” at various developmental stages.  Here, an object is most typically a person, such as a family member, but may also be a more traditional object such as the father’s belt or a favorite toy.  In the first few months of life, the infant is essentially unaware of external objects—a state which Mahler describes as normal autism.  Around the fourth month, the infant enters the separation-individuation phase, in which he begins to develop various strategies for relating to various objects.  Various conflicts between dependence and independence emerge, bringing about feelings of separation anxiety.  At about three years of age, the child has resolved these conflicts to the degree that he now recognizes object constancy, which is a permanent sense of both self and external object.  At this stage, the child realizes that he is both related to, and separate from, objects within his environment.        

One of the primary interests of object relations is the understanding of introjected, or internalized, objects.  Let’s imagine, for example, someone raised by a distant, yet hypercritical mother.  Early on, fearing separation from her mother, this individual learned to introject this critical quality of the mother, sort of borrow it as part of her own personality.  This becomes her way of staying close to the mother, internally relating to her in times of separation.  In so doing, perhaps she also becomes distant with, and hypercritical of, others as an adult.  Moreover, perhaps this individual becomes hypercritical of herself, devaluing her career endeavors, physical appearance, etc.  She does this as a way of maintaining emotional contact with her mother, a way of holding onto whatever familiar feelings she had toward her, and toward herself, growing up—even when these feelings are mostly negative or unpleasant in character.  From the object relations perspective, the patient is encouraged to seek more adaptive ways of connecting to this sense of early emotional security.  In learning to more clearly distinguish between her own self and external objects, she better appreciates the fact that she is an organic whole, an individual related to, but not dependent upon, her environment.  In so doing, she learns to accept her ambivalent feelings toward others, accepting both love and aggression—feelings of closeness and separateness—as natural human responses to mature interpersonal relationships.

The complexity of “I”: The above summaries are vastly simplified accounts of psychological thought, please understand.  There is an enormous, and ever-growing, body of psychological literature devoted to the many intricacies, inconsistencies and seemingly infinite expressions of personality and self.  Our aim here is really not so much to provide an authoritative account of psychological views concerning the development of self, as it is to suggest that the history of the self is an amazingly complicated, and often quite murky, affair.  If nothing else, these summaries remind us that the phenomenon we typically describe as “I” is much more complex than it appears on the surface.  Who I am, from the psychological perspective, is a complex being formed from past circumstances, relationships and events, as well as present circumstances, relationships and events—many of which are well outside of my conscious awareness.  Consequently, it would be safe enough to assume that most of us simply don’t really know ourselves nearly as well as we would like to think.  With this in mind, I would like to present a very simple guide to a do-it-yourself psychological character diagnosis in the following section ...

Character organization/Personality Type

Based on complex formative factors, some of which are discussed in the preceding section, psychoanalytic thought conceptualizes the personality as primarily belonging within one of several categories.  These categories describe, in part, the various developmental stages at which the individual is likely stuck, as well as the common psychological defensesor strategic, mostly unconscious ego-protecting maneuversthat individual habitually favors.  Below is a list of the primary psychoanalytic character organizations or personality types.  It should be emphasized that all character types manifest along a continuum from highly well-adjusted to severely pathological.  To put it simply: No one personality structure is innately "crazier" than another.  As each of us theoretically fits one character organization or another, these categories are not meant to indicate pathology so much as they are to simply describe a given individual's primary patterns of thinking, feeling and doing.  With this in mind, descriptions of three of the most common character types (blue links below) are borrowed below Build A Better Buddha:

Depressive:  Two major feeling states accompany the depressive character.  First, the depressive person feels a persistent and relatively pervasive sadness.  In acute cases, this sadness may manifest as a certifiable depressive episode, or clinical depression.  In such an instance, this feeling may very well be incapacitating, making it very difficult for the individual to maintain a job and other responsibilities.  The individual’s motor skills will be noticeably slower, his appetite will likely fluctuate and he may experience a disruption of his usual sleeping patterns.  Frequent bouts of crying and an inability to enjoy things that normally give him pleasure also tend to accompany such an episode.  Although it’s not at all uncommon for a depressive person to experience one or several such concentrated episodes throughout her life, it is not a “requirement” for the depressive character.  Just as often, this feeling of sadness is not nearly so acute.  It is experienced, rather, as a kind of constant, low-grade melancholy.  Although this person may not be depressed in the strictly clinical sense, relatively small upsets may affect him or her considerably.  The depressive individual tends to get rather shaken up by seemingly minor failures and incidents of loss.  If not properly attended to, such upsets may develop into the aforementioned depressive episode.

Second, the depressive character tends to weigh heavily with a pervasive feeling of guilt.  As Nancy McWilliams quotes William Goldman, “When I’m accused of a crime I didn’t commit, I wonder why I have forgotten it.”4   The depressive person, then, tends to blame herself for any conflicts or difficulties that may arise in her relationships.  This tendency is due largely to the depressive person’s difficulty in expressing anger.  Rather than getting angry with someone “out there,” she turns her anger inward, pointing it back at herself.  For this reason, the depressive individual often benefits considerably from learning to redirect her anger externally, realizing she is not solely responsible for all of life’s “crimes.”

These feelings of sadness and guilt seem to stem from some early experience of loss.  Perhaps one of the child’s parents was physically absent throughout childhood.  This loss may also be much more subtle—having a depressive mother, for instance.  It is known that depression tends to run in families.  One of the primary reasons for this may be the fact that depressive parents tend to lack the necessary energy to sufficiently attend to the needs and wants of a child.  In the context of object relations, the depressive character deals with this sense of loss by forming a kind of mental representation of the lost person or object, and carries it throughout life, interacting with it internally in an attempt to heal earlier wounds.  As this process is described in Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, the depressive individual maintains

An intense but ambivalent internal relationship with the mental representation of what is lost.  Love for the object represented leads to the mechanism of identification in order to keep it within the self, while feelings of hate demand its destruction.  Since the individual identifies with the representation of the lost object, he or she experiences these destructive forces as if directed toward the self.5

If a child was raised by a depressive mother, for example, she would form a mental image of the mother and relate to it internally as a way of protecting herself from an imperfect caretaker.  The feelings of anger that the child would necessarily develop toward the imperfect caretaker get redirected back at this internalized object, resulting in feelings of guilt.  In essence, that individual goes on to act the part of both herself and the lost mother, punishing herself as a kind of stand-in for the mother.

In terms of drive theory, this early loss is thought of as a fixation at the oral stage of development.  Perhaps the depressive mother didn’t have enough energy to feed the child properly or attend to its other needs during the oral stage of libidinal development.  Consequently, the depressive individual goes through life feeling somehow “hungry”—as if his or her life wasn’t properly nourishing.  Not surprisingly, then, many depressive people eat, smoke or drink to lessen this pervasive oral longing.  It is not uncommon, then, for depressive individuals to become overweight, develop eating disorders or to develop substance abuse problems.

It should be emphasized, however, that all things considered, depressive people tend to be quite warm and amiable.  As McWilliams writes:

Unless they are so disturbed that they cannot function normally, most depressive people are easy to like and admire.  Because they aim hatred and criticism inward rather than outward, they are usually generous, sensitive, and compassionate to a fault.6


Hysterical:  This character organization is also known as histrionic, and is most common in women—although not uncommon in men, particularly homosexuals.  According to Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, the hysterical individual is “exhibitionistic, seductive, labile (quick to change, my parentheses) in mood, and prone to act out oedipal fantasies, yet fearful of sexuality and inhibited in action.”7   One of the main characteristics of the hysterical individual, then, is a tendency to dramatize her emotional states in an effort to captivate the attention of others.  These dramatic moods tend to change often and abruptly in an attempt to keep the “show” interesting.  In a process known as conversion, the hysteric converts these emotional exaggerations into physical symptoms.  In Freud’s time, this was the mechanism behind the infamous swoon of the romantically affected woman.  These days, conversion tends to be much more subtle.  Sudden onset of sleepiness, hiccups, headaches, back pain, stomach cramps and any other number of relatively minor physical discomforts are common in hysterical individuals.

Another major characteristic of the hysteric is sexual repression.  For developmental reasons discussed below, the histrionic individual feels particularly ashamed of her sexual desires.  Consequently, she tends to not find much legitimate satisfaction or enjoyment in the sexual act.  Ironically, however, due to the intense compression of her sexual urges, these urges tend to “leak out” unconsciously, manifesting in non-sexual areas of her life.  For example, the hysteric tends to be highly seductive, knowingly and unknowingly sexualizing their relationships through flirtation, seductive dress and mannerisms, etc.  This advertising of sex without the expected follow through is the primary characteristic associated with the stereotypical sexual “tease.”  This repression also tends to show up in pervasive feelings of generalized anxiety, stress and explosive fits of anger and emotionality.  As mentioned above, this sexual repression can likewise manifest in physical symptoms.  For instance, Freud describes women suffering from glove paralysis, a condition in which loss of feeling and mobility is experienced in one hand.  As Freud discovered in working with these women, this condition resulted from the woman’s anxiety about her sexual desire—specifically her practice of masturbation.  If she masturbated with her right hand, that hand would become chronically limp, preventing her from satisfying her sexual desire in this particularly guilt-inducing manner.  Once again, although such a direct form of conversion is not as common these days, hysterical women often suffer from some persistent physical symptom or symptoms with an unclear medical diagnosis.  Once these women learn to reconnect with their sexual desire, these symptoms—as was the case with Freud’s glove paralysis patients—are significantly alleviated, or go away altogether.    

Developmentally, the hysteric tends to come from a family in which the female role was somehow denigrated in relation to that of the male.  Perhaps the mother was viewed as weak and passive in relation to the dominant father.  Similarly, the female hysteric may have an older brother who she believed to be favored for his masculine qualities.  “Girly” qualities may have been criticized in such a household as being inferior to “manly” traits.  Consequently, the hysteric comes to perceive men as more powerful than women.  Wanting to balance this power differential, she seeks to “borrow” the power of a dominant male.  Feeling that the primary quality she has to offer is that of feminine sexuality, she attempts to seduce this man through her “feminine wiles.”  Even if this attempt is successful, however, the sexual aspect of this relationship quickly becomes a rather hostile battleground.  Due to her false notion that men are somehow innately more powerful than women, the hysteric resents this and tries to gain power by withholding, disengaging or acting indifferently to the sexual act.

In terms of drive theory, hysteria can be understood as being “stuck” at two different phases: oral and oedipal.  Typically, much like the depressive, the hysteric would have experienced the mother as being inattentive at the oral stage.  Whereas the depressive attempts to solve this problem by internalizing the mother, the hysteric strategically devalues women in general, defensively deciding that she will never depend on the unreliable feminine object for fulfillment.  When she reaches the oedipal phase and begins to have sexual feelings for the father, she displaces all of her earlier dissatisfaction with the mother onto this stage, unconsciously intensifying her sexual feelings.  As the father is not an obtainable sexual object for her, however, the hysteric develops a strategy of seduction without fulfillment.  As Freud discovered in his work with hysterics, she tends to represent unobtainable male power through the symbol of the penis—hence the infamous term penis envy.

Although the hysterical character is often perceived as shallow and false in many respects, the hysteric is also commonly experienced as warm and engaging.  Her attempts to capture the attention of others often result in a highly energetic and entertaining personality structure, the “life of the party.”  Despite the various personality ambivalence and contradictions that go along with hysteria, the histrionic individual is typically emotionally expressive and genuinely open in certain ways, and can be a very charismatic and sincere person.

Obsessive-compulsive:  This character organization relies heavily on repetitive patterns of thought and behavior.  Obsessions involve repetitious, circular patterns of thinking, whereas compulsions involve repetitive doing.  Although these defenses tend to go together, the obsessive-compulsive person may rely more heavily on one than the other. 

According to Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, obsessions are thoughts that “occur against one’s will” and can include “rumination … brooding … reflection, musing or pondering … All these mental phenomena involve an effort made to solve an emotional conflict by thinking, but the conclusion or solution is avoided, and the person starts the process over again repeatedly.”8   When such a person encounters a difficult emotion, then, he will likely engage in some unsolvable thought riddle.  He may wonder what he will do with his life twenty years in the future, or consider infinite subtle meanings of a coworker’s curious smile earlier that day.  Rather than experiencing whatever emotional conflict directly, the obsessive person tends to lose himself in the impossible labyrinth of the “meaning of life,” or some other mental abstraction.

Compulsions and rituals are persistent and irresistible urges to engage in apparently meaningless acts; they are the motor equivalent of obsessive thoughts and often accompany them … The person so afflicted usually knows that his or her acts are unreasonable but is unable to control them.”9   Rather than face certain emotional difficulties, the compulsive individual may become a “workaholic” or an “overachiever.”  They may engage themselves is housecleaning, meticulous straightening and arranging and other such minutely detailed tasks.  Acts such as exercise, eating, substance use, gambling and sex can also be used as outlets for compulsive tendencies.

Classically, the obsessive-compulsive character has been conceived in terms of fixation at the anal stage.  According to Freud, certain characteristics—“cleanliness, stubbornness, concerns with punctuality, tendencies toward withholding”10—which form the basis for childhood potty-training scenarios, are also prevalent in the “anal” adult, or obsessive-compulsive individual.  Though this emphasis of the importance of potty-training may at first seem rather bizarre, Freud’s conception was highly logical.  When we consider that “toilet training usually constitutes the first situation in which the child must renounce what is natural for what is socially acceptable,” this early stage seems a likely breeding ground for the obsessive-compulsive character.  Similar to the potty-training child, “the basic … conflict in obsessive and compulsive people is rage (at being controlled) versus fear (of being condemned or punished).”11   Parents who are particularly harsh or critical at this stage, then, would be more likely to contribute to the formation of an obsessive-compulsive character.

The object relations school describes this same conflict, albeit with less emphasis on the potty-training particulars.  From this perspective, unusually critical or demanding parents are likely to behave as such throughout all phases of the child’s development.  Although parents who are strict and consistent in punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior often contribute to a sense of a sturdy self-esteem, emotional stability and responsibility in the developing individual, this is not always the case.  Parents who punish and reward without much emotional warmth or affection are likely to exacerbate obsessive and compulsive tendencies.  Moreover, parents who emphasize moralistic aspects of behavior are likely to complicate the situation.  For example, parents who say, “A good person doesn’t do such and such,” or, “I’m doing this for your own good,” tend to encourage obsessive and compulsive defense mechanisms.

These defenses are essentially intended to distance the obsessive-compulsive person from uncomfortable emotional material.  Fearing a loss of control in certain situations, the individual occupies herself with detailed thoughts and behaviors, attempting to safely isolate herself from the emotional situation at hand.  Fantasies of omnipotent control are at the core of the obsessive-compulsive character, often resulting in magical rituals such as the athlete’s elaborate incantations, etc., before the big game.  There is often a sense of atonement about the thoughts and behaviors of this character type.  If such an individual takes a day off work, for example, he or she may seek to “atone” for this act through compulsive housecleaning, or obsessively considering some problem at work.

Although the obsessive-compulsive individual can be highly frustrating and stubborn, at the higher-functioning levels he tends to be highly responsible and dependable.  His attention to detail often makes him a great employee and caretaker.  Moreover, many important innovators of philosophy, science and other exacting mental disciplines, have shown obvious signs of the obsessive-compulsive character.


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  1. Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 245-246.
  2. Sigmund Freud (1923).  The Ego and the Id.  In Peter Gray, Ed., The Freud Reader (New York: Norton & Company, 1989), 630.
  3. Carl Jung.  Aion: Phenomenology of the Self.  In Joseph Campbell, Ed., The Portable Jung (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), 139.
  4. William Goldman.  Quoted in McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, 230.
  5. Burness E. Moore, M.D., & Bernard D. Fine, M.D., Eds., Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 53.
  6. Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994), 231.
  7. Moore & Fine, Psychoanalytic Terms & Concepts, 90.
  8. Moore  & Fine, Psychoanalytic Terms & Concepts, 132.
  9. Moore & Fine, Psychoanalytic Terms & Concepts, 132.
  10. McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, 281.
  11. McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, 282.

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