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The Evolution of Personality

By Peter Shepherd

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A baby's rational mind is almost a blank slate and the infant is instinctively keen to learn and develop. For cognitive growth to occur, a child must orient himself to novelty and respond to it with exploration. So long as the child operates within the protective environment provided by mother, anxiety is low and learning can proceed. But if the child's exploration arouses maternal rejection or punishment, anxiety is aroused in a strong form, because the child is dependent on mother and fears desertion. The child can resolve this dilemma only through compromise: he voluntarily restricts his activities within the boundaries acceptable to the mother. He avoids, denies or suppresses the emotional responses which - although natural reactions to frustration - are unacceptable to mother. This creates a social environment of adaptedness within which he can feel at ease with himself.

These patterns of responding are not forgotten; they remain as unclarified memories that are not incorporated cognitively into the rules by which a person explains himself - in other words, they are unconscious. But they still take effect. Fear hurts; as an experience it is normally avoided. So, with no clear understanding as to why, a person comes to shy away from certain kinds of social experience that sufficiently resemble the original circumstances that created anxiety as an infant. The original fears are re-stimulated and the safe (compromise) solutions that the child adopted are re-enacted.

The 'unconscious,' then, refers to those memories that were once attended to so vividly that they cannot be erased but which, because of the fear with which they were associated, triggered so much avoidance that they failed to be incorporated in the cognitive rules that construct the understanding of the self. Indeed the interpretive brain is only partly formed when the infant experiences its early trauma; these experiences are thus laid down in the 'old brain', the evolutionarily primitive but very powerful limbic system, which has major influences on emotional life.

In later life, defense is not so much against the ancient memories as such, for they are in any case barely available without extensive psychological work; rather it consists in a failure to process information which tends to arouse anxiety and for which no rules of incorporation have been established. The person either has blind spots and tunnel vision that cuts off unacceptable views and options, or the information is distorted to an acceptable form.

It thus comes about that personality types unconsciously seek to create for themselves social environments which do not arouse in them the fears of their primal experiences. These processes are inevitable characteristics of being human, the evolved basis upon which the diversity of human personality types rests. Because the exact nature and combination of their experiences differs significantly - not to mention genetic and spiritual predispositions - no two personalities are alike, though broad trends are apparent.

Jung suggested that the repressed material revealed in dreams, fantasies, and evocative folk legends and mythology, is far from arbitrary; rather it tends to be patterned in a highly thematic way. Jung's intuition may be based on a universal responsiveness found in human affairs; each of us has a mother, a father, attempts to be a hero, seeks the wise man, and other such 'archetypal' ways of being.

These considerations suggest that most adult human beings actually comprehend few of their sources of action and impulse and are often far from knowing consciously what they are about. What we profess to know is usually a rationalization of what has impelled or directed us from within. This includes sources such as innate bio-survival impulses for sexual proliferation and territorial dominance, though these may be suppressed for social acceptability; archetypal themes that pattern unconscious expression drawn from bedrock structures of human family and society, as well as cultural conditioning, where ways of being are learned and acquired by identification; frustrating and traumatic experiences in infancy patterning our social boundaries; decisions made as a consequence of traumatic experiences in later life - the memories of which may be suppressed, especially if they restimulate similar connected trauma or frustrations - that are carried over to act in the present.

So how do you get out of this morass of conditioning? Traditionally, meditative and shemanic practices were used to shake-up the everyday modes of consciousness, to get a glimpse of alternatives. In this century, Jungian deep psychoanalysis attempts to expose the archetypes, and more recently psychosynthesis has been developed along similar lines. Rebirthing and primal techniques are intense ways of regressing into the heart of infant emotional trauma, to lay bare the connections with current behavior. Gurdjieff techniques attempt to expose patterned ways of being and doing and so 'shock' you into awakening. Some have taken substances to obtain a new viewpoint, others get a different view from the peak of high-risk experiences such as mountain climbing, or the ego-less flow induced by various aesthetic experiences. Many mind tools help to obtain a new state of consciousness.

The problem with some of these approaches is that although they stimulate a change of consciousness, they can leave the participant in a limbo, stuck in unresolved earlier experiences or crashing from a high point back to lower than they started, with the frustration of not being able to obtain that point so easily again. But just as "a child must orient himself to novelty and respond to it with exploration" in order to move forward, so must we as adults aiming to further develop ourselves.

Transformational psychology approaches this task from a present time point of view and examines objectively the content of one's belief system of assumptions, evaluations and decisions carried over to the present, to release those that are irrational, inappropriate, or simply acquired and not your own. When this is done effectively the past traumatic emotional charge drops away. It no longer has the 'hooks' into the present that were provided by the various imprinted considerations, that have now been exposed and released. This is a relatively painless and safe procedure, that can be self-administered. With the new millennium on our doorstep, there has never been a better time.

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