“Who am I”? – Looking into our Psychological Mirror

by Ema Konjevod S2DEA

“Who am I?” Sounds like an incredibly philosophic question, no? Well, in a sense it is, because I am convinced most of you could (hopefully) tell me your name, age and so on and so forth. But are these truly the only things that define you? Not really. 

“Who am I?” stands in a different light when you think about it like that. The main difference between humans and other mammals is consciousness. We know we exist; we choose what our next step is, and we can do so while considering consequences and not only relying on primal instincts. We control what we do. Well at least sometimes, that is. In other situations, a quick response is needed, we tend to act in our own interests. When under pressure we cannot really think too much. But unlike other mammals, humans no longer have the sole interest of survival. Because of the world we live in today, extremely few to no people must fight for basic needs. The system may not be great, but the basic needs get covered. So, with the passing of time and the standard of living increasing, people wanted more. Compared to the hunter and gatherer in the stone age, the present human has a lot more time to think. Who do we want to be? Personalities get increasingly shaped by our own will. But how do they get shaped in the first place?  

While genetics, our own decisions as well as other factors play a role, nothing is even nearly as important as our surroundings. They play a crucial role. But to understand why that is so, we need to dig a bit deeper into the process of forming a personality. This process is a highly researched topic, but while there are many theories, there is no clear “solution”. The theories I’ll be using here are Maslow’s Humanistic theory and the Trait theory, largely defined by Gordon Willard Allport.  

Maslow claims that humans make choices based on an ultimate desire for self-excellence and that personalities are based on subjective experiences and individuals’ interaction with their environment. This theory then led to Maslow’s well-known Hierarchy of Needs Model, that wants to show that once a certain set of needs is met, an individual moves to the “next level”, and once that set of needs is met, you move further, climbing up the pyramid. The original order of the needs is as follows: at the bottom, the most important, are physiological needs. Right next is the need for safety and security, so the need for health, employment, family etc. After those needs are fulfilled, the human feels the need for love and belonging. Friendship, family and intimacy belong to this level. When this need is satisfied, it’s time for the highest set of needs most people achieve, the need for self-esteem. It is the need for confidence, achievement, the respect of others, status and primarily the need to be a unique individual. And even though this level is not the last, it is, for many people, the highest they achieve. This is due to the complex nature of the last level, the self-actualization needs. These are associated with the full realization of a person’s potential. Maslow describes it as “becoming everything one is capable of becoming”. This is the need that varies the most because every individual perceives this need differently. For example, while one person might strive to win the Olympics, another person’s biggest desire might be to become the ideal parent. Due to the perfectionistic nature of some people, they never feel satisfied with what they’ve achieved, thus never feeling truly fulfilled. Maslow explains that most humans experience peak moments, which are transitory moments, where they do experience self-actualization, but only for short periods of time. Moments like these are usually personally significant events, for example childbirth, sporting achievements or things like examination success. But because these things are hard to achieve repeatedly and difficult to maintain, they are only considered peak experiences, not true self-actualization.  

Now, having discussed all this, it is important to note, that: depending on outer circumstances as well as genetics, some people don’t really have to fight for some of these needs, as they are already fulfilled upon birth, while others can’t ever fully fulfill them. (A billionaire’s daughter’s physiological needs, safety needs as well as esteem needs are not something she really has to fight for much, opposing to an immigrant child with a chronic illness, such as diabetes. They must fight for safety needs, esteem needs and sometimes even physiological needs.) But Maslow states, that the pyramid does not follow a strict linear order, that the human wants to fulfill multiple needs at once or doesn’t feel the need to fulfill one at all. (This would mean that a starving person might theoretically achieve self-actualization before fulfilling their physiological needs. It could also mean that someone values esteem needs over love needs, or love needs before all others.) This depends on the person themselves. On their personality traits. 

This concept of traits was mostly defined by Gordon Willard Allport, who claims human actions are influenced by a set of traits, which can be defined as habitual patterns in behavior, thought and emotion. There is no clear solution to the origin of our traits, but that doesn’t influence the theory much. Usually, when categorizing the traits, they’re put into three groups: cardinal traits, central traits and secondary traits. Cardinal traits are rare, a person would probably have one, maybe two or three, but this is the smallest category. Cardinal traits influence basically every aspect of behavior and personality. When reacting or deciding something, our cardinal traits will influence the outcome a lot. You can usually identify a person’s cardinal traits soon into a relationship, as they are easy to discover by taking a closer look at the person’s actions. A cardinal trait is so strong that pretty much no matter the circumstances, it won’t change. (A truly kind person will always stay kind, even if they’re having a terrible day.) Cardinal traits are then followed by central traits, which are more numerous. There are usually between five and ten central traits, which are the basic qualities of an individual. They might include things like intelligence, shyness, honesty or perfectionism. While these traits do not change much, they are more adaptive compared to cardinal traits and not as present in our actions, but still noticeable. The last group of traits that Allport describes are secondary traits. These traits include preferences for certain colors or foods and can change. They aren’t very present in decision-making and don’t affect our life too much. Secondary traits are the biggest group with about twenty traits.  

This theory explains the phenomenon of a personality as the combination of all traits a human has. A similar thing to this theory is the well-known MBTI. It evaluates a personality by deciding if a person is extroverted, introverted, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving, thus creating sixteen individual categories. Even though this is a pseudoscientific self-report questionnaire, it can help identifying cardinal traits. How it works is that it asks you some questions to find out if you are socially introverted or extroverted, if you take information in a sensing way (realism, practical ideas etc.) or intuitively (possibilities, theoretical ideas etc.), if you make decisions in a thinking way, or in a feeling way and if you live your outer life judging (respecting deadlines, organized, etc.) or perceiving (flexibility, open options, etc.). It then takes the first letter of the four options you fit better and assigns you to a group. For example, an INTJ personality is introverted, takes information intuitively, makes decisions thinking, and lives their outer life judging. 

Essentially, I think that all the theories above combined could be the best solution. Because, while our behavior is influenced by the needs we want to fulfill, our traits define the importance of those needs to us. Some people care about status more than love, some care about love more than anything else. We are all unique individuals, and psychology still isn’t sure why we are the way we are. Forming a personality is a highly researched topic, but there is no real “solution”. So, let’s ask ourselves once again, “Who are we?”, but most importantly let’s say: “I love who I am. I’ve made it so far.”