The question may seem odd if you assume that personality is something we are born with or that we develop but cannot greatly change. We talk about whether people "have personality" (as if some people have none) or whether someone has a pleasing personality. However, according to Kazimierz Dabrowski, personality can—and should—be consciously created and developed.
In his book Personality-shaping Through Positive Disintegration, Dabrowski, a psychologist, psychiatrist, and researcher, defined "personality" as something not that we are born with, but that we work to shape, develop, and attain. He used the word "individuality" to refer to the innate tendencies and traits that we often think of as elements of our personality. For him, personality was something far greater than individuality, and potentially more powerful. In essence, the lifelong quest for our personality—to being, in his words, "an individually fully developed"—is a quest to realize our full and best human potential.
"The fundamental method for the development of personality is self-education." ~ Kazimierz Dabrowski
Self-education refers to a continual and steady reaching toward greater personal growth through knowledge of oneself and conscious change. This change often comes about because we are dissatisfied with ourselves in some way. Rather than ignore this dissatisfaction or view it as psychologically destructive, Dabrowski encouraged that we understand the feeling of inferiority that comes from comparing who or where we are now with whom or where we would like to be as part of "a process of intensive moral and cultural development."
But, if we are dissatisfied with who we are now, how do we begin the process self-knowledge?
In upcoming posts, we will explore aspects of Dabrowski's theory in more detail, but we can start by paying attention to and honoring what Dabrowski called our "fundamental trend of interests and capabilities," which allow us to grasp reality "from a special side, or rather with a special emotional tone."
What are your interests? Photography? Knitting? Eighteenth-century epistolary novels? From what "special side" do you grasp reality? How do you like to spend your free time? Do you honor your interests in the same way you encourage your children to pursue theirs? Are there any childhood interests or abilities, especially those that had a "special emotional tone," that persist in your life, or that you have abandoned?
Last year I visited with a friend from high school whom I hadn't seen in a very long time. We met at her parents' house, where we looked at their old family photos, and I talked a bit about family diaries I am in the process of transcribing. My friend said, "You always did like old things and family history." Not until then did I realize that understanding previous ways of life is, for me, a fundamental trend of interest, something that I've been curious about, for reasons I don't understand, for as long as I can remember.
Dabrowski urged us to see such interests and abilities as not mere hobbies or even talents, but as intrinsic to who we are and a key to the personality we hope to develop:
"These interests and capabilities need not necessarily be at the level of talent, but even at the germinative stage they show such a peculiar structural quality, so strongly associated with a given individual, that they must be regarded as gifts of nature, gifts brought into the world with life, and inseparable from the further actions of a man."
We can see this strong association most clearly in young children who seem from a very young age drawn toward music or art or science or language. Their interests and capabilities are part of and influence how they experience the world. Aware and thoughtful parents and teachers encourage these interests, these "special gifts of nature," regardless of their practical value or whether they fit into a core curriculum.
Unfortunately, once we grow up, we often value our interests only insofar as they lead to a job or prestige. Or we might be embarrassed by our interests, especially if they are unpopular, go against gender stereotype, or otherwise make us feel, once more, out of step.
But what if our unique interests and curiosity and our "special side" are more than mere indications of vocational aptitude? What if, by honoring and pursuing them with the intensity they ask for, we can be more fully the person we are meant to be?
Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping Through Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
Mendaglio, S. (Ed.). (2007). Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press
Knitter photo credit: Peter Skadberg
Photographer photo credit: Vivek Chugh