- There are six main views of personality, among them the biological view, the psychological view, and the social view.
- Five of these views do not credit human beings with the power to dynamically self-regulate.
- The sixth view of personality, the one that acknowledges our ability to self-regulate, is the truest view of personality.
A brain’s true brilliance is its ability to chat with itself, enter into self-conversation, and as a result of these conversations engage in dynamic, system-wide self-regulation. Is anything in the universe more amazing than that? Nor is any brain feature more important to you personally, since this dynamic self-regulation is the brain feature that allows for mental health and emotional wellbeing.
There are countless ways of thinking about human nature and what really makes us tick. Here are five typical approaches:
- We are our biology. We are biological machines controlled by our genes, hormones, nervous system, and other aspects of biology. When, for example, we sustain a brain injury and lose our memory, that is one sort of proof or evidence that we are our biology. The “medical model” view is that we are mentally healthy when our biology is functioning and that we are mentally unwell when our biology fails to function properly. In this view, we should treat mental distress as a biological matter requiring medical treatment, primarily medication.
- A second way to think about human nature is that we are primarily psychological creatures who are more or less held hostage by the way our mind develops, makes sense of our experiences and our circumstances, and manages our desires and our instincts. In this view, we are mentally healthy when our mind refrains from distorting reality, stops creating unnecessary inner conflicts, refuses to succumb to emotional cravings, and so on—when, that is, it serves us rather than weakens us. This view underpins psychotherapy, which is the second dominant mental health paradigm after the medical model paradigm.
- A third way of looking at human nature is that we are this thing called personality, that we are from birth or that we become over time a formed creature who reacts repetitively and rather without thinking in ways determined by our genetic predispositions, the lessons we learn from our lived experiences, and our many diverse self-identity pieces. Each person is identifiable as fundamentally himself or herself. In common parlance, we describe people as introverts or extroverts, bubbly or melancholy, rigid or reckless, conventional or iconoclastic, or, in mental disorder language, passive-aggressive, borderline, and so forth. What’s implied by these designations is the idea that “everything comes together” as personality, making each of us a predictable, recognizable, and rather intractable unity.
- A fourth way of describing human nature is by asserting that, fundamentally and above all else, we human beings are social creatures defined by our social roles, social interactions, and relationships. In this view, phenomena like “mob mentality,” “authoritarian acquiescence,” and “family conflict,” reveal our true nature and put the lie to the idea that we are independent actors. In their different ways, family therapy and social therapy both champion this idea by, for example, seeing every “problem child” as a family problem. In this view, individual mental health is necessarily contextual and inseparable from family dynamics, group dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and social life. Social psychology is the branch of psychology most curious about these matters—and their experiments are rather convincing in supporting the idea that individuals are much more like herd animals than we might like to imagine.
- A fifth view, rather ignored by psychology and psychiatry, is that we are embedded creatures whose circumstances matter much more than we are typically willing to admit. It matters if we must go to a school where we feel unsafe and where we’re bullied mercilessly; it matters if we resent and don’t like our mate; it matters if we must toil fifty hours a week at a menial or a high-pressure job. In short, circumstances matter and dramatically affect our mental health. In this view, which I think strikes us as common sense, you would expect a homeless refugee to be “anxious” and “depressed,” a marginalized youth to be “oppositional” and “defiant,” and so on. Any reasonable mental health model must naturally take a person’s circumstances into account.
What each of these five views has in common is a rather stark failure to picture human beings as possessing a real mind of the sort that human beings actually have. These models, on the whole, tend not to credit human beings with the ability to chat with themselves about life, actively make sense of their instincts, desires, psychological workings, and personality, or realize that there are efforts they might make to help with their sadness, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. This is such an odd failure, really, the failure to forget or ignore the fact that human beings are able to chat with themselves about what’s going on.
There is a sixth view, then, that we are dynamic, self-regulating organisms that, to put it colloquially, can chat with ourselves and aim ourselves in one direction versus another. We are able to work towards calmness versus anxiousness, passion versus indifference, love versus enmity, and so on. We may often do a poor job of dynamic self-regulation, indulge ourselves in thoughts and behaviors that don’t serve us, and actually prefer to think that we can’t self-regulate. However, doing a poor job of it is not a good argument that we're unable to do it.
Human beings may be some impossible-to-deconstruct conglomeration of drives, appetites, thoughts, feelings, memories, neural events, and everything else human. But what we are, in addition to all that, is a conscious being who knows things, understands things, and can try out things so as to help our situation improve.
Let’s imagine how these six models might intersect. You are drinking too much. Your cells are adapting to your drinking habits and now crave alcohol. You certainly have a “biological” problem (and you may have had a biological predisposition to begin with). Your mind likewise craves alcohol. You now have a “psychological issue” with respect to drinking. You also self-identify as a hard-drinking type and see your drinking as a personality fit. Your “personality” helps sustain the problem. In addition, most of the adults in your family love to drink and you are caught up in a social dynamic that supports your drinking. On top of all that, your job is stressful and your marriage is on the rocks and you drink to relieve those stresses. It’s abundantly clear how all five—biology, psychology, personality, social pressures, and circumstances—contribute to your problem drinking.
But here’s the human-sized miracle available to you. Through dynamic self-regulation, simply by having a certain sort of chat with yourself, you can, from one minute to the next, stop drinking—despite the powerful nature of those five intersecting challenges. You can enter into what is commonly called "recovery," which is essentially an ongoing self-conversation about why you intend not to drink. There is a “you” that wants to drink but there is also a “you” that knows better—and that second “you” actively thinks, observes, reflects, counter-argues, and maintains an ongoing internal conversation in the service of sobriety. Without that dynamic self-regulation piece, sobriety simply isn’t happening. By virtue of it, sobriety is possible.
This is so important. Those five were influential but not determinative. Isn’t it to your great benefit to remember that this is possible and that the power of dynamic self-regulation is available to you? And really, isn’t this the best way to picture a human being, not as a strictly biological creature, not as a strictly psychological creature, not as a strictly personality-defined creature, not as a strictly socially compelled creature, and not as a creature who is completely at the mercy of his or her circumstances, but rather as a creature who, through self-conversation, can figure things out?
This view honors the reality of our capacity to think and constitutes our best path to mental health and emotional wellbeing. A dynamic self-regulation model of this sort does not reject the biological, psychological, personality, social, and circumstantial causes of mental and emotional distress. Rather, it rejects a reduced, inaccurate view of human beings as just their biology, just their psychology, just their personality, just their social interactions, or just their circumstances. A dynamic self-relationship model takes the most into account and, as a result, provides you with your best chance to achieve mental health and emotional wellbeing.