When humans are born as infants, they are born helpless and defenseless. From this moment on the infant is completely driven by the biological need for survival. To do this the child must quickly work out ways of behaving that increase its chances of survival. Also if you look at it from the flip side, all behaviors have the goal of avoiding the feeling of complete vulnerability. In psychology this inbuilt vulnerability in the human psyche is known as the vulnerable child. Therefore all behavior is driven to maximize pleasure (survival) and minimize pain (the feeling of vulnerability). This is known in human needs psychology as the first human need – the need for certainty.
Things that a child believes promotes survival include getting attention, praise, physical gestures of approval and being talked about in a positive way. Things that make a child feel vulnerable and therefore feels its survival is threatened include criticism, embarrassment and physical violence.
The Personality Structure
The purpose of the personality structure is to build defense structure around the vulnerable child. The developing infant and child will look to its environment to see if a behavior it exhibits will be rewarded or punished. If it is rewarded through being praised, getting a laugh or a smile then that behavior will be kept as a mode of expression because it increases its chances of survival. For example an infant smiling at its mother gains a smile from its mother. This behavior of smiling is reinforced as a behavior to keep because it increases its chances of being fed and therefore survival. If a behavior or attribute is punished (getting scolded or smacked) then that behavior will be pushed into the subconscious mind and will not be used as a mode of expression. An example of this occurs when a child yells and screams and the parent may strike the child on the backside. The child quickly learns this behavior is no longer a means of getting what it wants and now it even threatens it survival.
Also a developing child can also observe the world around them and see the consequence that other siblings or family members experience and make conclusions if certain behaviors and qualities are worth modeling. Also because of the third human need (the need to feel significant) a child with siblings can unconsciously identify with the opposite characteristics of their older siblings because it promotes the feeling of being “ones own person.” A child desires to be seen as distinctly different from other siblings because then they are given attention by their guardians. This is why children from the same family can sometimes have such drastically different personalities.
Primary and Disowned Selves
Michael Rowland, an Australian personal development expert calls the modes of expression that have been rewarded by a persons parents and society the primary selves. The primary Selves are the parts of a persons personality that are most frequently exhibited since they increase the chances of survival. On the opposite side, personality qualities that have been pushed out of awareness into the subconscious because they were not seen to be desirable by a child’s parents or society are known as the disowned selves. These qualities still exist in a persons psyche but they are no longer available for expression. Interestingly primary selves are not always positive attributes as society would judge them. For example a child growing up may be praised by his father for displaying physically aggressive behavior towards his friends with a comment such as “thats right son, never let anyone walk all over you.”
In the same way the disowned selves in the subconscious often contain positive attributes. A child maybe mocked by his friends for a drawing, this causes the child to feel embarrassed and therefore vulnerable. He makes a link that creativity threatens survival and therefore represses this quality, no longer taking actions that would improve his creative abilities.
In the next post we will continue to take a look at the personality structure.