What makes you who you are? Is it your nature or your experiences that contributed to your personality development?
Your personality can be as defining as your physical presence. It represents “who you are,” and is a part of what creates relationships, drives innovation, and contributes to personal growth.
When it comes to the aspects of your personality, experts agree that born-with traits mesh with learned behaviors, but the stages of this development are less defined.
Personality is intangible, and everyone has a personality unique to them. This makes the study of personality in psychology challenging. In fact, most of what’s known about personality development is based primarily on theory.
Most experts agree personality develops over time. When you’re born, you’re not without personality — it exists in its fundamental form known as temperament.
Your temperament, which consists of innate features like energy levels, mood and demeanor, and emotional responsiveness, can then drive the learning experiences that form your personality throughout life.
A handful of mainstream personality models exist, though Sigmund Freud’s original ego-centric theory remains one of the most prominent.
“Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is famous for different stages of personality development,” says Aniko Dunn, a psychologist in San Francisco. “It says that personality is made up of three elements called id, ego, and superego. These elements work together to form composite human behavior.”
In Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, the ID is present at birth. It’s what many people refer to as your temperament, the innate traits that are unconscious and instinctual. The ID does not depend on experiences.
Between birth and 3 years old, the ego develops, according to Freud’s theory of personality. The ego is the part of your personality that expresses the impulses of the ID and makes decisions on how to express feelings to the world.
Between ages 3 and 5 years old, Freud hypothesized the superego emerged.
Sometimes referred to as the “inner voice,” this part of your personality is an evolution of the ego that controls impulses but also contributes to conscious thought related to morality and self-criticism.
Freud believed the superego was comprised of two primary components: the ideal self and conscience.
Your ideal self, or the version of yourself you aspire to, can drive the conscience. Not meeting your own standards, for example, can cause the conscience to express guilt or shame.
Within Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis is his concept of psychosexual development.
Now considered highly controversial due to its unequal gender approach, the psychosexual theory suggests id, ego, and superego development are linked to five stages of pleasure-principle identification:
During each phase, Freud asserted certain pleasure responses — such as those from a baby’s exploration of objects in the mouth — provide important life lessons.
He believed it was necessary to “overcome” the challenge in one phase to progress into the next. Failure to do so, according to Freud, is what could contribute to personality disorders later in life.
Overcoming each phase, he thought, contributes and is key to the development of your overall personality.
Freud laid the foundation for modern personality theory, and since his work on psychoanalysis, several other mainstream personality development frameworks have emerged.
Here are some of the most popular ones:
Jean Piaget’s theory suggests four stages of personality development exist, defined by cognitive development and intelligence.
Piaget’s work focused on the belief that children think differently than adults, and how they view the world is what defines personality development in each cognitive stage.
Lawrence Kohlberg used parts of Piaget’s theory to create his own six-stage theory on moral development.
He believed the reasoning behind moral decisions was more impactful on personality development than the decisions themselves.
Erik Erikson developed his eight-stage theory by building off Freud’s original works. Instead of pleasure stimuli, however, social relationships were seen as the determining factor in Erikson’s personality theory.
He believed basic human social interactions, like a situation that teaches trust or mistrust, heavily impacted personality development early in life.
Like Freud, Erikson believed overcoming personality lessons was pivotal to development. Unlike Freud’s original theory, however, Erikson believed personality continued to evolve over a lifetime.
“There are many external factors that affect personality development,” explains Dunn.
She indicates these factors can include:
- family environment
- number of children in the family
- school environment
- teachers and peer groups
- relationships with family
- mass media
- social media
- cultural environment
Some personality theories support the idea that your personality can change throughout life.
This does not mean that it will change significantly — it only suggests there’s a chance your opinions and personal standards may shift based on life experiences.
Personality disorders are defined as long-term behavior and thought patterns that depart from what’s socially or developmentally expected.
They can present through your emotional responses, your ways of relating to others, and your internal dialogue.
In some personality theory frameworks, disorders of this kind develop when natural personality progression is interrupted or strongly impacted by an adverse event, for example, a traumatic event.
Dunn points out there’s a volume of research suggesting genetics, abuse, and unstable or chaotic life in childhood can all contribute to personality disorder development.
“Suffering from childhood behavioral disorder, changes in brain chemistry and structure, and other factors may contribute to the development of obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, or other personality disorders,” she adds.
The complexity of personality development continues to be debated. Most experts believe, however, that experiences and innate tendencies blend in some way to make you who you are.
When life’s experiences are too much to overcome — or present a significant challenge — your personality development may be impacted.
Life challenges can affect personality development, or they may lead to the development of a personality disorder or a personality shift.
How a life experience affects your personality may be dependent on the time in your life you experienced the challenge and the overall effect it had on your world outlook.