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Psychoanalytic and Trait Approaches to Personality Essay

The study of personality had been one of the most intriguing subjects of psychology. Personality refers to a complex set of characteristics unique to the individual which form basis on how he/she feels, thinks, and behaves (Engler, 2003). Personality theories are varied and each one tries to explain the development of personality and its manifestations. The study of personality had also led to a number of assessment tools that aim to quantify and describe personality.

Moreover, the stability of one’s personality had also been found to be associated with the mental health of a person, as well as the quality of his/her relationship with others. Recently, personality had also been linked to biological health and certain types of illnesses. This paper discusses the psychoanalytic and trait approaches to the study of personality. The psychoanalytic approach to the study of personality was developed by Sigmund Freud in the early history of the development of psychology as a scientific discipline.

The psychoanalytic approach says that personality is shaped by the unconscious forces in one’s mental state (Larsen & Buss, 2005). Individuals are often unaware of the unconscious mental forces and how it can influence behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Personality is composed of three structures, the id, ego, and superego. The id refers to the drives and instincts, the superego refers to the conscience or moral agency, and the ego is the mediator between the id and superego and is the social agency.

The three agencies can be in conflict and produces anxiety, the personality develops defense mechanisms to cope with the anxieties. The trait approach to personality says that personality is relatively stable from childhood to adulthood and that a person can be portrayed through his/her personality traits of which quite a number has been identified by trait theorists. Traits refer to the personal characteristics of the individual that describes his/her patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings.

Modern trait theory endorses the Big 5 personality traits (OCEAN) which includes openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Larsen & Buss, 2005). These personality traits had been found to exist in different cultures and can adequately describe a person’s personality. The difference between psychoanalytic to the trait approach is how the psychoanalytic theory explains the development of personality as rooted in the unconscious mental states and childhood experiences of the individual.

Trait theory suggests that the framework of one’s personality is already present at birth and continues to develop over the course of one’s life. However, the basic personality traits will remain and influence the development of other traits (Funder, 2007). The psychoanalytic theory had it right when it said that previous experiences influences one’s personality and defense mechanisms are used to ease anxieties brought about by unconscious drives and impulses.

We know that one’s experiences strongly affect one’s personality, for example, a child deprived of parental love may become untrusting, cynical and have poor relationships in adulthood. Defense mechanisms are patterns of behavior that are used as responses to anxieties to maintain normal functioning. The trait theory on the other hand was correct when it said that traits can be used to describe the person and that personality traits are stable over time. Personality traits are descriptions of behavioral, cognitive, and affective patterns that people have in varying degrees.

For example, people who are extroverted are funny, sociable, friendly, and approachable; it would be very difficult to find a person who is an extrovert and yet be reserved and shy. Moreover, personality traits are fairly stable, a child who is shy may overcome his/her shyness but on accession will exhibit some form of shyness. The psychoanalytic theory emphasizes the unconscious mental states of the individual as precursors of personality, however, if a person is not aware of this mental state, then how could that person be influenced by such forces.

Moreover, psychoanalytic theory made mention that childhood experiences determines the personality of the individual, Freud however did not account for the fact that individuals with happy childhoods can also develop personality problems in adulthood. Trait theory on the other hand claim that the Big 5 personality traits are found across cultures, however, since trait theorists have already identified thousands of traits, is it not easier for them to categorize such traits into five universal traits.

In addition, trait theory says that traits can adequately describe a person, however, how can traits fully portray the complex person by single trait. Trait theory attempts to provide a simplistic explanation to a very complex concept such as personality. Freud’s defense mechanisms are thought patterns that attempt to diffuse the anxiety that is brought about by conflicts in one’s personality. Denial is one of the most used defense mechanism; denial means to refuse the truth or the reality of an event or situation. For example, when one is diagnosed to be terminally ill, the first response is denial.

The truth that one is dying is too painful for the individual to bear and causes anxiety, in order to deal with the anxiety, the individual may deny the diagnosis and believe that the doctor have made a mistake. Projection occurs when the individual attributes his/her own unacceptable impulses to another person. For example, a man who is confused with his sexuality may begin to hate gay men, hating gays would tell the person that he is not gay and therefore eases the anxiety of his confused feelings. Repression is used to control traumatic experiences or events that are full of anxiety.

A child who had been abused by an adult may repress the memories and push it into the unconscious so that it would not be remembered. The psychoanalytic theory was developed in Victorian England where anything pertaining to one’s sexuality was considered as a taboo and inappropriate (Engler, 2003). Freud was a neurologist and begun his work treating individuals with mental disorders which he called dementia. In his treatment, he discovered that most people who exhibited bizarre disorders had repressed memories and unconscious thoughts which were sexually laden.

Freud deduced that the cause of the anxiety and illnesses of his patients where unconscious desires and traumatic childhood experiences which have prevented patients from building relationships, coping with life’s demands and adjustments to life events. Consequently, Freud developed a theory of personality that would integrate the knowledge he gained from his patients and the treatments that he used. Freud’s theoretical concepts were labeled with notoriety as it included sexism which society did not approve of (Engler, 2003).

Out of the Big 5 personality traits, the trait that best describes my personality is openness, I am adventurous and curious, and I always welcome the opportunity to learn something new. Thus, I am always open to new situations and experiences. I have a wider perspective than most people do do, I usually do not have opinions about things that I have not experienced, but I am open to the fact that I may or may not enjoy a new experience. I believe that being open to new experiences enriches my personality; I am the kind of person who always signs up for new events, the first in the bungee jumping line, and the first to eat raw fish eggs.

The personality trait that least describes me is neuroticism. As a person, I am aware of who I am and what I want from life, I have values and principles in life that I subscribe to in whatever I do, thus I am not prone to insecurities and I am emotionally stable. I rarely have emotional outbursts and uncontrollable anger towards other people. I am in touch with my own feelings and I can express my emotions constructively. Since modern personality trait theory is the most widely applied theory of personality, I must say that it is more able to describe personality than the psychoanalytic theory.

Trait theory had been the basis of numerous personality tests and inventories which all measure and classify thoughts, feelings, and behavior under different personality traits. In conclusion, personality is a complex psychological construct that attempts to provide an explanation of why people have different traits, characteristics, behaviors, and coping strategies. Personality can be studied as an aspect of the totality of a person or it may also be used to describe the personhood of the individual. In any case, there is still more to learn about personality for at present we still have an incomplete picture of personality.


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