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What is Personality?


1. Introduction

If one really wants to improve one’s personality and overcome one’s personality defects then a good place to start is understanding the nature of personality and how the ‘personality’ and the ‘mind’ of every person is influenced by the spiritual dimension. In our culture with its emphasis on the importance of being liked by people, nothing is more important than “personality”. In this popular sense, personality is conceived by most people as an intangible quality that makes an individual attractive or unattractive to his fellows.

2. What defines an individual’s personality?

So what exactly is personality and what is it comprised of?

Human beings have a mind and a body both of which act or behave. Thinking, emotions, etc. are some of the attributes of the mind while physical movements, secretions, temperature, etc. are some of the attributes of the body. Behaviours of the mind or body are categorised into three types – episodic, transient or recurrent.

  • Episodic behaviour: Episodic behaviour is temporary, for example when a student becomes anxious while appearing for an examination, the anxiety he experiences is an episodic behaviour of his mind. On the other hand scratching, walking, etc. is episodic behaviour of the body.
  • Transient behaviour: Transient behaviour is that which is observed for more than a few weeks but for less than six months or a year, for example when a person feels depressed for a few months after the death of a loved one. Here feeling depressed is a ‘transient’ behaviour of his or her mind.
  • Recurrent behaviour: When the same type of behaviour persists for years, it is referred to as ‘Recurrent behaviour’ or ‘Chronic behaviour’.

Episodic and transient behaviour does not affect one’s life to a major extent, but recurrent behaviour or chronic behaviour, which constitutes one’s personality influences life to a great extent.

3. More about understanding personality

Unless a peculiarity is observed in a person over a certain length of time, it is not considered when describing his personality. This may be misleading, for example a person may become revengeful from the moment his family is murdered. If that same person goes to a psychologist within a few days or weeks of his becoming revengeful, the word ‘revengeful’ will not be used while describing his personality as it has not been present for a prolonged period. When the same person is seen after a few years, if the characteristic of revenge still persists, then it will be confirmed that ‘revengeful’ is a part of his personality. This is why it is good to nip a bad personality trait in the bud, else it could even lead to criminal behaviour or harming society in severe cases.

As you can well imagine there have been many definitions of personality given by various psychiatrists and experts in this field.

However the essence of various definitions of personality is that it is a unique combination of characteristics that determine the individual’s recurrent or long term pattern of behaviour. This pattern encompasses all types of behaviour of the body and mind, which we have grouped under the following five headings.

A. Physical constitution, characteristics, health, stamina and a person’s image of these

B. Temperamental characteristics (i.e. a person’s nature) such as short tempered, forgetful, untidy, reserved, suspicious, stubborn, generous, trustworthy, daydreamer, etc.

C. Likes and dislikes

D. Instincts, desires, urges, cravings, ambitions, wishes, etc.

E. Intelligence, knowledge, beliefs, disbeliefs, convictions, attitudes, opinions, ideas, ideals, etc.

4. A practical viewpoint in assessing personality

Personality is not simply the sum total of the various characteristics under the headings mentioned above but rather the dynamic organisation in which they are combined to give the individual his typical and somewhat recurrent pattern of behaviour. We use the words characteristic, quality and trait synonymously to indicate a peculiarity, which has been present for at least six months to a year and impacts day to day functioning. This excludes episodic and transient behaviour which exists for a short period of time.

While there may be hundreds of possible characteristics that a person can have, it is our experience that in the majority of cases about twenty to thirty characteristics, constitute the bulk of the personality in most people. All the other characteristics in them are like those of any average person and hence they need not be mentioned or taken into account.

5. Personality is dynamic and the importance of being in satsang

Personality continues to be moulded throughout the eight stages which are infancy, early childhood, play age, school age, puberty, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood and maturity. Thus personality is not a static phenomenon, but a dynamic process which starts from the moment of conception and continues until one breathes one’s last. It means that some characteristics in personality may become less prominent, may disappear, may become more prominent, may get replaced by new characteristics or new characteristics may develop as time marches on.

Personality changes when a child becomes an adolescent, an adolescent falls in love, through marriage and through the birth of children, through getting or losing religion, or through changing political beliefs.

We acquire many characteristics by emulating others. If his father is very short tempered, a boy may imitate him. If an adolescent comes in contact with other adolescents who steal money or smoke cigarettes, he may also model their behaviour. If other people in the office are corrupt, an honest person too may become corrupt by following their example. Thus, the company in which a person lives is important for the development of his personality. Hence, being in good company, the company of seekers, that is those who are followers of the Absolute Truth (satsang) is considered to be of great significance for development of a healthy personality.

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