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Earlier this summer I wrote about Harry Stack Sullivan, a psychiatrist who believed that the core motivating force in all human behavior was anxiety. In his view, the personality could be understood as no more than a collection of habits and behaviors that we develop over time to “avoid or minimize anxiety, ward off disapproval, and maintain self-esteem.”
Through this lens, we can think about the personality as a sort of psychic vehicle that we use to move about the world in a way that will minimize the amount of pain we feel. We can consider the idea that our choices, aspirations and achievements (The Chariot) may all be, in at least some sense, driven by anxiety.
Because we are social animals, social interactions were the source of most, if not all of our anxiety in early life. The people we were around and the things they viewed as virtuous or sinful played a key role in the development of our particular personalities. If you look at the words you use to to describe yourself now, you can probably see traces of those values in the traits you advertise and the ones you try hard to conceal.
So what exactly did we do with the parts of our natural temperaments that we tucked away because they invited rejection and ostracism? The parts like selfishness, aggression (Seven of Wands), fury, greed or pride? Sexuality, passion, intellectual curiosity or dissent? Were they conditioned out of us, or did we simply drive them under ground and cover them over with the personality structure? I lean toward the latter. I think they remain with us.
Fast forward to today. Do you ever find that you are terrified to express certain parts of yourself? That you do not assert your needs, for example, because you’re afraid to be too needy, too selfish, too disruptive? If you do, you’re not alone. It makes total sense.
Owning the aspects of our selves that at one time invited overwhelming anxiety means diving head first into our oldest fears. To stop using a behavior that developed specifically to avoid the anxiety of rejection or abandonment rips away the facade of protection from those things. And while the exposure feels terrifying it also offers us a chance to construct a life that isn’t built on a foundation of avoidance (The Tower).
Because truly, none of us are free from feeling abandoned or rejected, or being viewed as unworthy and unlovable by others at some point in our lives. Try as we may, there is just no way to safeguard against those experiences so it’s best we learn to live with them. When we realize that we can endure not being liked, being misunderstood, being invalidated, feeling anxious, that is freedom.
All the parts of ourselves that we disowned when we were children because they didn’t fit the mold of what our caregivers wanted or needed us to be, may we reclaim them. Because when we reject or suppress parts of who we are, we relinquish our right to choose the way those parts express, and then act surprised when they run roughshod over our lives and relationships.
When we deny parts of ourselves a proper outlet, they chew holes through the walls of our pristine personalities, or gnaw on our internal wires until a fire starts. Claiming these parts is how we harness their energy for our art, love-making and healing (Queen of Wands). Why watch helplessly as something threatens to decimate an entire structure, when you could just give it a safe space to burn?
In his book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield writes about three root personality types in Buddhist psychology: the grasping, the aversive, and the deluded.
Kornfield says that the grasping temperament is built around desire, “seeking, wanting more, and of addiction.” This type clings for comfort and moves quickly from liking something to craving it. Some of the common traits of this personality that would have been most likely to evoke social rejection in childhood include “vanity, willfulness, pride, jealousy, avarice, deceit and addiction.” Kornfield writes that in new relationships, the grasping types tend to “seize on trivial virtues and discount genuine faults.”
The aversive temperament is built on “judgment and rejection of experience.” This personality type sees problems in everything, and the traits most likely to elicit rejection in early life include “anger, vindictiveness, haughtiness, hatred, cruelty and the struggle to control.” In contrast to those with a grasping temperament, they are more likely to seize on faults than virtues in new relationships.
Finally, the deluded temperament is built on “uncertainty and confusion.” Such people struggle with conviction and decision making, and tend to cope with their uncertainty by burying their head in the sand and refusing to take action. This temperament is characterized by “perplexity and worry, doubt, negligence, scattered thoughts, anxiety and agitation (Nine of Swords)” Kornfield writes, “in general, they are inconsistent and a bit lost.”
There are many systems for understanding the personality—astrology, the Enneagram, Myers Briggs, Buddhist Psychology. Whatever method we choose to make sense of our ways of being in the world, this kind of inquiry is one way to come back into right relationship with the parts of ourselves that make us most vulnerable to stuckness and misalignment.
To know ourselves deeply and truly requires we be willing and brave enough to accept the parts of ourselves that the people most important to us once rejected. Parts that we tucked away as children, believing—in all our purity and innocence—that this burial would guarantee us a life free from anxiety.
As long as you are trying to be something other than what you actually are, your mind wears itself out. But if you say, ‘This is what I am, it is a fact that I am going to investigate and understand,’ then you can go beyond.
— Krishnamurti, Indian philosopher
When we look back, we see not only the futility of our efforts to get rid of the parts of ourselves that our environments rejected, but the ways in which rejecting and abandoning aspects of our selves has likely made us more vulnerable to external rejection and abandonment in the long run. Part of this process is understanding that acknowledging and accepting something is very different from approving of or liking it.
In Buddhist psychology, the aim is to defuse from the personality altogether; that is, to loosen the tightness with which we see these traits as who we actually are, because that itself is an illusion. And while I absolutely believe that with practice it is possible to work toward that loosening, I think that diving down to retrieve all the parts of our personalities that we once cast into the shadows in order to survive, and then emerging with the good, bad and ugly— naked, arms out, fearless (The Sun)—is a solid start.