There are many theories used to understand personality and human interaction. The interactionist psychologists understand the personality as a phenomenon that emerges from the interaction between two people. When we are in a group, regardless of the number of people present, we still deal with two people interacting; our self and an other. Even while alone, we subjectively experience the objectified self. We refer to this as self-consciousness.
I like to think about interactionist theory, the idea that the self emerges not as a thing, but rather, as a dynamic process that the self and other contribute to making. This is an example of the idea in Eastern philosophy of connectedness; that we are the other, and that separate or finite qualities elude the process of self –the process of being I am. We tend to get lost when we hear ideas about oneness, but this is a symptom of tendency to think of the self as an object, as a thing. Obviously my body is distinctly separate from yours, so how can we be one? When we get over the idea of self as object and instead view it as process the idea of oneness is easy to understand. The key is getting off our materialistic, object-centered conception of the self.
If this idea of process based self versus object based self is difficult to understand, think about fire. What is fire? It is a chemical reaction –a process. We can talk about fire as if it is an object, and in some ways we can relate to it as an object. But it is not an object, it is a process. So it the self.
Closely related to the self as an interactivity, we can become aware of how we interact with others as a function of identity. There are four permutations that we can observe in ourselves and in others. These tendencies seem to be habitual ways-of-being that solidify into what we call our personality.
Thinking in terms of how we deal with others, we can take one of at least four ways of interacting with people. I call these: 1. I am superior to you, 2. You are superior to me, 3. We are both inferior to others, and 4. We are both superior to others.
People who have formed the I am superior to you interaction tend to feel most at ease in situations where they dominate and others submit. Learning this way-of-being from a parent, these individuals will often avoid interacting with others who might not fulfill the obligation of being inferior in someway. This means that they will actively avoid making prolonged contact with individuals who will not submit to them. When one encounters a person who basis their sense of self on the I am superior to you attitude, they risk conflict if they unwilling to play along. Often arguments or hostility arises. The I am superior to you approach attracts the You are superior to me people, because the two types compliment each other. Sometimes two I am superior to you types will find it useful to compliment each other, forming the We are superior to others relationship. However, these relationships are often volatile and filled with competition and one-upmanship. They are the nature of clubs, fraternal orders, and societies. This is the core characteristic of ideological movements that people identify with.
Some folks grow up finding refuge in the attitude that You are superior to me. We can also express this as I am inferior to you, however the focus is in submitting to the other. This attitude serves to keep the individual in a place of safety through submission to others. This is the classic masochistic personality who enjoys taking orders, following the rules, and doing a good job for the boss. People who adopt this way-of-being in the world find both safety and identity in letting others take the risk, make the decisions, and take the lead, while they dutifully follow and take orders. These folks make good soldiers, good civil servants, and obedient students. Their focus is on fulfilling obligations to those who are superior, and they find great relief in not having to take responsibility for cultivating their own potential. These people avoid learning something new because they feel they “were not born with the talent”. In fact, they sacrifice their potential for the feeling of security that passing risk off to an admired leader affords. Of course, for every ninety-nine people of this sort there is one who is more than willing to take on the role of their leader.
The final type of habitual interaction is the We are inferior to others, or They are better than us. Like magnets, people who enjoy the safety of passing-off responsibility to others also like the confirmation that comes from being with likeminded others. When two people who take comfort in submitting to “the greats” get together they form fan clubs and admiration societies. We see this in people who become groupies for some public figure or obediently follow every word of some guru. The mutual admiration and submission affirms their approach and gives both a sense of normalcy of their attitude.
We can easily see the nature of the individual and the group as they fall into these patterns of living. These patterns are typically established before adolescence and are solidified by the teen years. Although we come to identify ourselves and others through these habitual tendencies in interaction (we use euphemisms like passive, leaders, or loyal teammates to describe them), they are not permanent. These character styles are hard to break, having settled-in through childhood, however they do frequently change. Through effortful seeking, reading, getting to know ourselves, or simply by accident, we sometimes become aware of our habitual tendency and decide to change it. It is not uncommon to see in others the qualities of ourselves to which we are blind. It is through contemplation and effortful conscientiousness that we become aware of ourselves. Once we wake up to these aspects of our self, we must choose whether or not to hold on to the qualities we have become aware of. If we do not like what we see, and choose to change our way-of-being, the process takes time and intentional effort. We must reprogram not only how we react, but how we understand ourselves and others. It is a transformation of self that is often likened to a spiritual conversion.
One such awakening is a forgetting of the self. When we forget ourselves and focus entirely on the other, we lose all sense of inferior or superior, as well as all of the consequences of those attitudes. We do not encounter another person with the sizing-up question of what do you do? (this simply means how much do you make, or what is your social prestige?) and instead ask what do you enjoy doing? This is more than just a change of words, it is asking a sincere question from a place of non-judgment. It is a shift from appraising where I stand in relation to you, and instead focuses on the selflessness of Being with the other. We are not sizing the other up, not appraising our comparable worth, but rather losing oneself in the other. This is the oneness that offers the other as an end in themselves, rather than a means to some end of our own. This task, of freeing oneself from the confirmation of our self through comparison with an other, is the central task one must take to free oneself from the burden of constant appraisal and verification of our identity.