(Taken from a lecture by David Mayo given on December 2, 1993 – concerning how a personality is formed.)
I’ll be using the term “personality” in the usual sense of the word: a package of characteristics that typify a person and distinguishes that person from other people; it makes that person a unique person. Some of these are behavior patterns; some are emotional patterns; some are thought patterns; some are speech patterns and so forth. They make up a package of qualities that you tend to know as the person – it is what the person has become or is being.
Fundamentally, you could say that a person isn’t any of these characteristics that I described. For example, if you say an angry person, a person fundamentally isn’t angry – isn’t fundamentally an angry person. But a person can be angry. Or, as is stated in some languages, they have anger. That is possibly more accurate, certainly it is useful or therapeutic to say have in connection with an emotion rather than to say be. In English we tend to use the verb be and say “I am angry”. Now if I were to say, “I am a man”, that would be more accurate than to say, “I am angry” – because “I am angry” says that is what I am: anger. It does tend to cause a misidentification. A person starts thinking of himself as the unwanted emotion or other unwanted characteristic.
If you say, “I have anger”, it, tends to give you a little more distance between yourself and the emotion that you are experiencing. You could say: “I am experiencing anger”, or “I am experiencing fear”, and that would be better than saying “I am angry” or “I am afraid”.
You can use this. Actually some psychologosts and some New Age people use that differentiation as one of their main tools. They take a person and ask him what is the matter with him. He says, “I have a bad temper and I am often angry.” So they say: “OK, Say: ‘I have anger’ not ‘I am angry’. Say: ‘I have anger’.” They teach the person that whenever he is angry he is to pause and to say: “I have anger”, or “I am experiencing anger”. Sometimes, to go along with that, to say: “But, I am not the anger itself. I am me, but I am experiencing or I have this emotion.” Or, “I have such and such sensation”. To try to deliberately work on the amount of distance between themselves and the unwanted emotion or the unwanted sensation or feeling.
Similary you can say, “I am hungry” or “I am hot” or “I am cold”. You can argue that each of these things isn’t true, because you are not hot, you are feeling hot. Heat is not something that you are. You can perceive it and you can feel it, but you aren’t it. That’s a good example, but it goes further than that.
You could say, “I am a plumber”. By that you could mean that you know how to do plumbing; you could mean you do plumbing activities; you could mean that you earn your living by doing plumbing activities; you could mean that you are an amateur plumber, or you could mean that you know how to and sometimes do plumbing activities and when you do you feel like you are a plumber. But you are not a plumber, you are still you. You know how to or you are doing plumbing.
You could say, “I am a writer”. If you associate yourself with that activity enough, you could become what you think of yourself as doing. Or, you could say, “Now I am a writer”, and now that has become your identity; how you identify yourself. People say, “Who are you?” Instead of saying, “I am Mary or Pete”, you say, “I am a writer”, or you say, “I am the writer of such and such a book”. This would imply that the book was more famous and more important than you are and you define yourself to people by saying, “Well, you know that great book, well I am the writer of that book!”
So, one can identify oneself with an activity and then come to the conclusion that that is what one is. Other people can do the same thing, not only for themselves, but about you too. They know that you write things, so they say, “Oh yeah, the writer. You are the writer, aren’t you?” And you could say, “Yes, but I also ride bicycles and I can do a little sewing and sometimes I cook”. But, to them you are the writer; you aren’t any of those other things. And they expect you to act like a writer. More accurately, they think you should act the way they think a writer ought to act, or, whatever it is that they have decided that you are.
Other people’s expectations about oneself are modified by ones’ personality, or ones’ identity, or ones’ profession. These things are really what one does. They are either ones’ professional action of what one does or they are a common action of what one does. If you go jogging in the morning, people could identify you as “the jogger”. Maybe you do a lot of other things and have a lot of other characteristics, but that’s what they see you doing from day to day. That’s what they see you doing each morning: they see you jogging, so to them, you are the jogger. If you were going to deal with that person, you would notice that they talk to you and they treat you as if they expected you to be a jogger and to have an interest in those types of things.
One can get stuck with, or fixated in, a personality or identity. If you were going to write a book, then it would be fine to say that you are a writer while you are writing it, while you are publishing it, while you are collecting the royalties, and while people are talking to you: “Oh, I read your book and it was fantastic, how did you think up that story?” But, you wouldn’t want to be a writer all the time. If you are able to be a writer, and stop being a writer and be something else, that would be fine – just as you don’t want to be stuck with being angry, because that could become your personality. Some people are in situation or in a condition where they think that they are a bad or a crotchety person or a cranky person. Other people feel that they are a stingy person or a mean or a selfish person.
A person can become stuck in the role that they have being doing a lot. When a person performs an action many times, it can become habitual. In other words, it can become automatic. You set up a pattern, much like a loop tape that keeps going around and around, playing the same things over and over. That’s the pattern that performs the action for you. Sometimes you have to start it, and sometimes you can stop it, but once you have started it, it repeats this pattern over and over. Then you have it as a habit or as an automatic action. At that point, it becomes a personality or an identity or a part of your personality or a part of your identity.
If you took up writing, and wrote a book and some articles and another book and some articles, then, at that point, you might be able to just pick up a sheet of paper and a pen and just write a story – or, take your typewriter or computer and just bash out a story. Then you would probably feel that you were a writer, because you could do those things automatically. You don’t have to think: “Oh, I am going to try and write a story. What will I write about? What will I put in it? What will I write it with? Is there anything to write on around here? Maybe I should get a computer and write it on that? No, I’ll use this paper.” That’s when you are still trying to do the action. But once you have got it down to a point where you can almost do it without thinking about it, it is at least is somewhat automatic. At that point, you start identify yourself with it – even if it a bad emotion.
If you get angry once or twice, you don’t think that you are an angry person necessarily, you think that somebody provoked you or something provoked you. But if you get provoked a lot and become angry a lot and it keep on happening, maybe it becomes more and more frequent, then it becomes a pattern – a continuing pattern in your daily life. About that time, you think that you are an angry person or a short tempered person. So do other people – and they may tell you so. They may say, “You are angry or you are an angry person.” At this point everybody is convinced that this is what you are. So, you become identified with that and to that degree you are stuck with it.
This whole cycle starts much earlier than that. The way it really starts is that you are you plus whatever personality or identity you happened to have developed up to date. That is what you have become. Then you encounter something. It starts with a first encounter: a particular object, or a particular person, or a particular situation. There is a first encounter. For the sake of this example, say, this particular object. You see this object and perceive it and become familiar with it and you say: “Oh, that’s what that is: that object.” You interact with that object: you do something with it. You look at it. Maybe you saw it in half and nail it together again – or whatever it is that you do with it. But you do something with that object. Now you are interacting with it.
Over a period of time if you interact with that object many times and especially if you do it on a continuing basis, you start developing automatic actions or automated activities with regard to that object. It gets to a point that when you see the object, you automatically do the things that you do when you see the object.
If you see a red traffiс light: you take your foot off the gas, you put your foot on the brake, and you stop the car. You do the things that you do when you see a red light. After you have being driving around traffic lights for a while, it becomes quite automatic. You see the light turn red, (or you see a red light), and you pull up and stop. Just as automatically, you wait until it turns green before you go. You do the various things: you take your foot off the brake, you put your foot on the gas, you make sure that the guy in front of you, (if there is one), gets going. You adjust your speed so as not to run into him and not to get run into by the guy behind you, and so on. So, there’s an automatic series of actions and they are all based on seen a red light or a green light.
At this point you’ve built up a series of automatic actions with regard to that object. There is nothing wrong with that – it’s perfectly OK to do that. In fact, it’s a good idea because it leaves your attention freer to do other things like watch out for other motorists and other obstacles and other conditions. It is good to be able to automate things. Having automated it, though, when you see a red light, you stop. Now, if it got to a point where you couldn’t prevent yourself from doing that, you could make a mistake. If it got to be totally automatic, every time you would saw a red light you would try to stop – but maybe somebody has a red flashlight, or maybe you are driving on a road and there is a railway line nearby and there is a red light on the railway line, you shouldn’t stop if there is a red light somewhere else. Do you see? Having it totally automatic isn’t good either, but partly automatic is good. So, to repeat:
There’s a first encounter with an object; a series of action or interactions done in regard to that object; and these can become automatic.
Around the time that these actions become automatic, you can start to assume the identity of that activity.
The example I just gave about red traffic lights and green lights isn’t sufficient, but if, you’ve automated all of these actions connected with driving a car – at that point, you would be “a driver” or “the driver”. So now you have an identity: driver. Again, if you can be a driver, and stop being a driver at will, everything is still fine. But if you get to where you can’t stop being a driver, that is not so good.
How a person can get into trouble with this is that when he does something bad and when he repeats doing something bad. For example, early in a person’s life he may, for the first time, tell a lie. For the sake of an example, we’ll say, a child doesn’t do his homework and is questioned about that and decides, in order to avoid trouble, to say, “I did do the homework but I lost it”, and hopes to get out of trouble that way. That’s a bad example because it probably wouldn’t work. It is very unlikely that it would work. But if a kid came up with a story that sounded plausible and that got him out of trouble for not having done the homework, and especially if the story would work not just once, but many times, he has got something very “useful”. He has got a lie that gets him out of doing homework and gets him out of consequence for not having done his homework. If he can’t stand doing homework, it is a pretty “valuable” solution for him to carry around. It is also reprehensible and it can’t be communicated about. If it is discovered he will get into even more trouble, so now it starts getting quite solid.
When a person repeats a pattern of action, they start to assume the identity of that action, or connected with that action.
In that case, after the kid has lied about the homework a few times or many times, (but it only takes a few times), the kid will assume an identity and will consider himself to be a liar. Now, the person is labeled, (or a better word), is branded a liar. The person feels that is irrevocable. It is irrevocable because they can’t change the fact that they lied and they can’t change the fact that they lied more than once and perhaps many times. So, they know that they are a liar. The same things would happen if a child saw some money and learned that money can buy candy. He sees the money but can’t ask his parents for it because his parents aren’t there. But he wants candy.
It’s the first encounter with the object. It’s unattended money. There is nobody around to ask, “Could I have it?”. He is tempted, so he takes the money and go buys the candy. He does that a few times and starts thinking of himself as a thief. He can become branded as a thief. Now, if he is caught, the actions of other people can either help to undo it, or they can force it and brand him even harder. If he is discovered in the act, or if he is found out, his parents berate him and beat him up and give him a hard time and scream and say, “You are a thief and I am going to throw you out of my house”, or say, “Don’t you ever steal again you rotten thief”. This will reinforce the kid’s own branding of himself as a thief. He doesn’t feel like: “I am Johnny”, or that “I am Mary”, or that “I am a little girl”, or that “I am a little boy”, or that “I am the son or daughter of this family”. He can carry that with himself through the rest of his life.
The more convinced a person is that he is an identity, the more he tends to act out that identity.
It is a vicious cycle. This kid gets to leaving school age and is interested in getting a job so that he can earn some money and do the same things that other people do: buy a house, maybe. The easy way for him to solve the problem is not to get a job, but to go and steal some money. It is already justified, because in his own mind, he already knows that he is a thief. He tends to feel hopeless about it and tends to feel that he can’t change it. Why he feels that he can’t change it is because he has already done it. He can’t reverse it. He can’t go back and not steal the things that he has already stolen. So, he feels that he is irreversibly a thief.
That’s why you can bring about a considerable amount of relief when they have sufficient confidence to confine in you and tell you about bad or unethical things that they have done. It tends to reverse that mechanism. In fact, when a person fully views unethical activities that they have done, then they feel that they are no longer that identity. Up until this point, they are convinced that they are that identity.
If you find somebody who is an angry person, you can undo that by getting him to tell you about times when he expressed his anger at somebody – when he was being angry. You can also, to a limited degree, get the person to differentiate between having been angry, or having had anger, and get him to realize that he is not the anger, although he was exhibiting it. Likewise in the case of the thief, you can get him to look at the fact that, yes, he did steal these things, and what did he steal and who did he steal them from. Get him to differentiate and come to see that, yes, he stole this and this… maybe he stole six things. He did those actions but he is not a thief. At the time of action, (while he was stealing it), yes, he was a thief. But he isn’t a thief all the time and he doesn’t have to go on being a thief in the future. So, you get separate instances of time and a separation out from the identity.
The cycle is:
- The first encounter with the object, person or situation
- Engaging in an activity; especially a repeated action
- The assumption of an identity
If you get stuck with it – it is a mistake, because it is not what you are. It is something that you thought you became because you did it. If the repeated action is an unethical one, it is more probable that the assumption of the identity will be permanent, or virtually permanent.
A rule can be made from this: people tend to become that which they do.
If you do something a lot, you are likely to end up becoming it, or thinking you became it. The truth is you can do something a lot without being that activity; you don’t have to have that as your identity. I can do a lot of plumbing without thinking of myself as a plumber. If somebody said that I was a plumber, I might feel I had to explain to them, “No, I’m not a plumber, although I do know how to do plumbing, and I can fix that tap – but I’m not a plumber.”
Question: Say there was a person who really considered himself as a murderer, and it started when they were little and they had been doing it all of their lives, it would seem like it might take a long time to go through it with them to get to the point where they would say, “Ah hah! I’m not a murderer, I’m just a person who has done all these murders.”
Answer: Yes, it would take a lot. Especially with something as harmful as murder, as it is something that you can’t rectify. They can’t go back to the people that they killed and say, “Sorry about that,” and pull the knife back out so that pop, up they come, and they start walking again. It can’t be undone. If it is something that hasn’t caused permanent harm, then it is far more easy to handle by just looking at it subjectively.
You will find as more of a common example, somebody who feels that they are a liar. You could ask the person to tell you about each of the times that they lied. They’ll start out with the idea that they do it all of the time. They’ll tell you about times and they may tell you about half a dozen times – maybe seven, maybe eight times when they lied, but they are going to run out. They won’t be able to think of any more times. Then they will find another one, so maybe it is nine times that they have lied. Even that changes their perspective. They have gone from, “I’m a chronic liar”, to “Well, I can remember having lied nine times and it is suddenly is like, “Well, that isn’t as much as it looked like earlier.