Assumptions Underlying the Three-Stage Model
I believe that people are born with varied potential in the psychological,
intellectual, physical, temperamental, and interpersonal domains. Thus, some people are genetically more intelligent, attractive, physically strong, active, verbally articulate, and mechanically adept than are other people. In terms of temperament, some people are by nature more active, whereas others are more phlegmatic or slow to warm up. In terms of morality, I do not believe that people are either inherently good (as Carl Rogers postulated) or inherently governed by instinctual urges (as Sigmund Freud postulated) at birth. Instead, once again, I believe that people have certain biological predispositions at birth and have a tendency toward fulfilling these potentials. How they are developed depends largely on the environment, to which I turn next.
The environment can enhance or thwart the innate movement toward survival and development. Healthy environments provide basic biological needs (e.g., food, shelter) and emotional needs (e.g., relationships characterized by acceptance, love, support, encouragement, recognition, and appropriate challenges). No environment is perfect, but the environment needs to be “good enough” to allow children to grow and develop. In contrast, when negative things happen in a child’s environment, the child’s development is thwarted. A child growing up in the midst of war and terrorist attacks has a different view of life than does a child growing up during peace. Furthermore, either too much gratification or too much deprivation stunts children’s growth, but an adequate good-enough amount of support allows children to develop naturally to fulfill their potential. So resiliency, or the ability to adapt, is both biologically and environmentally determined.
Early experiences, particularly in terms of attachment to caregivers, are crucial in laying the foundation for personality. Infants need to be nurtured by caretakers to have a firm foundation for interpersonal relationships and self- esteem. If these attachment needs are not met, children become anxious or avoidant of human contact (Bowlby, 1969, 1988).
People develop defenses to cope with anxiety, particularly during childhood, when they have less control over their personal destinies (e.g., a child might learn to withdraw to defend against dominating parents). A moderate level of defenses is adaptive because one needs strategies to cope with life. These defenses become problematic, however, when the individual cannot discriminate when it is appropriate to use defenses. For example, if a child who was abused avoids all adults, she or he cannot form benevolent relationships with caring people.
Although I strongly believe in the influence of early experiences, I also believe that we look toward the future in determining what we want out of life. Thus, we have existential goals, such as figuring out the meaning of life and determining what we want to accomplish during our lives, that guide our behavior.
I also believe that people have some degree of control over their lives and over their choices about how they behave. Within limits of what is available, one makes choices that alter the course of one’s life. For example, although friendliness is influenced by personality (e.g., introversion vs. extroversion) and previous experiences with meeting people, a person still has some range of
choices about how she or he acts with others in a new situation. Thus, determinism is balanced by free will. Furthermore, I believe that free will can be enhanced if individuals gain insight into their background, needs, and desires. Understanding enables one to have more control over one’s fate. One can never have complete control over fate, but one can have some influence through awareness and conscious effort.
In the United States, there is a strong emphasis on individualism and self- determination, which often works to the detriment of people who have limited control over their lives. In that regard, I cringe to hear the phrase that if people just work hard, they can be successful. From my many years of working in psychology, I know that most people cannot become wealthy, beautiful, and successful because of many factors in their biology, upbringing, and environmental constraints. We can work hard but cannot always achieve everything we want to because of internal and external constraints.
I also propose that emotions, cognitions, and behaviors are all key components of personality that are intertwined and operate in combination with one another. Mind and body cannot be separated. How people think influences how they feel and behave (e.g., if a person thinks that others are out to get him, he will feel afraid and back away when another person approaches). How people feel has an impact on how they think and behave (e.g., if a person feels happy, she is likely to seek out other people and think that they will like her). Finally, how people behave affects how they think about themselves and how they feel (e.g., if a person studies hard and gets good grades, he or she is likely to feel efficacious and have high self- esteem). Thus, any treatment approach must focus on all three aspects of human existence (emotions, cognitions, and behaviors) to help people change.
In summary, I believe that people are influenced by both their biology and their environment, particularly early experiences that contribute to the development of attachment to others and self-esteem. Furthermore, although people are influenced by past experiences, they have some choice and free will and an impetus to make a difference and have meaning in their lives. It is also important to recognize that people develop defenses as strategies for coping with the demands of the world.
I believe that people can change within limits. They cannot discard past learning or biological predispositions, but they can come to understand themselves more, live with themselves, have self-compassion, and accept themselves. They can develop more adaptive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. People can adjust to their inner potential, make the best of what they have, and make choices about how they want to live their lives within the limits imposed by biology, early experiences, and external circumstances. These assumptions lead to an optimistic, but cautious, view about the possibility of change.
I should emphasize that my philosophy and assumptions are clearly influenced by my culture. I was born and raised in the United States, where there is a strong emphasis on individualism and determinism. Had I been born and raised in another culture, I might well have put more emphasis on harmony and collectivism.
Readers from other cultures should be aware of my biases and think carefully about the components of this model that fit for them given their cultural context.