Personality Development

Along with aging, personality development occurs. Contemporary definitions characterize development as systematic changes and continuities in the individual that occur between conception and death. Development is implied to be predictable and continuous with pattern and order. Counseling is developmental and strength-based, and the counselor aids an individual, couple, or family through normative developmental adjustments and transitions. Because counseling is concerned with normative stresses, adjustments, and life transitions, rather than pathologies of the individual, knowledge of development is essential.

The Nature of Development

The developmental process occurs at psychological, biological, and social levels. In psychological development, the perceptions of a person change, as do other mental processes. Biologically, a person’s body and organs tend to decline in efficacy while aging.

The social aspect of development includes interpersonal relationships and skills and roles played in the larger society. A developmental approach examines the interplay of environmental and individual factors on a person. Developmentally, a person is always in the process of change, influenced by the interplay of outside influences on his or her life.

Maturation and learning are the two processes that underlie developmental change. Maturation is the biological unfolding of the individual according to the heredity of his or her parents and the passing on of genes. Learning is the process through which experience brings about changes in a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Development occurs in historical and cultural context that influences the rate and intensity of how an individual’s development occurs. A broader context for discussing adult development follows; it examines some early influences on the developmental perspective.

Historical Synopsis

According to some, developmental psychology began nearly 4 centuries ago, as evidenced in the works of literary artists, like Shakespeare, who viewed development as extending beyond adolescence, well into adulthood. In the 20th century, others began to think of development as continuing throughout a person’s life. The objectives were to measure changes over a person’s life span rather than to focus on the process of change itself.

Developmental systems encompass the entire life span of the individual and offer evidence that development in a person proceeds by stages. While there are several theories of human development that agree on some points and disagree on others, development is not so much a single theory as it is a way of looking at a person’s life, in which theories can be integrated within a framework. The shift to a life-span view of the developing individual was solidified with the developmental perspective of Erikson, who sought to understand the psychosocial challenges confronting the individual at each stage of life. Building on Freud’s ideas, Erikson and others broadened the developmental perspective by including psychosocial trends evidenced by a crisis or turning point in each stage of human development. This shift resulted in a renewed focus on issues related to the “whole” individual, including such factors as spirituality, family environment, socioeconomic considerations, and the impact of groups on the individual’s developmental process.

Theories of Personality Development

The primary tension in theories of adult development is between the ontogenetic perspective, which posited that developmental forces are internal and biologically based, and the sociogenic perspective, which argued that change in adulthood is due primarily to social influences. Ontogenetic proponents were mostly from Germany, while the sociogenic proponents were influenced by French sociologists, such as Durkheim. One person who may be classified as part of the onto-genetic school of thought was Freud. Freud published a number of works emphasizing the role of sexuality in human life. Influenced by the philosophers of his era (i.e., Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), Freud saw human beings as guided by passion as well as reason. Freud went beyond the traditional Victorian views of sexuality by identifying such theories as the Oedipus complex (named for the legendary king of Thebes who killed his father and married his mother) and the Electra complex (named for the mythological Greek who avenged her father’s murder by killing her mother). Freud disclosed in conceptual terms what literary poets had espoused all along and stated those themes in mythopoetic terms. Even the naming of the two aforementioned theories was indicative of how Freud’s character was influenced by the passionate figures in mythology as well as of his own passion to become an intellectual force in his own right.

Ontogenetic Models

Ontogenetic models posited that development consisted of stages that are universal, sequential, and irreversible. Ontogenetic theorists, such as Buhler, Jung, Levinson, and Maslow modified Freud’s psychosexual theory to a psychosocial model. Neo-Freudians, such as Adler, suggested that siblings are significant in development. Jung claimed that adults experienced a midlife crisis, which could lead to a liberating effect on an individual’s personality in adulthood. Horney challenged Freud’s ideas about gender differences, and Sullivan demonstrated how early relationships in life could set the stage for styles of relating in adulthood. Perhaps the person who most influenced life-span development was Erikson. Erikson concerned himself with the inner dynamics of personality and proposed that an individual’s personality evolved through systematic changes. His epigenetic approach to human development assumed that development was the result of interacting genetic and environmental elements.

Piaget believed that individuals’ innate intellectual development helped them adapt to their environment. He posited the concept of constructivism, claiming that individuals actively construct new understandings of the world based on their experiences in development. As an individual developed, he or she constructed a more accurate understanding of the world.

Sociogenic Models

Sociogenic models of adult development sought to balance a completely innate, and thus predetermined, perspective of human development with a perspective that individuals have an influence over their her own development and are not completely subject to events out of their control. One sociogenic model is the disengagement theory, which posits a mutual withdrawal between the individual and society as one ages. This was countered by the activity theory, which posited that the more active a person is as he or she ages, the better quality of life experienced. These theories were integrated by Havighurst, Neugarten, and Tobin, who sought to demonstrate that the factor that determined the level of activity among individuals as they age was personal desire.

Watson believed that learned associations between external stimuli and observable responses were the building blocks of human development. A basic tenet of Watson’s behaviorism theory was that observations of behavior, rather than speculations about unconscious motives, should be the foundation of theory. Watson stressed the importance of learning in human development to the point that nurture was dominant and nature counted for little.

A proponent of the sociogenic model was Bandura, who posited a social learning theory of development. His theory suggested that humans were cognitive beings whose processing of information from the environment had a major influence on their human development. Observational learning from other people, or models, was the primary way in which a person changed his or her behavior. Aldwin and Gilmer sum it up this way: “According to these theories, change in adulthood is characterized by a succession of role transitions that are shaped by the immediate social context and larger social structure rather than by internal psychological processes alone” (p. 58).

Multidimensional Models

Many theories attempted to provide middle ground between the ontogenetic and sociogenic perspectives by integrating biological, psychological, and spiritual influences on development. One such theorist was Bronfenbrenner, who felt that many developmentalists assessed human development out of context. To counter this thought, he formulated the bioecological approach, which took into account biological and psychological changes of the individual interacting with the environment. From this perspective, people were not just passively subjected to outside influences; they shaped their physical and social environments while also being shaped by the cultural environment they helped create. Development was something that individuals do rather than something that simply happens to them. These theories proposed an increasing liberation from social and biological conditioning of adult development.

Holistic Models

More recently, the counseling field has devoted increased attention to wellness as a theoretical approach to human development. Wellness includes physical, intellectual, social, psychological, emotional, and environmental factors and is a way of life oriented toward optimal health and well-being, in which body, mind, and spirit are integrated by the individual to live life more fully within the community. The Wheel of Wellness model was based on Adlerian theory, and incorporates aspects of gender and cultural identity.

Systems theory was based on the work of biologist von Bertalanffy. He saw the essential phenomena of life as individual entities called organisms. An organism was defined as “a form of life composed of mutually dependent parts and processes standing in mutual interaction” (Bertalanffy, 1968, p. 33). All living systems operate on a similar set of principles, which means they are internally interdependent. Proponents of systems theory conceptualized a system (e.g., an individual, a couple, or a family) as a whole consisting of interrelated parts, each of which affects and is affected by every other part, and each of which contributes to the functioning of the whole. Development takes place simultaneously and interdependently amongst each member of the system, and each person’s development affects the development of the other members.

Transpersonal Models

A fourth force (a term originally coined by Maslow) emerged in counseling to capture a more complete perspective of the individual in development. Recently this approach has been receiving more attention; its central theme is inclusive, but it still values diversity and unity. Early theories focused on the individual’s problem behaviors and cognitions. Wellness models attempted to embrace a person’s differences while facilitating a balanced way of life for an individual. More recently, developmentalists have been examining a broader perspective of development. This view of transcending (trans meaning in this case beyond) human differences was an attempt at revealing what unites all persons, from the subatomic level to the physical level to the spiritual level to stages of consciousness and beyond. Transpersonalism is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential and with an individual’s essential nature of being. This is an attempt to focus on what unifies individuals as spiritual beings while respecting a person’s biological, ethnic, religious, and other differences.

The fourth force, which also emerged from mainstream psychology, is concerned with states of consciousness, identity, spiritual growth, and levels of human functioning beyond those commonly accepted as healthy and normal. It integrates Eastern perspectives on human development with Western psychological perspectives. Such influential views of the stages of consciousness were proposed by Aurobindo and Maharshi, both Indian sage-philosophers who proposed developmental views of human consciousness and enlightenment.

Perhaps the seminal effort in the study of consciousness in Western psychology was provided by James, who is arguably the father of transpersonal psychology. His interest in spiritualism and introspective studies of consciousness set him apart from his colleagues who were in favor of the prevailing positivistic view of his time, that knowledge was limited to observable facts. James identified mind with consciousness and called it a stream of consciousness.

A more current model was proposed by Wilber, who posited an integrative and developmental model of human development and consciousness. Wilber asserted that different developmental schools have often clung to one school’s logic while ignoring the validity of other perspectives. Consciousness poses a challenge to some developmentalists because of the difficulty in reducing and measuring a person’s consciousness in a traditional observable method. Wilber argued that consciousness has been reduced to personal structures, and that its study has focused merely on altered states of consciousness, while no coherent theory of the development of consciousness has emerged. What Wilber calls integral psychology is the goal to honor and embrace “every legitimate aspect of human consciousness” by using a logic of inclusion, networking, and what he calls wide-net casting.

Future Directions

Counseling’s view of development continues to expand as more information becomes available concerning the complexity of human life and the urgency to meet the changing needs of society. While transpersonal counseling means to go “beyond the personal” or beyond a person’s conditioned personality, it seeks to reveal and develop a person’s identity in a broader, more unified whole. The parallels between modern physics and transpersonal philosophies have been noted for many years. For instance, there is a connection between Western science and what has been described for thousands of years by the philosophical traditions of the Far East.

Quantum theory has eradicated the idea that objects are fundamentally separated and views the entire universe as an interconnected web. Another principle of quantum physics is the observer effect. Simply put, there is a dynamic interaction between the observer and what he or she is observing, to the point that the observer influences change in that which is being observed. From a developmental perspective, this confirms the Eastern view that people are participants in creating their world. A transpersonal counselor would have the view that a person’s attitudes, expectations, and beliefs create the reality that he or she experiences. As the field of counseling continues to mature and our knowledge of human beings expands beyond the physical realm, counselors also must explore and examine their own development in order to continue to accommodate the needs of a diverse world.


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