The Importance of the Social Environment in Personality Development

Developmental psychologists such as Kazmierz Dabrowski and Erich Fromm emphasize the role of the social environment in personality development. Arno Gruen has explored the dynamics of a society turned sour - Nazi Germany - and the dynamics of individual psychology within such a social system. Indeed, intuition and personal experience alone can verify the importance of the social environment in the development of the individual.

Such theorists explain how we are largely a product of the circumstances around us. Even if our genetics determine our personality traits to a certain degree (a hot topic of debate), people will change and adapt to the needs placed on them. These demands could be financial, social, emotional, or physical. Regardless, the quality of the people a person is surrounded by will determine the way they choose to meet these needs. This is because a person has no context outside of their inner impressions, and will draw on their past experiences and impressions of how other people have successfully met these needs. In other words, our decisions are directed through our relation to the things we have learned in the past - and the lessons we learn are a direct result of the circumstances we have faced, and the people we have known.

Jaques Lacan raises this concept to a higher level. His concepts of the "other supposed to know" and "the other supposed to enjoy" clarify the way in which we internally justify our decisions and choose to satisfy our desires. Through careful analysis, Lacan identified the structure of desire and the way the individual attempts to satiate it. To explain briefly, Lacan argues that our opinions are formed by our impression of the opinion of others. If we think a person is successful in satiating a desire we experience, we can psychologically justify imitating their behavior. By pursuing a similar path to (what we believe to be) their success, we aim to satiate our desires and reach our goals.

Therefore, the social environment is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, the very values we assume are dictated to us by the norms of society. On the other, our ideas and plans for successfully assuming these values are internalized with regard to our impressions of the people we look up to.

As an oversimplified example, imagine a young American boy who sees a man driving a luxury sports car. The impression of this machine is already positive due to his early childhood experiences with Hot Wheels, a positive portrayal of fast cars on TV and movies, and his father's obsession with keeping his truck clean. In excitement, the boy points the car out to his friend, mother, or father, who laugh and explain that he better make lots of money and get RICH if he ever hopes to own such a car. The youngster is therefore left with the impression that becoming wealthy is a priority for becoming successful and happy. His decisions which steer his life are oriented around this goal and therefore his life plays out in a very specific way. Furthermore, the influences of the people around him will dictate how he tries to become wealthy and will vary significantly. In a poor neighborhood, he might decide to sell drugs after exposure to rap music and the influences of his friends. In a nicer neighborhood, he might decide to stick it out through college and become an investment banker at the advice of his parents and the adults he looks up to.

It is important to realize that a person can have very high developmental potential, yet fail to transcend the influences of the social environment and achieve true autonomy, self-actualization, and enlightenment. A serious mistake in early adulthood, for example, could land a person in prison, or an unresolved childhood trauma could damage the psychology and modify inner motivations.

On the other hand, negative events in a person's life can trigger self-reflection and personality development. In fact, Kazmierz Dabrowski oriented his entire theory of personality development around the concept of "Positive Disintegration," in which the individual is forced to progress due to the unbearable inner turmoil created through repeated mistakes.

Today most people are not born or raised with sufficient developmental potential to transcend the negative influences of society. It is only with the active outreach by people in higher states that collective consciousness can mature at a rate which can avoid the looming economic and environmental catastrophes we face as a globe.

A great example of a person with high developmental potential who has faced a negative social environment is a New York City rap artist named Diabolic. The excellence of his performance and his high level of artistic expression are undeniable to the trained ear. But, the content of his songs is born from a history of angst, grief, and feelings of betrayal. His songs reveal his emotional struggles and his continuous battle with material poverty. It is inspiring to see a person break through with such rigor despite the uncontrollable situations being faced. Diabolic's work is sure to progress as he continues to reclaim his self-hood and express his autonomy.

Warning: Explicit Content

Warning: Explicit Content

Poverty is the Most Urgent Disease within Collective Consciousness

Unfortunately, we live in a world where both material and emotional poverty is rampant.

Material poverty is perhaps the most devastating factor which negatively affects personality development. By living in continuous stress and desperation, the physiology is inhibited from development, if not grossly malnourished. This early affect on the brain and body is tragically common in deeply impoverished regions of the planet. Beyond the physiology, we can also note how the tragedies and stress associated with living in poverty affect the psychology. Poor parents frequently fight over financial issues, often indirectly leading to divorce or even physical violence. Lack of financial stability also affects access to education, and the person's (adult or child) ability to retain new knowledge, since the brain is preoccupied with meeting basic needs.

Emotional poverty is often the compliment of physical poverty. Since emotional intelligence is one of the most challenging forms of knowledge a person can develop, the poor are extremely susceptible to cycles of emotional turmoil. They often do not have any guidance and therefore cannot adopt new solutions to the interpersonal problems we all face. That's not to say, however, that material success leads to emotional success. There is no need for detail here; it will suffice to say that the privileged are often caught in vicious inner psychological battles stemming from a disconnect between their inner ethical standards and their desire to make more money. If these issues are to be resolved, it is important to see these kinds of suffering as two sides of the same coin.

Changing the Social Environment

It is only by actively modifying our environments that we can ever achieve our highest potentials. This is true on both an individual and collective level. As we prioritize self development, we naturally begin to surround ourselves with exceptional people - fantastic coaches and teachers, skilled and dependable co-workers, and loving friends and family. By prioritizing these relationships, we make them stronger and more powerful. Not only do we grow more rapidly on an individual level, but our collective accomplishments become increasingly valuable to society as a whole. Aligning our individual goals with the needs of the planet and the people around us is the inevitable progression of personality development.

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