Phenomenological Psychology

Phenomenological Psychology header image

Personality Theories Explained – Part I

October 21st, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Theories of Personality

Criteria for a good theory include: (1) an empirical basis, that is, it is verifiable and falsifiable; (2) it results in testable hypotheses; and (3) it creates the possibility for client change. Theories are informed by perspective and experience. There are judgments and values built into any theory. Some of these are cultural; we cannot escape them and are caught in a hermeneutic circle of interpretation in which each explanation depends on others. For these reasons the best approach is pragmatic eclecticism, taking parts of each theory and applying them to different clients and situations, as appropriate.

Phases of Therapy

There are four phases of therapy. (1) Intake – determining if the client is right for analysis, if there is a felt need and the client is motivated to change. The client is introduced to the process and opened up to the possibility of self-discovery. (2) Middle Phase – identifies themes; makes connections; examines dysfunctional patterns of perceiving, thinking and relating; disentangles the past from the present; brings unconscious elements to the fore; considers the nature of transference; finds new ways to cope. Transference occurs when the client assumes the therapist responds in the same way as previous figures in the client’s life. The client projects unconscious material (such as formative childhood experiences) onto the therapist. The therapist must create a non-judgmental environment using evenly-hovering attention and not influence the process of transference. The therapist may experience counter-transference, which is a reaction to the client, and must take steps to avoid it. Catharsis is the discharge of repressed trauma. Containment is when the therapist provides a safe environment for the client and holds the client’s pain. (3) Later Phase. (4) Termination.

The core conflictual relationship theme method (“CCRT”) considers: (1) the client’s stated or implied wish (“W”); (2) the response of others (“RO”); and the response of self (“RS”). It identifies client relationship patterns and is an operationalized version of transference. The symptom-context method is when the client’s social and personal context illuminates the client’s symptoms.


Freud was a determinist in that he believed what we experience is caused by unconscious factors. Human nature is in conflict. To resolve it, or try to, we form compromises. We have various defense mechanisms we use to keep conflicts unconscious. Examples of defense mechanisms are: repression; projection; obsessions; compulsions; denials; and avoidance. These compromises and defense mechanisms in turn create neuroses. The goal of Freudian analysis is to create deep personality change by making internal conflicts and their associated defense mechanisms conscious, and therefore controllable.

There are three basic personality structures: the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the repository of drives and impulses. It is governed by the pleasure principle. The superego dictates “shoulds,” how one ought to respond morally or in society. The ego mediates the conflict between the id and the superego. It is governed by the reality principle. One goes through phases of development, which are: oral, anal and phallic. The Oedipus conflict is when a boy wants to murder his father and marry his mother. The Elektra conflict is when a girl wants to murder her mother and marry her mother.

The basic methods of psychoanalysis are free association; dream interpretation; and transference. Dreams have two types of content: manifest (on the surface) and latent (below the surface; that which requires interpretation).


Adler’s theories are called individual psychology. This really means indivisible psychology because Adler viewed people holistically, that is, they must be understood as a whole. Unlike Freud, Adler was not a determinist. Rather he believed we exercise free choice within a social environment. One’s style of life comprises the set of choices one has made about how to live one’s life, which in turn organizes future choices.

Adler believed we all start with an inferiority complex, which is creating a style of life based on the belief one is inferior. There also is another type of inferiority, which is normal inferiority or inferiority feelings. Normal inferiority in turn can be divided into primary inferiority, which is developmental and experienced during childhood; and secondary inferiority, which occurs when there is conflict between one’s self-concept and one’s self-ideal. The greater this discrepancy, the greater will be one’s feelings of inferiority, that one isn’t “good enough.”

These convictions about how one sees the world, or one’s world-view, are called the Weltbild. Together with ethical “shoulds” (akin to Freud’s superego) they are what generate inferiority. One creates a style of life to cope with and try to reconcile one’s convictions and self-concept. If one focuses solely on one’s self then one is useless. On the other hand if one focuses on social interest then one is useful. Social interest is concern with others and society. The goal of Adlerian therapy is to awaken a person’s social interest and develop a useful style of life.

The basic technique of Adlerian therapy is to understand an individual’s style of life and the choices that person has made. It starts with a life-style investigation, which is an inventory of one’s basic mistakes and one’s personality assets. Basic mistakes are conceptual errors. Examples are: are impossible goals; misperceptions; faulty values; self-denial; and over-generalization. Important aspects of the life-style investigation are one’s family constellation and early recollections. Family constellation is the circumstances into which one is born, such as gender and birth order. After articulating and examining these factors, one then modifies one’s convictions, loses one’s inferiority complex, and develops social interest. Social interest eliminates the inferiority complex.

People don’t “have” psychological symptoms in the sense of possessing them. Rather they “use” them. The therapist should ask: what would the client’s style of life be without the symptoms and what benefit there is to having them. A person with pathological symptoms is not sick, rather, simply discouraged.


Jung’s theories are called analytic (or analytical) psychology. There are two types of unconscious: the personal and the collective. The collective unconscious is a shared psychic resource. We have shared experiences we may not be conscious of. Complexes organize the personal unconscious. A complex is how the personal unconscious makes itself known; it is a part of one’s self that is disowned. Archetypes organize the collective unconscious and are a bridge to the personal unconscious. Archetypes are a recurring cultural theme or meme. Examples of archetypal patterns are: the heroic quest (exemplified by the work of Joseph Campbell); the inner child; and the wise old man.

The psyche or Self (capital “S”) is made up of opposites such as animus (male principle) versus anima (female principle); and the ego (same basic definition as Freud) versus its shadow. The shadow is those aspects of one’s ego one has disowned or repressed. One has a persona, which is the public face of the self in society; it shields the ego. There are four ways in which we experience reality: thinking, feeling, sensing and intuiting. We have two basic responses: introversion (an inward orientation) and extroversion (an outward orientation).

The goal of Jungian therapy is to obtain self-knowledge of these parts; reintegrate them; and then achieve self-individuation and self-activation. It explores the ways in which complexes connect to archetypes. The psyche is self-healing. One’s life tasks are to develop one’s ego; reclaim the lost parts of one’s self (hidden in the shadow); and then to integrate the two.

There are four stages of Jungian therapy: confession, elucidation, education and transformation. Confession is the cathartic recounting of one’s personal history and life story. Elucidation occurs through transference (same basic definition as with Freud). The therapist draws attention to the transference and provides a holding environment for the client to work it out. Examples of things that can be elucidated are: early childhood relationships; the shadow; how figures from one’s background might be archetypes; and one’s persona. Education is translating the insights one gains into responsible engagement and action. Once the client knows what is happening, the client can do things differently and break down dysfunctional patterns of behavior. Transformation is reclaiming the disowned parts of ones’ self; finding the missing pieces; reconciling opposites; and experiencing self-individuation and self-actualization.


Ellis’ theory is called rational emotive behavior therapy (“REBT”). Our experience of the world comprises three stages: act (“A”), belief (“B”) and consequence (“C”). A does not cause C, rather, B does. The client is not upset about A, rather about B’s about A. When an undesirable C occurs it is because of an irrational B. Examples of irrational beliefs are: “I must always do well;” “things must always be easy;” “other people must always be nice to me;” “I am worthless;” “I deserve it;” “I never will be accepted.” REBT assumes people are rational and that faulty beliefs will not stand up to rational scrutiny. The client keeps subjecting herself to faulty belief structures. The way to change C is to dispute and then change B.

The goal of REBT is to modify the client’s convictions and behavior. Unlike Freudian therapy it is very interventionist. It is much less complicated than psychoanalysis. The method of REBT is to challenge the client’s belief. The therapist asks for evidence; challenges premises; questions logical inferences (such as overgeneralization, catastrophizing incidents, misattributing intent, and thinking one can control all of the events that occur in one’s life); points out counter-examples; deconstructs dysfunctional demands; and suggests alternative interpretations. Just because the client’s life isn’t perfect doesn’t mean the client is pathological. “Even supposing a worst-case scenario, would it really be that bad?”


Rogers is a humanist. He believes people have an innate tendency to develop towards their own highest good. There are three conditions to this unfolding: (1) unconditional positive regard; (2) empathetic listening; and (3) counselor congruence. Unconditional positive regard is accepting the client the way the client is, and not judging the client. Rogerian therapy is non-interventionist and non-directional. Unlike REBT it does not take a stance of pointing out the client’s deficiencies and then “let’s fix it.” Empathetic listening is assuming that what the client says is based on the client’s reality. It’s not necessary to change anything about the client’s reality, as with REBT. The therapist must demonstrate to the client that the therapist understands what the client is saying. Counselor congruence is a warm acceptance of and interest in the client’s world. Instead of adopting an interpretive stance the therapist must be real and authentic in the moment; genuine; and not feigning or pretending interest.