The Interpersonal Perspective

The perspectives of Chapter 1 attempted to understand personality in isolation from the environment. Personality flows from within, either through its foundation in biological temperament or through the vicissitudes of unconscious forces, wrought by psychody-namic conflicts among the id, ego, and superego. Where others did enter the picture, with the object relations dynamic variant, the focus nevertheless remained on experiential representations internalized by the individual. With object-representations in innerplace, the person could again be understood from the inside out.

The interpersonal perspective argues that personality is best conceptualized as the social product of interactions with significant others. Very few of our needs can be satisfied, our goals reached, or our wishes and potentials fulfilled in a nonsocial world. Even when we are alone, interpersonal theorists argue, we continue to interact with others. When lying down to sleep, for example, our reflections about the important events of the day almost always involve people. We do not dream about doorknobs or the private lives of hamsters, but about others who are important in our own lives or significant in some way. According to Allen Frances, (chairperson of the committee that guided the construction of DSM-IV):

The essence of being a mammal is the need for, and the ability to participate in, interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal dance begins at least as early as birth and ends only with death. Virtually all of the most important events in life are interpersonal in nature and most of what we call personality is interpersonal in expression. (quoted in Benjamin, 1996, p. v)

From beginning to end, we are always transacting either with real or imagined others and their expectations. Personality cannot be understood from the inside out, because it is intrinsically immersed in context. Life itself is about relationships. Only in the context of these relationships does personality develop, and only there can it be fully understood.

A relational understanding of personality goes far toward dispelling certain cultural myths about human nature and points to the role played by cultural values in the genesis of scientific theories. As noted by Kiesler (1996), for example, the emphasis on individualism in Western culture runs counter to the basic assumptions of the relational view. For Westerners, identity is self-contained and self-determined. As individualists, we assume that we are the authors of our own being and our own destiny. Free will alone

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