Friday, 13 September 2013

Psychobiography 2010

The following is an essay I wrote in 2010 for a school project. I find it very interesting to read what thoughts and beliefs have changed since then, and what has remained the same.

My name is Sarah Henderson. I am 22 years old. I was born in Saskatchewan, and from there moved to Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and finally back to Ontario again. I was homeschooled to about Grade 7 or 8, and then at 17 I went to high school and finished in three years. I have one older brother, four younger brothers, and four younger sisters, who were born in various provinces as we migrated.
   I am married to a 25 year old man. We own a house and a car, and we go to church on Sundays. We volunteer a great deal, helping out with the youth program at our church, as well as volunteering for Family and Children’s Services. We also volunteer a lot for other church and community events. I am a full-time student, and my husband works full-time nights. We have a decently clean house and entertaining is very important to us.
    My family of origin is very conservative and religious, with very specific beliefs about family, the church, and the world. Many of these ideas are still in my head, and even though I do not want to subscribe to most of these ideas, I occasionally feel a twinge of discomfort when I do not follow them. These ideas include the censure of homosexuals, and conservative ideals about modes of dress and the order of authority in the home, as they believe that the male is in charge of the female in almost every situation.

  My religiosity now is somewhat unsettled, as I do believe in the basic tenets of Christianity, such as the presence of God, Jesus, and Heaven, but I do not fully embrace many points of doctrine, including verses such as the subservience of women, the sinfulness of homosexuality, and other practical points such as modes of dress. However, there is a part of me that believes the whole Bible as being a divine word, while at the same time I exhibit attitudes and behaviours toward authority, homosexuality, and dress that are inconsistent with some verses.
    Bandura’s theory of Social Learning focused on self-efficacy, observational learning, and reciprocal determinism (Funder, 2010).  Observational learning was a big part of my childhood. My family modeled an expectation that as a woman, I would be submissive to men, accept everything I was taught, and look down on those who did not follow the Bible literally. My family attended a Brethren church, which depended on these ideas for cohesion. Because I was exposed to this behaviour since birth, I was very immersed in this pattern of behaviour, until about age 16. I believe that it was then that I began to realize that most people in our part of the world dressed differently, had less restraining attitudes about the world, and yet seemed happier and more content than I and others in our subculture. This is another example of observational learning, as I learned that there was another acceptable way of thinking and behaviour.
    Because of my parents’ beliefs about the place of women in the world, education for their daughters was not important. We were homeschooled, up to about grade 8, and that was seen as all that was necessary for a girl who would be married to someone soon anyway. There was never any expectancy that I would undertake any kind of professional education. However, I did not like the way I grew up, in relative poverty, and I was determined that I would not live like that, and came to the conclusion that I would go to university. According to Funder on page 590, “efficacies can create capacities” (Funder, 2010). I was not prepared by my early education to go to university, and I did not have a model to go by, but my decision that I could do it may have created the capacity to move ahead. Since then my sense of self-efficacy about school and life in general has increased greatly, as I have been encouraged first by people around me to try, and then encouraged by incremental successes to continue. These successes include securing good grades and a good reputation at school, and getting married to wonderful man.
    Bandura’s concept of Reciprocal Determinism implies that people are influenced by their environments, but also have the capacity to change their environment by their actions, or even simply by their presence (Funder, 2010). I was raised in a very strict environment, but I left at age 17, and chose a different environment for myself. I chose to begin high school at 17, which was difficult but probably one of the best environmental choices I ever made. In that environment, I believe that I was changed by my group of friends, and that I also changed them. I was involved with the small Audio/Visual club in my high school, and all the members were very influential on each other, as there were some who swore, some who were academic, and most of them were Christian, with a few very emphatic exceptions. I was also involved in the youth group at my church, which I chose at that time in my life. This was a group of about 20, and contact between members also affected the environment, just as the environment affected us, as it was calm, inviting, and religious.
    Now, as a married woman, I have more influence on my environment than I ever did before, as I chose to get married, helped choose where we would live, and contribute half of the determination of how messy our house will be, and what activities we do. My environment as living with my husband also greatly influences my behaviour. For example, I now need to choose to clean house, cook, and spend time with husband, whereas before I was married I was content to eat at random times, and spend time alone or just with friends, and I simply did not make a mess to clean. I would like to clarify that the fact that I do much of the cooking and cleaning is not due to roles, but rather it is due to his work schedule and the fact that being in school full time still leaves sufficient time for me to accomplish those tasks. I also chose my church because I can attend without feeling guilty about my somewhat mixed beliefs.
    Attending a new church and going to high school afforded another example of observational learning. When I was at home all the time, there was not enough interaction with other children to learn all the social norms and how to make friends, so when I first started at the school and the youth group of my current church, I was not sure how to behave or respond to people. However, continued interaction with other teenagers showed me some various modes of behavior, and modeling was conducted by which I learned what behavior that the youth exhibited was accepted by other youth and adults. I also learned how to speak out in class in this way, and about healthy (and unhealthy) teenaged dating relationships.
    I believe that my personality greatly influences my actions. The Big Five Personality Traits from an essential trait approach may have been first listed by Donald Fiske. They are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. They were isolated using the lexical hypothesis: there are names for the things that are most important to people (Funder, 2010). I feel that I would score low on a measure of extraversion, as I identify more closely with the negative correlates for that trait, including that I am quiet, and somewhat reserved. I would score quite high in a measure of agreeableness, as I am quite sympathetic and affectionate. I would score extremely high on a measure of conscientiousness, as almost every move I make is carefully thought out, and determined by my moral compass. This includes even simple decisions such as when to write an essay, or whether or not to skip class. I would score about in the middle for neuroticism, as I am a worrier, and I can be anxious and emotional in an internal sense, but when it comes to the practical presentation of this trait, I am quite stable, and I am a contented person. I would have mixed scores in the trait of openness, as I am curious and love to learn new things; but I am not always open to trying new things.
     My unique blend of these personality characteristics makes me who I am: quiet, agreeable, conscientious, somewhat nervous, and open within the limits of my introversion. With the Big Five Personality Traits summing up what is widely seen to be (as much as possible) the separate personality traits (Funder, 2010), I feel that it does sum up my personality quite well, as my measures on the five traits can go far in predicting how I will respond to a given situation. For example, when I walk into a class for the first time, I am shy and reserved, so I will probably sit by myself. I am conscientious and open to learning, which both predict that I will sit closer to the front than many people, and pay attention. I am somewhat anxious or nervous, which predicts that I will likely take a lot of notes in the class. I am agreeable, so I am polite to people around me, trying to not make a disturbance, and also eventually make friends in the class because I am helpful and nice to others.
    I do not think that everything I believe and all my behaviors are on a conscious level. The core concepts of psychoanalysis are psychic determinism, which stipulates that many important mental processes are unconscious; internal structure, which consists of the id, or emotion, the ego, or the rational part of thinking, and the super ego, or moral compass; psychic conflict and compromise, which involve finding a middle road in a conflict; and mental energy, also known as libido, which imposes limitations in the mind’s ability to process information (Funder, 2010).
    Psychic determinism means that everything that goes on in a person’s mind, and all behaviours have a definitive cause (Funder, 2010). There are often observable inconsistencies in one’s behaviour. For example, in my behaviour, I have the inconsistency of religious beliefs that espouse part of the Bible and dispense with other parts, which is inconsistent because I believe that the Bible is true, and that is where I get my information about the existence of God, and while I believe the whole Bible is true, I hold attitudes that are contrary to, for example my acceptance of homosexuality. From the psychoanalytic perspective, these contradictions can be resolved, and analysis of the hidden part of the mind would discover my reasons for holding on to some beliefs while holding attitudes that are incompatible with accepting the whole Bible.
    The internal structure of psychoanalytic theory consists of the id, ego, and superego, or, as explained above, the emotional drive, rational thinking, and moral compass. I believe that my moral compass has changed quite drastically during my teenage years and into adulthood. As a child, I held very strict, conservative views, and harshly judged those who differed. Now, my moral compass still guides me in a very significant way, but it is different from how it once was. As a full-time student, I am required to complete various components of courses on time, and do well in them in order to secure a grade that is acceptable for my superego. However, my id encourages me to spend time with my husband, watch television shows, and go for enjoyable walks. Therefore, it is the responsibility of my ego to rationalize how much time I must use for each of these activities in order to succeed. My ego also helps me decide that it is worth the present discomfort of not doing whatever I want, and instead doing school, in order to avoid a future life of poverty. This is accomplished by going to school, which should enable me to have a good and secure job. This process between the superego knowing what is right, the id wanting what it wants, and ego deciding the best way to play it out, is the process known as psychic conflict and compromise (Funder, 2010).
   The current thinking on mental energy, or libido, is that “the mind’s capacity for processing information ... is limited” (Funder, 2010). This idea makes sense to me, as it is only recently that I have been able to sit down and think about what I think about my belief system and the Bible, and even who I am. As a child, I had limited capacity for comprehension, therefore I believed, without reservation, what I was taught as right and wrong. As a teenager, I was very much caught up in dealing with situations that students should not have to deal with. An example of this was my ultimately successful attempt to bring my abusive father before a court. Justice was not exactly served, but it achieved his removal from the home about five years ago, which brought me to my next mission, which was to get my siblings into elementary school, as my conservative father had been very against this.  At that time, my mother began exhibiting signs of emotional distress derived from her loss of my father, and being left in charge of livelihood of the seven children remaining at home. This development has taken up most of the last four years and occupied my mind a great deal. However, in trying to plan my wedding amidst overwhelming and constant family conflict, I realized that I had to do something.
    My solution to this problem is actually mentioned in another textbook, albeit not in the most positive of terms. In the text, Family Therapy, an overview, the Bowenian theory of family therapy is introduced, in which emotional cutoff is discussed. Bowen characterizes this as “a flight of extreme emotional distancing in order to break emotional ties” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000). Just before Thanksgiving this year, I told my mother and my five siblings that are over 13, that I would not be talking to them again before Christmas. In congruence with the libido component of the psychoanalytic approach, this has freed up my time and mental energy to focus on who I am, what I believe, and what I wish to get out of life, along with simply allowing more time to do school work and other current goals. I know this is not a perfect or permanent solution, and I do miss my family, but there is a point in relationships when the demand is too great.
    Growing up the way that I did has presented some unique challenges to me as a young adult. I have tried to discuss not only my childhood but all events leading up to where I am now, as even events in the last few years have greatly contributed to who I am now – marriage, for one. This is a very specific challenge for me, as my rebellion against paternalism sometimes leads me farther into feminism than what I think is truly necessary. As I mentioned above, I would label myself as a liberal feminist, but it is hard to control an inward sense of rebellion towards even cooperation with men. This, of course, is something that needs to be controlled, as I cannot set myself up for failure in my marriage because of my background with paternalism. Just because all housework was done by women in my past and I do not like that, does not mean that a similar situation now is brought on by the same reasons, and it certainly does not mean that therefore he should do all the housework.
     Doing this assignment has allowed a very profitable experience in examining my behavior and my attitudes, and this is really the first time I have thought about what I believe and do, and possible reasons as to why. It has opened up possible motivations for behavior that I have not considered before, such as why I cut off my family, and why I, through observation of happy people, decided that it was acceptable to change parts of my religious views while holding on to others. Each of the theories I used explain a part of my personality and behavior, from exploring how I learned, describing my personality, to examining unconscious motivation.
After finishing this psychobiography, I would say that who I am today is shaped by my childhood, by my teenage years, and by societal, interpersonal and economic factors, because I saw people in society who operated differently than my family of origin, I experienced positive social rewards for conforming to mainstream society, and having experienced a low socio-economic status, I was driven to become a university student. I am still a somewhat anxious person, somewhat afraid of being rejected, but as I saw using the Big Five theory, this can work together with other factors of my personality to make me a productive member of society, and certainly need not affect me negatively forever, and has been improving through time.
Funder, D.C. (2010). The personality puzzle. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

Goldenberg, I., & Goldenberg, H. (2000). Family therapy: an overview. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.


  1. Found your blog via No Longer Quivering, and I've been reading it start to finish. It's really fascinating. This essay was particularly so -- lots of good insights there!

    1. Thank you for your comment Melissa, I really appreciate hearing that.