Last week at the drug store while waiting for a prescription to be filled, I picked up the latest copy of Scientific American. Since high school, I have found SA to be always fascinating. This was no exception. The cover article explained a latest theory on why we need sleep (to ‘prune the day’s chaff and restore neural balance’ in the brain). But what blew me away was the article describing one way of understanding ‘quantum particles’. Quantum physics fundamentally describes reality in terms of statistical probabilities. Particles in that world could be described as bundles of attributes with different probabilities of being ‘actualized’. It is not a ‘real, observable object’. The particle becomes real only as it interacts with another particle in a definite context or with the context itself. It struck me that each of us, our so-called ‘personality’, could be depicted in the same way. It is the relationship that forms between two particles that we call reality—not the individual particles. Each individual relationship I experience is unique as it calls forth or actualizes different potential qualities from my bundle of possibilities. My relationship with my brother ‘actualizes’ qualities different from those brought forth by my wife or a student. I could be described as a bundle of such possibilities. Of course many of these possibilities could be even contradictory to each other—within the same bundle.
As a counselor, I find Transactional Analysis to be a most powerful and useful tool to help clients change. And the fundamental reality of TA is the relationship between individuals—the observable transaction is the reality—not each individual separately. When two individuals interact, Eric Berne noticed that the personalities that showed up seemed to come as structured clusters of identifiable of thinking, feeling and acting (ego states). Ego states are inherent possibilities and only become ‘real’ as we interact with others. For ego states, think relationship not individual attributes.
Compare that understanding of personality as relationship with this description of quantum particles:
“A growing number of people think that what really matters are not things but the relations in which those things stand. Such a view breaks with traditional atomistic or pointillist concepts of the material world . . . We may never know the real natures of things but only how they are related to one another. Take the example of mass. Do you ever see mass itself? No. You see only what it means for other entities or, concretely, how one massive body is related to another massive body through the local gravitational field. The structure of the world, reflecting how things are interrelated, is the most enduring part of physical theories. New theories may overturn our conception of the basic building blocks of the world, but they tend to preserve the structures. That is how scientists can make progress.” (Kuhlman, M. (2013, August). What is real? Scientific American, 309(2), 45.)
WOW! Consider this as a paradigm for personality. Theories about what makes up individual personalities come and go, but the ways individuals relate to each other actually are what are basically real. No one has an ‘inherent’ personality—only a collection of possible attributes. Some have a greater or lesser probability of becoming real depending on who that individual relates to. I have the possibility of being an extrovert or an introvert depending on the situation. The 2 times I took the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, I came out with exact opposite results. The first time was at work; the second time was in a faith community. Which one am I really? The bundle of attributes that make up me hold both possibilities and which one manifests itself in the cause-and-effect world depends on whom I am relating to.
I find this concept a really fertile paradigm for the counseling process. Each person I counsel brings out different aspects of me and I bring out different aspects of them. On first meeting a client, the ‘personality’ which the client feels most confident of, will probably be the one he presents to you—or better put, the one you will hook in him. But I must be aware that this is only one possibility that the client could have responded with. One of the main problems with ‘diagnosing’ a client it that the diagnosis only identifies one or a few of the many possibilities contained in the bundle of attributes that the client brings and could choose among. But once those are named, others may be ignored, completely discounted, or even considered ‘false aspects’ or, perhaps, resistance by the individual. My IQ ranges from 80 to 150 with about equal probability. But to tell me just one number as a measure of my ‘intelligence’ shifts these probabilities and can have significant impact on who I choose to be. Any psychological assessment—either oral or written—identifies a limited number of the possible ‘attributes’ of a person and actually shifts the statistical probabilities of other attributes being manifested.
Next time you are with a client or any other individual, consider which of your attributes is being manifest in the world—attributes that would not be manifest in the world of cause and effect without that relationship. Today was the day we had to return our foster rescue dog. I felt so lost because that incredibly cute little dog caused me to experience loving, tender, kind, caring aspects of myself as only he could. With him gone, those possibilities are still in me but not being manifest. That part of me is not longer here—sadness and depression are the natural response—are those attributes now being manifest in the world. One consequence of this perspective is that each of us can choose which attributes we would like to express by deciding what situations to put ourselves in and who to relate to—we can choose to relate to those who ‘bring out the best in us.’
A quantum particle can be described as a bundle of attributes which can’t affect the real world unless it comes into a relationship with another particle or a quantum field. Each human being could be considered a bundle of attributes which can’t make an impact on the real world unless it comes into a relationship with another human being or a particular context. Our job as counselors could be described as helping an individual become aware of those attributes that they have available but which they need to manifest to have a satisfying life in this world of relationships.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'.