The Formation of Personality

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Our Childhood Goes With Us


To quote the late Dr. Sigmund Freud: Our personality is formed by the time we are five years old.  The basic attributes date back to those formative years.  It does not mean that we do not add to this state of being.  It can be compared to a tree.  The roots are in the ground, the trunk has begun, and the branches grow from that structure into the tree that will grow to maturity.  The sun, the rain, the wind, and all that exists will nurture or harm the tree as it matures .  If the proper elements or nourishments are not there, the tree will not grow to its potential.  So it is with humans.  The child is nourished by its parents in every aspect of  its being. The food that he gets, the love, the religion, the attention or lack of same. All the ingredients that make the child grow are there for the taking, for the getting.  The physical being is determined by the genes and those of his parents.  The child learns about religiosity from example and active teaching, the feelings that accompany the practice, and much more.  The orthodox child will learn just as the reform or nonpractitioner learns and adapts to that which he sees and feels. As it grows, its surroundings affect the human being. The child as an infant can be observed mimicking the parent.  When Mom or Dad smiles at him as early as when the infant is two months old, the child smiles back.  The smile gives the baby accolades, hugs, love, and acceptance. Often the amount of pleasure that the child receives will be reciprocated, just as the opposite will be the case.  Children, even at a very young age, feel the negative responses that surround them.  Lack of attention and affection, neglect, and harsh surroundings will have the appropriate reactions from the young one.  As the child grows, he reaches into his childhood automatically and responds accordingly.  Feelings  can not easily be labeled or seen, but they exist and we all have them. 

Our dependency needs, if not met in early childhood, can follow us the remainder of our lives.  If parents were not dependable, the child adapts in one way or another.  They may not be able to move far away from parents or the opposite may be the case.  If the child hears his parents denigrated or belittled, he may join in, be overly protective of them, or feel personally attacked by the individuals thus involved.  There are innumerable situations that make their mark on the person that is growing or has grown into the adult person, and we speak here specifically of the entity in the Jewish family/surroundings.  We must here remember that we are not mathematical formulas, and cannot ascertain that the traits, the feelings, the behaviors of the adult will always turn out like the correct formula does.  There is the old saying which illustrates this:  “Es ist schon einmal gewesen das ein Nachtwachter am Tag gestorben ist.”  (It has already occurred that a night watchman died during the day).  In other words, there are many unpredictable situations or occurrences.

In one way or another, our parents will always be remembered.  In our prayers we remember them, in our daily lives we often automatically mimic them or do the exact opposite if we believe they were wrong, we think about them and our likenesses, their frailties, their strengths, their earthly goods, their possessions, their poverty, etc., our times with them, our actions, their actions toward their Jewishness, their politics, their beliefs, and their “meintzelich” (little sayings).  Who does not remember some saying they taught us that still remains in our consciousness?!!  One example is a prayer that an adult still recalls every night before retiring, even though the parents are no longer among the living: “Eli, eli, schemor ovi, schelo ovi, vegam imi, schelach maloch, schelach maloch, ki ani ohev ossoch.” (My G*d, my G*d, watch over my father and also my mother, send an angel, because I love you).  In psychological language this would be described as magical thoughts.

Awareness  is a very important ingredient for all of us.  We know that our childhood has been an essential aspect of who we are.   Our adult lives are based on all that we were and has been the cornerstone of who we are today.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.

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