What are Personality Theories, and how do they Inform Therapy?

Personality theories aim to understand, describe, and explain the patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make up personality. These theories provide insights into how people differ from one another and seek to identify the underlying mechanisms that shape personality. They have evolved over time as research has developed and expanded our understanding of human behavior and personality.

Several prominent personality theories guide therapeutic practices, offering therapists valuable perspectives on clients’ behaviors and helping them tailor interventions. Understanding the core personality theories and how they mold therapeutic practice can provide insight for people seeking the kind of therapist and therapeutic modality that best suits them.

How have Personality Theories Developed?

Personality theories emerge through hypotheses, experiments, case studies, and clinical research conducted by psychology and human behavior experts. 

Personality theories aim to identify why distinct features and traits develop in individuals and help explain why certain characteristics emerge in one person as opposed to another or why they manifest at all. The overarching objective is to understand the factors contributing to both the shared and distinctive aspects of human personality.

What are the Core Personality Theories?

There are several major personality theories, some dating back decades and others more contemporary. We will look at 3 major theories or perspectives that inform therapy: the psychodynamic, cognitive/behavioral, and humanistic perspectives.

Psychodynamic Perspective 

While the term psychodynamic perspective is often used interchangeably with psychoanalytic perspective, there are subtle differences.

The psychoanalytic perspective is rooted in the original theories and practices developed by Sigmund Freud, such as psychoanalysis and delving into the unconscious through techniques like dream analysis. The psychodynamic perspective is a broader term that encompasses not only Freudian ideas but also the theories and concepts introduced by later theorists who modified or expanded upon Freud’s work. 

The psychoanalytic perspective underscores the significance of early life experiences and the unconscious mind in shaping personality. Freud believed that the unconscious could be unveiled through dreams, free association, and verbal slips. Neo-Freudians, including Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Karen Horney, retained the emphasis on the unconscious but differed on other aspects. While classical Freudian psychoanalysis faces skepticism, the psychodynamic tradition remains integral in psychology. Psychodynamic approaches offer effective tools for self-reflection and contribute to long-term emotional growth through deepening awareness of the impact of past events, which have established their enduring relevance in the field of psychology.

Cognitive/Behavioral Perspective

The psychodynamic perspective views past events and unconscious processes as integral to determining behavior and thought. Psychodynamic practitioners focus primarily on developmental history and the unconscious processes that transpire in our minds and between us and other people. 

This behavioral perspective dates back to the mid-1900s, when it was mostly concerned with environmental determinism, or seeing individuals as a product of their environment. Early research looked at conditioning, reward, and punishment as ways of learning and changing behaviors. 

The cognitive-behavioral perspective can be understood as the second wave of behavioral theory. It focuses on integrating cognitive processes with behaviorism and exploring the impact of thoughts and beliefs on behavior. There is a strong focus on replacing inappropriate or unhelpful thought patterns with more positive and effective ways of thinking, with the belief that this will then influence the way a person feels and, therefore, their behavior.

Humanistic Psychology

Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers pioneered humanistic psychology in the mid-20th century as a reaction against behaviorism and psychoanalysis. This approach focuses on human potential, self-actualization, and subjective experiences. The humanistic perspective is often described as optimistic. It views people as the experts of their own experience and emphasizes their capacity to become what they want to be. A core aim of the humanistic perspective is to encourage individuals to value themselves and their intrinsic power.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs highlights the progression toward self-fulfillment and the conditions needed for self-actualization, such as safety, love, and belonging. Humanism features ideas like self-concept, conditions of worth, and unconditional positive regard and emphasizes the importance of personal growth and genuine interpersonal connections.

How to do these Theories Inform Therapy? 

These perspectives, and their inherent theories about human personality, contribute to particular practices and approaches to therapy. Knowing how each perspective influences therapeutic practice can be helpful for those seeking a therapist or treatment program that aligns with the issues they are facing or the approach they wish to take.  

Psychodynamic Therapy

Therapists help clients uncover unconscious conflicts, childhood experiences, and repressed emotions to promote self-awareness and emotional growth. Therapy sessions focus on past experiences, including childhood, to help clients develop an awareness of how past experiences have shaped them and bring subconscious thoughts to the forefront.

The therapist delves into an individual’s current thoughts and feelings and draws connections to past experiences, often from early life, some of which may be repressed. These connections, seen in current manifestations like phobias, anxieties, or maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance misuse, reveal underlying psychological processes. The psychodynamic approach considers symptoms in the context of the person’s overall growth, emotions, conflicts, fears, and defenses.

Relationships, character strengths and weaknesses, and coping styles, and their impact on character formation are integral in understanding and addressing psychological issues in a psychodynamic approach.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy 

Therapists collaborate with clients to challenge negative thoughts, develop coping strategies, and help modify behavior to achieve desired outcomes. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), grounded in the interconnectedness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, asserts that cognitions mediate responses to the environment. Generally, treatments are tailored to address distinct cognitive and behavioral factors across various conditions and personal experiences. While specific techniques vary, they share common goals: reducing symptoms, enhancing functioning, and achieving disorder remission.

IN CBT patients actively engage in collaborative problem-solving, challenging maladaptive thoughts, and modifying behavior. 

Humanistic/Person Centered Therapy

Therapists create a supportive, non-judgmental environment, fostering clients’ self-exploration, self-awareness, personal growth, and realization of their potential. 

Person-Centered Therapy has a client-centered approach that emphasizes empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness from the therapist, which creates a non-judgmental space for exploration of key issues. Individuals can expect an empathetic therapist who actively listens to and collaborates with them, values their unique experiences, and facilitates self-discovery. The focus is on present experiences and future potential, which empowers individuals to make choices that are aligned with their personal values. 

Empowering Change through Awareness

Personality theories delve into understanding the patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that shape individuality in order to offer insight into human differences and shared traits. Understanding these theories informs therapy selection, which empowers individuals to align with the approach that best suits their needs and values.


[1] Usher, S.Fels. (2013) Introduction to psychodynamic psychotherapy technique. 2nd ed. New York, N.Y: Routledge. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203468555.

[2] Hofmann, S.G. et al. (2012) ‘The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses’, Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), pp. 427–440. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1.

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