A personality theory is a general
theory of human behavior. Some examples of well-known personality theories are
Freud’s Classical Psychoanalytical Theory, Existential Psychology, and
Skinner’s Operant-Reinforcement Theory.
is a hard word to define, and ends up being defined by the theory describing
it. Nonetheless, an unsatisfactory, but general definition might include such
complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual
totality of an individual’s behavioral and emotional tendencies
organization of the individual’s distinguishing character traits,
attitudes, or habits
“Theory” is sometimes defined as an
unsubstantiated hypothesis that is waiting for confirming data to turn it from
theory to fact. However, in the case of “Personality Theory” the term
“theory” is better defined as a set of conventions created by the
theorist. A personality theory, therefore, is a particular set of conventions
used to help describe the existence of, and effect adjustments to the
personality of human beings.
As a counselor, I’d be flying by the seat of my
pants if I didn’t consider which theory or theories I subscribe to, and how
I apply them in my practice. There are, however, many different personality
theories and eclectic approaches available to the counseling professional,
with new ones surfacing regularly. As an ornery and independent educational
therapist in private practice, who has studied personality theories for more
than 20 years, my conclusion is thus: I have learned from every theory I have
studied, I use various aspects of many of them, but none has satisfied me
enough to keep me from working out my own theories.
If you are familiar with psychology, occupational
therapy, or philosophy you will undoubtedly find pieces here from each of
these disciplines. I may be ornery and eclectic, but I’m not so egotistical
as to think my personality theory need not stand on the shoulders of the
psychological geniuses who paved the way.
Why a New Theory
What makes people tick? What drives a person to
choices, to that attitude, to that emotional state? For any
given personality issue the student of psychology will surely be able to apply
one, if not several, personality theories to explain the situation. By their
nature, theories are limited and arbitrarily coordinated, but their intention
is just that: to limit and coordinate the understanding of personality in such
a way as to be usable by those who would study or counsel humanity.
Appetite Theory is my attempt at such a limited and
arbitrary endeavor. I do believe, however, that the theory is useful in that
it helps my clients and me to better find, understand, and respond to the
issues that are disturbing them, interrupting their daily functioning, and
blocking them from accomplishing their goals.
One definition of “appetite” found in
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary reads: “an inherent craving.”
Generally thought of as referring to food, this craving can refer to
anything one craves. People crave all kinds of things. In this article, I will
somewhat arbitrarily break those cravings into seven general classifications.
They are: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, communal, and
stimulational. (Examples below.)
What about using “homeostasis” instead of
appetite? While homeostasis is certainly a major human goal, the specific
understanding of the term is variable across different theories. Homeostasis
has been defined variously as a need as well as an outcome of
maintaining equilibrium or balance. Often, implied or directly stated, the
definition includes a sense that homeostasis is always the goal of any
organism or group. But equilibrium or balance, is not always the goal. An
appetite, therefore, is not defined as a need or desire for
homeostasis. It is more simple: it is a need or desire. There are clearly
homeostatic appetites, for example, a need to eat, along with a desire to be
neither too hungry, nor too full. But there are also appetites which yearn for
the specific avoidance of homeostasis. Consider the desire to go on a
white-water river raft ride. The joy for many may very well be the turmoil and
lack of balance that makes the ride worthwhile. Intimate relationships
have been known to be based on the ability of the one to keep the other
Appetite Theory posits that human beings each have
their own personally idiosyncratic set of appetites that defines their
personality. Unfortunately, the details of these appetites aren’t always
obvious. You would think we would know when and what we yearn for, but we
often don’t. Movie script writers know this well…how many plot twists are
based on a character believing they want this guy, or this house, or this
vacation, only to find out that they really wanted that guy, that house, and
to stay home. It’s not that human beings are so fickle. It’s just that we
are easily confused by some combination of our appetites and our
So we see there are three stages from appetite to
satiation: 1. Recognizing the existence of an appetite. 2. Discerning the
subtleties of that appetite. 3. Satisfying the appetite with the right thing,
in the right way.
Types of Appetites
Appetite is an intensely personal thing,
nonetheless highly susceptible to cultural influence. 16-year-old Marge* has a
large appetite for physical stimulation and contact. She would be best served
by playing football or wrestling. But maybe sports don’t suit her in some
way, or maybe she just never tried football or wrestling. (You have certainly
already thought of your own reasons why Marge didn’t think of playing these
particular sports.) Looking to satisfy an appetite for physical stimulation
and contact, Marge attempts satiation through sex. As her appetite for sexual
intimacy hasn’t yet matured, she feels stuck: she needs to feed her
appetite for high levels of physical contact, but she is overwhelmed with
over-consumption of sexual intimacy. Understanding her appetite better might
help Marge consider healthier options for fulfilling it.
To understand our appetites, it is useful if we can
can be broken down into somewhat arbitrary categories. In trying to place
finer and finer examples of appetites, it quickly becomes clear that many
appetites, if not all, will fall into multiple categories. The examples that
follow are often placeable in more than one general category, and these
general categories are not written in stone. With that caveat, here are the
general categories of appetites with a few examples of each:
food, activity, pressure, movement, temperature
learning, puzzles, games, research
anger, happiness, comfort, sadness
prayer, meditation, religion, deity thoughts
closeness, distance, loud, quiet, intimate, surface
large, small, involved, separate
volume, uniqueness/consistency, internal/external
Some appetites are inextricably linked to several
of the general categories. Some examples of these crossovers are appetites for
money, success, love, narcotics, achievement and fame. In most cases, these
appetites are easily divided into sub-categories. For example, an appetite for
money might be broken down into appetites for mental stimulation of how to get
the money, emotional needs of the comfort of having the money, communal needs
of being able to support the community, etc. One person’s appetite for money
might be comprised quite differently than another. Recognizing one’s
idiosyncratic sub-categories for an appetite helps a person find appropriate
satisfaction of that appetite. If a person has an appetite for making money
for the mental stimulation it brings, but also has a spiritual appetite for
asceticism, they might make a great fundraiser for their church, but be deeply
unhappy if they try to either avoid money, or “put up with” being wealthy.
Appetites have various etiologies. They come from
unique combinations of genetic and environmental influences. Examples of
genetic appetites might be an appetite for parenting, eating, or warmth. Of
course, each of these may be altered by personal history. Learned appetites
may be highly particular. Consider a pair of identical twins who traipse
around the world with their military father for the first 18 years of their
lives. One learns to have an appetite for stimulation and change. The other
comes to have a reverse appetite for quiet and consistency. Appetite Theory
does not suggest an explanation for these opposite responses. Rather, it
accepts each individual as they are, and acts as an approach to awareness,
organization, integration, and satiation of their appetites.
Each individual has particular capacities and
abilities that are both stable and variable. They are generally stable over
time (barring catastrophe), but variable from moment to moment. These
capacities and abilities influence appetite, but are beyond the scope of this
paper. Suffice to say, the greater a person’s capacities and abilities, the
more likely their appetites will be extreme and diverse.
Human beings are complex, mystical creatures. No
“personality theory” can ever fully do justice to our humanity. But such
descriptive theories can provide a useful strategy for navigating
life’s vagaries. The constellation of appetites a person has, combined with
their experiences and abilities are significant markers we can use to
understand the human experience of life.
Constructive vs. Destructive Discomfort
When a person has an appetite that is not
appropriately satisfied (either by too much or too little), they will feel
some kind of discomfort.
important to understand that not all psychological discomfort is bad for you.
When discomfort—psychological or otherwise—leads to a useful response,
then the discomfort is appropriate, healthy, and creative. In other words, it
is a constructive discomfort. The more intelligent, creative, and
energetic a person is, the more likely they are to experience constructive
discomfort. This is similar to Dabrowski’s “positive
disintegration.” It is not actually possible to raise oneself to higher
levels of functioning without experiencing constructive discomfort. If we were
perpetually comfortable, there would be no motivation to change; without
change, we don’t grow. It is possible, however, for constructive discomfort
to be severe and long lasting. The knowledge that the discomfort is both
useful and necessary can be reassuring when struggling with it.
However, when discomfort is useless, or actively
and unremittingly destructive without benefit, then it falls into the category
of pathology. We call this destructive discomfort.
According to Appetite Theory, discomfort is created
through four dysfunctional appetite states:
appetites are left unfulfilled or neglected.
appetites are overwhelmed.
appetites are misunderstood, and inappropriate means are attempted to
appetites are in direct conflict with each other.
Does this mean that according to Appetite Theory
all discomfort—emotional, physical, etc.—is caused by some combination of
those four problems? It does. If you’re sick, perhaps your immune system has
become overwhelmed. If you’re sweating, your appetite for heat has been
overwhelmed, or your appetite for cold has been left unfulfilled. If you’re
depressed or anxious, it could be any or all of them. If you feel
uncomfortable, and you don’t know why, you’re probably dealing with number
three. If you have an appetite for aerobic exercise, but are recuperating in
bed after spinal surgery, you’re faced with number four.
This is not to say there aren’t lots of great
descriptions in other personality theories to explain why someone would
react unsatisfactorily to an appetite. For example, Freud listed in great
detail various human responses to discomfort, which he called “defense
mechanisms.” Personality theories are like languages: each language has its
own ways to describe a thing. This doesn’t make one necessarily better than
another, but it may well make one more useful than another in certain
circumstances. “Defense mechanisms” are in the language of Psychotherapy.
“Dysfunctional responses” are in the language of Appetite Theory.
As explained above, appetites and their appropriate
responses aren’t always obvious. In fact, discomfort isn’t always obvious,
but that issue will have to wait for another paper. It is, however, recognized
discomfort that generally brings people to therapy. By the definition of
Appetite Theory, if a person suffers discomfort, they are experiencing some
dysfunctional appetite state. How can that happen?
Sometimes it is just a matter of being in an active
state of adjustment. The person is in the process of responding appropriately
to an appetite, but presently the appetite is not yet in a satiated state.
There is constructive discomfort going on. However, when an appetite is
inappropriately addressed, or not addressed at all, this results in a
destructive discomfort, and this is called a dysfunctional appetite response.
Their appetites are either unfulfilled, or overwhelmed.
Appetites are left
unfulfilled because they
are unknown, avoided, misunderstood, or in conflict.
The unknown appetite: A person with a high
spiritual appetite growing up in an atheistic home, or a homosexual person who
denies their sexual orientation, may attempt to live their entire lives
unaware of these appetites. (Under such situations, they will feel some kind
of “emptiness” which they may try to fulfill by overwhelming other
Another reason an appetite might be left
unfulfilled may be an active avoidance. This can be positive, as when a
person avoids having an affair, or avoids consuming an addictive substance.
(Though often, these appetites suggest some other unsatisfied appetites.) Or
they can be negative, as when an anorexic stops eating, or when an athlete
stops reading because it “isn’t cool.”
An appetite may simply be
to lack of experience or insight, we may find a particular appetite beyond our
capability to fulfill. In this case, the appetite confuses us. We recognize
its existence, but not its specific needs, or how to best provide satiation.
The example above, of Marge, is a problem of misunderstood appetite.
Conflict can create unfulfilled appetites,
some more difficult to fix than others. When a person has a significant
communal appetite and craves large group experience, but lives in their
birthplace on an isolated farm due to an appetite towards keeping family
tradition, appetite fulfillment is in conflict. Compromise is probably
available in such a situation. However, when a person’s drug
addiction prevents them from eating or sleeping enough to keep them sane or
alive, compromise may not be a realistic option.
A different kind of
conflict occurs when an
appetite exceeds a person’s ability to satiate it. The result is
frustration. This frustration can take various forms: looking for alternative
ways to feed the appetite, self-distraction, taking on a personality of
self-denial, anxiety attacks, mental illness, etc. Obvious examples in this
category may be ineffectively fulfilled love or fame appetites, as well as
physical appetites running contrary to the environment, like lack of food or
Appetites are overwhelmed generally
because of environment, or because they are being used as a substitute,
knowingly or unknowingly.
Environmental ways that appetites get
overwhelmed are sometimes avoidable or solvable, but not always. Too much
heat, noise, work, etc. are external experiences which can take a person far
beyond their satiation points. We can also become overwhelmed from our
internal environment. Disease and body chemistry problems are examples of
this. As with all the other appetites and their responses, we can only respond
appropriately to environmentally overwhelmed appetites if we recognize them
for what they are. If depression is being caused by heart disease and the
doctor prescribes an antidepressant, the heart’s appetite for health might
Substitution is when someone has an appetite
for one thing, but tries to satisfy it by focusing on something else. If a
child really needs attention from their mother, but mom is unavailable, the
child may be able to substitute attention from the teacher, even if the
teacher-attention-appetite has already been satiated. The child may be fully
aware of this substitution. Depending on the relationships involved, this
substitution may or may not continue to be effective.
Often, substitution is employed unintentionally. It
still may work, but when it stops working, the person who had been using it
may be less able to understand why their discomfort level is rising.
Substitution can result in overwhelming an appetite
because the appetite chosen for the substitution is generally not chosen
because it has been neglected. Rather, the likely choice is the appetite that
has proven most similar or most easily satisfied in the past. No matter how
much you enjoy excitement, if it is the excitement of skiing you crave, taking
on too many projects at work to create excitement will likely result in
overwhelming the one appetite, without satisfying the other.
The most well-known ways to overwhelm an appetite
by substitution, is to eat or sleep too much in exchange for some emotional
appetite that isn’t getting successfully satisfied.
Healthy Response and Growth
A healthy response to one’s appetites is one in
which a person successfully navigates the three stages from appetite to
Recognizing the existence of
Discerning the subtleties of
Satisfying the appetite with
the right thing, in the right way.
To accomplish these tasks might be simple. Many
appetites are cyclical, requiring the repetition of known processes to achieve
satiation. Exercise, sex, eating, and adjusting the thermostat are examples of
simple, cyclical satiation processes.
The more complex or uncommon an appetite is, the
more work it may be to respond appropriately. Often we have everything we need
to satisfy an appetite readily available, even if it takes some concerted
effort to pull it all together. But sometimes we don’t have it all.
When an appetite arises that requires us to learn
something new, expand our awareness, or shift our personality in a healthy
way, the appetite creates the potential for growth. New or changed appetites
come from the general maturation process, and from exposure to new
experiences. Satisfying immature appetites can trigger the formation of
progressively more mature appetites, which can trigger progressively more
mature responses. Exposing oneself to new experiences can trigger new and
unique appetites. As a person’s appetite set grows and refines, so does the
Appetite Theory is an eclectic personality theory,
encompassing biological, emotional, and environmental aspects of personality.
Its main tenet is that humans, in all that they are, function according to the
combination of their capacities, abilities, and cravings, which are called
“appetites.” The general categories of appetites have been somewhat
arbitrarily delineated as: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,
interpersonal, communal, and stimulational.
Just as a person is driven to breathe, eat, or
sleep, so are human beings uniquely driven to satisfy their less obvious
appetites for things such as love, fame, quiet, or excitement. Improperly
satiated appetites results in discomfort. That discomfort can be constructive
or destructive. Constructive discomfort is necessary for personal growth.
Destructive discomfort reflects dysfunctional appetite response.
Appetite Theory states that properly satiated
appetites will result in a healthy personality. Appetites, however, are often
subtle or obscure, and can be misread or overlooked. When that happens, there
are a variety of negative repercussions. Counseling, using the principles of
Appetite Theory, is done by helping the people understand their appetites and
learn to satisfy them in effective and appropriate ways that match their
capacities and abilities.
Maturity and experience promote healthy growth of
appetites; successfully navigating the three stages from appetite to satiation
clears discomfort and leads to the healthy growth of the personality.
an actual person