For most of human history, the whole premise underlying psychotherapy–that people could somehow change their basic psychological orientation toward life–would have been thought completely preposterous. Inborn temperament was a given, as ineradicable and unalterable a part of the human condition as one’s position in the social hierarchy. Born a serf, die a serf; born “phlegmatic” or “choleric,” die that way. Until modern times (and even now in some parts of the world), the very idea that people could change their personalities and become happier, braver, more commanding, more appealing was as ridiculous a notion as the belief that they could vault from their God-given status in life to some position of their own choosing.

The great democratic and psychological revolutions of the last two hundred years, however, changed all that, particularly in America, and with a great boost from the field of psychotherapy. By the middle of the 20th century, creating a new self via upward mobility and personal transformation had become a virtual birthright in this country, an essential part of the American Dream. Spend time with the correct therapist, read the correct self-help books, attend the correct (and usually pricey) workshop with the correct motivational guru, and there was no reason why you couldn’t trade in your old inhibited, insecure, unfulfilled, unrich, and boring personality for a much more vivacious, sparkling, successful, self-actualized model.

These days, just as the current economic “correction” has burst a lot of bubbles about the inevitability of ever-increasing housing values and 401Ks, psychological research has increasingly challenged the idea that human personality is endlessly malleable and perfectable–that we can pick out a new self the way we choose any other consumer product. In this issue, we examine the age-old issue of temperament and questions about the limits of change. If, as researchers like Jerome Kagan have demonstrated, many of our psychological tendencies and predispositions encoded in our DNA are as much a part of our physiological makeup as our eye and hair color, what does that say about the possibilities of the therapeutic enterprise?

In her cover story in this issue, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, Marian Sandmaier takes a long, hard look at the “transformation fantasy” that’s been at the heart of the psychotherapeutic perspective and the broader self-help movement it spawned. It could be argued that most models of therapeutic practice are founded upon a belief in interactional determinism–the idea that we come into the world as unmolded clay and then are shaped primarily by our family-of-origin experience and further refined by subsequent relationships. But what if our personal traits are wired-in to a much larger extent than most therapists assume, and than we’ve previously believed?

Sandmaier acknowledges the danger of making too much of inborn proclivities, but she argues that there are advantages to righting the balance in our understanding of how much of our personalities can be reshaped and how much we need to accept as the givens of our idiosyncratic nature. As she puts it, “To understand that there are certain things about me that can’t be undone or transformed by any amount of psychic digging or repair work” can be “a profound relief.” She emphasizes that “temperament is an inherently messy business, rife with endless shifting and cross-cutting factors that defy crisp conclusions.” To allay the fear that an emphasis on the power of the inborn will flatten our appreciation of human nature and stunt our sense of individual potential, she quotes Nabokov’s observation, “The greater the science, the deeper the sense of mystery.”


Twenty years after we won our first prestigious Utne award, we’re proud to announce that the Networker has been nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award in the Health/Wellness category.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.