The most complex and inclusive of all the dynamisms is the self-system, a consistent pattern of behaviors that maintains people's interpersonal security by protecting them from anxiety. Like intimacy, the self-system is a conjunctive dynamism that arises out of the interpersonal situation. However, it develops earlier than intimacy, at about age 12 to 18 months. As children develop intelligence and foresight, they become able to learn which behaviors are related to an increase or decrease in anxiety. This ability to detect slight increases or decreases in anxiety provides the self-system with a built-in warning device.
The warning, however, is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it serves as a signal, alerting people to increasing anxiety and giving them an opportunity to protect themselves. On the other, this deshe for protection against anxiety makes the self-system resistant to change and prevents people from profiting from anxiety-filled experiences. Because the primary task of the self-system is to protect people against anxiety, it is "the principal stumbling block to favorable changes in personality" (Sullivan, 1953b, p. 169). Sullivan (1964), however, believed that personality is not static and is especially open to change at the beginning of the various stages of development.
As the self-system develops, people begin to form a consistent image of themselves. Thereafter, any interpersonal experiences that they perceive as contrary to their self-regard threatens their security. As a consequence, people attempt to defend themselves against interpersonal tensions by means of security operations, the purpose of which is to reduce feelings of insecurity or anxiety that result from endangered self-esteem. People tend to deny or distort interpersonal experiences that conflict with then self-regard. For example, when people who think highly of themselves are called incompetent, they may choose to believe that the name-caller is stupid or, perhaps, merely joking. Sullivan (1953b) called security operations "a powerful brake on personal and human progress" (p. 374).
Two important security operations are dissociation and selective inattention. Dissociation includes those impulses, desires, and needs that a person refuses to allow into awareness. Some infantile experiences become dissociated when a baby's behavior is neither rewarded nor punished, so those experiences simply do not become part of the self-system. Adult experiences that are too foreign to one's standards of conduct can also become dissociated. These experiences do not cease to exist but continue to influence personality on an unconscious level. Dissociated images manifest themselves in dreams, daydreams, and other unintentional activities outside of awareness and are directed toward maintaining interpersonal security (Sullivan, 1953b).
The control of focal awareness, called selective inattention, is a refusal to see those things that we do not wish to see. It differs from dissociation in both degree and origin. Selectively inattended experiences are more accessible to awareness and more limited in scope. They originate after we establish a self-system and are triggered by our attempts to block out experiences that are not consistent with our existing self-system. For example, people who regard themselves as scrupulously law-abiding drivers may "forget" about the many occasions when they exceeded the speed lhnit or the thnes when they failed to stop completely at a stop sign. Like dissociated experiences, selectively inattended perceptions remain active even though they are not fully conscious. They are crucial hi determining which elements of an experience will be attended and which will be ignored or denied (Sullivan, 1953b).
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