The autotelic personality

When adversity threatens to paralyze us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction in which to invest psychic energy, a direction that lies outside the reach of external forces. When every aspiration is frustrated, a person still must seek a meaningful goal around which to organize the self. Then, even though that person is objectively a slave, subjectively he is free.[Alexander] Solzhenitsyn describes very well how even the most degrading situation can be transformed into a flow experience: ” Sometimes, when standing in a column of dejected prisoners, amidst the shouts of guards with machine guns, I felt such a rush of rhymes and images that I seemed to be wafted overhead…At such moments I was both free and happy…Some prisoners tried to escape by smashing through the barbed wire. For me there was no barbed wire. The head count of prisoners remained unchanged but I was actually away on a distant flight.”

Not only prisoners report these strategies for wresting control back to their own consciousness. Explorers like Admiral Byrd, who once spent four cold and dark months by himself in a tiny hut near the South Pole, or Charles Lindbergh, facing hostile elements alone on his transatlantic flight, resorted to the same steps to keep the integrity of their selves. But what makes some people able to achieve this internal control, while most others are swept away by external hardships?

Richard Logan proposes an answer based on the writings of many survivors, including those of Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim, who have reflected on the sources of strength under extreme adversity. He concludes that the most important trait of survivors is a “nonself-conscious individualism”, or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. People who have that quality are bent on doing their best in all circumstances, yet they are not concerned primarily with advancing their own interests. Because they are intrinsically motivated in their actions, they are not easily disturbed by external threats. With enough psychic energy free to observe and analyze their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action. If we were to consider one trait a key element of the autotelic personality, this might be it. Narcissistic individuals, who are mainly concerned with protecting their self, fall apart when the external conditions turn threatening. The ensuing panic prevents them from doing what they must do; their attention turns inward in an effort to restore order in consciousness, and not enough remains to negotiate outside reality.

Without interest in the world, a desire to be actively related to it, a person becomes isolated into himself. Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of our century, described how he achieved personal happiness: ” Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the word, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.” 

There could be no better short description of how to build for oneself an autotelic personality.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “The People of Flow.” Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. 163-64. Print.



5 responses to The autotelic personality

  1. VERY interesting. Being in the distressing situation I currently am, I can reflect on this directly. While at first being paralyzed by fear and sadness, it is the focus AWAY from the situation that re-energizes me now. In letting go of the troubles and turning my being towards a new path, even if just on my inside, has already given me so much more stability. No doubt the re-evaluation will also lead to new doors.

    I guess you are going through a similar phase 🙂


    • Midnight Blahs – Author

      I’ve been going through this phase for as long as I can remember, spanning years. I have this type of personality and since I tend to get into flow often, I also need intrinsic passions to tap into that. The author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist who coined these terms, ‘autotelic’ and ‘flow’, and the post is an excerpt from his book which I highly recommend.

      Another thing I’ve noticed, and perhaps you’ve done so too, is that I have levels of awareness I go through and with each there’s this end-exam of sorts that solidifies the lesson. For instance, I’m dealing with codependence these days in a way I wasn’t aware of before; it’s kinda come to the fore with all its ugliness. Suddenly, I notice a shift in my life; all my friends are either busy or unavailable,whereas before they were always available. So that leaves a huge void, right? This void allows me to see who I am without others and it’s as if I’m being tested on what I know about codependence. Until I successfully implement the knowledge I know in theory, I’ll forever bounce in this level.

      Have you experienced anything like this?

      Years ago I was stuck in a very painful situation that I just couldn’t get out of; every time I thought I did, there it was. In my frustration, I lamented over this to my friend and she told me something that was so profound it continues to change me til this day; she said ‘ maybe this situation keeps coming back because there is a lesson that you are supposed to learn from that you haven’t.’
      And once I looked at it differently, I started looking within instead of without, and sure enough I was able to find the lesson, and this lead me on to the journey I am on now. So fret not, Marvellina – all those things you have learnt hitherto are rallying behind you; don’t let fear overpower this. 🙂


      • I bought the book a long time ago but never read beyond the first pages — maybe I should!

        Ha, I have the exact same thing in my life; it seems to be structured in lessons, I’ve been asking people if they feel the same about their lives. Some of them do but then again others aren’t so considerate of their inner world.

        I however think it’s probably not the outer world that is arranging itself to teach us a lesson; at least with me it’s us noticing something (problematic) once and then noticing it over and over again until we have solved the puzzle. Have you ever learnt a new word that you then suddenly heard everywhere? I think it’s the same with our minds and their lessons. What do you think?


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