Mother Teresa is a now famous influence on the way the world both experiences and perceives religion. However, in order to truly understand her, it is necessary to examine her from a psychological perspective. To that end, this paper will look at several aspects of Mother Theresa. For starters, the paper will look at the environmental and heredity influences on her development, as well as which aspects of her psyche, moral, emotional, etc., were affected the most. The paper will also examine the social support systems that helped her to grow mentally and emotionally. The paper will also apply two different personality theories, and will discuss how these theories explain Teresa's unique traits. Lastly, the paper will look at theoretical approaches to explain Teresa's behavior and achievements.
First, it is necessary to look at how Teresa was shaped by both her heritage and environment. Mother Teresa did not have a great deal of contact with her family, since her father, an Albanian politician, died when she was eight (Clucas, 1988). Her mother raised her as a Roman Catholic, and this is what had the greatest impact on her psyche. Perhaps because of her mother's influence, Teresa became fascinated by the missionary life, and vowed to join them, and, eventually resolved to them while praying to a shrine (Clucas, 1988). This is what cemented her destiny, in her mind. The influences on Mother Teresa's development, thus, were twofold: her family played a large part in it, since her father was politically active, and her mother introduced her to Roman Catholicism, but her actual environment played a large part as well, as she was continually exposed to religion, and even before she reached the age of twelve had decided to pursue a religious lifestyle (Clucas, 1988). Not that anything Mother Teresa did or followed was wrong, but it is clear that, since she was exposed to Roman Catholicism at such a young age, she really had no choice in the matter. Of course, there were significant influences on her personality and development that came from outside of her immediate family. For example, Teresa stated that while she was disturbed by the poverty surrounding her (Spink, 1997). In addition, the numerous bouts of rebellion and violence around her prompted her to go on something of a lifelong wellness mission to help those who are lost. With these facts in mind, it seems clear that Teresa was shaped greatly by her environment and heredity, especially at an extremely young age.
The system of social support is very important to Teresa. Obviously the most prominent of these is her Roman Catholicism, which Teresa absolutely devoted herself to. In fact, the reason she can live happily solely on the support of her fellow Roman Catholics is, ironically, because she was forced to do without all of that when she first began. While she was tending to the poor in Calcutta, she frequently had to live on the streets just in order to survive, and could, at any point, simply return to the comfort of her convent life (Spink, 1997). The fact that she endured this hardship only made her faith in both her God and fellow Roman Catholics that much stronger. This helps to demonstrate how certain difficulties can make the underlying principles of an individual much stronger; as it is likely Teresa would not have developed psychologically the same way had she not endured what she had. These hardships helped to shape her moral psyche, such as her devotion to the poor and disadvantaged, which she stuck to for the remainder of her life. In addition, her joining of various missionary groups shaped her emotional psyche by providing her with like-minded individuals to confide in. No man, or woman, is an island, and even Teresa needed similar Roman Catholic missionaries to confide in. Her public works projects, namely, her work for the Catholic Church, gave her a great deal of satisfaction as well, which is likely one of the main reasons she continued to do it. Of course, she enjoyed helping the poor and under-privileged, but in doing so, it made her feel good, as a woman of Catholic faith and, through this, she was able to continue doing it.
There are two personality theories that may be applied to Mother Teresa that help to explain her psychological development. The first is Sigmund Freud's theory concerning some of the more basic psychological tendencies: namely, the id, ego, and superego. The id, Freud theorized, forms the primary portion of one's personality, and is driven by what is called the "pleasure principle" (Freud, 1954). This principle is what provides the brain with gratification of its desires. This can be clearly seen in Teresa's case with her helping other people. It seems obvious when applying this theory to her that helping others, especially those less fortunate than her, helped to satiate at least some portion of her own id. The id is also responsible for the formation of the ego, which helps to deal with reality (Freud, 1954, p.216). This helps to explain how Mother Teresa was able to endure the numerous hardships of her life (such as living among the impoverished during much of her missionary work). Of course, much of this can be attributed to the simple theory that "she is a good person." However, it could be argued that good people are merely ones who derive pleasure from helping others. This leads to the second personality theory that can be applied to Teresa: the "mother archetype". This principle states that every individual, has some sort of mothering tendency within them, with the tendency being stronger in certain individuals more than others (Jung, 1972). The mother archetype stems from thousands of years of evolution favoring the matronly types, to the point where it is more of an instinct, or, as Jung describes it, a "spiritual demand." This is rather obvious to observe in Mother Theresa, not just because of her name, but because she acted as a mother, or at least a motherly figure, to just about everyone she met, especially the poor and impoverished. This also helps to explain her persistence in wanting to help others. Perhaps it is not simply that she is fueled by the needs of her id, but because she has a much deeper need to help others; a motherly need, that cannot be explained by simple good will.
Lastly, it is necessary to examine some theoretical approaches that help to further explain Mother Teresa's behavior and motivations. To that end, it is necessary to examine her from the behaviorist perspective. The behaviorist perspective is unique in that it posits that people are controlled entirely by their environment and are, in fact, mere products of the environment they are exposed to the most (Ewen, 1993). While it is easy to attribute Teresa's kindness and hard work as willingness to serve the church, or some other higher power, it is also possible to theorize that Teresa is a product of her environment. That is to say, she became such a devout Roman Catholic and missionary because that is the environment she was exposed to the most in her youth. For example, her mother exposed her to Roman Catholicism at an extremely young age, when children are most impressionable. While it would be foolish to attribute her career to simply being exposed to Catholicism once, it is hard to deny, using the behaviorist perspective, that it had at least some small effect on her. This concept can be expanded to apply to most things that happened to Teresa in her youth, such as her being fascinated by stories of the roving missionaries and their somewhat vagabond way of living. However, Teresa is unique in this respect because, from a behaviorist perspective, she was influenced almost solely by her environment in her early years, and virtually none at all after that. This proves that either the behaviorist theory has its flaws, or that it worked on Teresa very well and from a young age.
While it seems wrong to reduce Teresa's achievements and life works to mere psychological phenomena, it is true that there are numerous concepts in psychology that were acting on her on at least some level throughout her life, and, fortunately, they turned her into a wonderful role model and mother figure.
Clucas, J. G., & Schlesinger, A. M. (1988). Mother Teresa (Vol. 2). Chelsea House.
Ewen, R. B. (1993). An introduction to theories of personality. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Freud, S. (1954). The origins of psycho-analysis (p. 216). M. Bonaparte, & W. Fließ (Eds.). New York: Basic Books.
Jung, C. G. (1972). Four archetypes: Mother, rebirth, spirit, trickster. Routledge and K. Paul. 14-24.
Spink, Kathryn (1997). Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography. New York. HarperCollins.