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Personality Change

Can We Change Our Nature?

Whether we change naturally, or only with effort, is highly debatable.

Key points

  • Presently, there’s consensus that both nature and nurture complement each other to determine your identity.
  • Given that as a child your natural tendencies have yet to stabilize, they can’t be confirmed until later.
  • If you’re an introvert and try to refashion yourself as an extrovert, you’ll probably fail and be miserable.
  • Various psychological problems can result from your unwittingly over-adapting to environmental influences.
Garten-gg, artist/Unsplash free image
From bug to butterfly: Change or Evolution?
Source: Garten-gg, artist/Unsplash free image

Personality and Personality Change

Defining the complex concept of personality has always been problematic. It’s even more difficult to distinguish traits core to your personality from features of personality relating to your development or evolution—terms often used interchangeably with genetic personality change.

Curiously, however, dictionaries don’t include either of these terms as synonymous with change. So just what’s going on here?

As furnished by Psychology Today staff, here’s one of the more “workable” definitions of personality:

Personality refers to a person’s distinctive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It derives from a mix of innate dispositions and inclinations along with environmental factors and experiences.

But the key question is whether what’s innate, namely the DNA of your temperament and constitution, is nonetheless heavily influenced by conditions you’re subject to—that is, after you emerge, intra-personally, from the womb and get cast, interpersonally, into the wide world which now envelops you.

Which returns us to the age-old nature vs. nurture controversy. And presently there’s consensus that both phases complement each other to determine our identity. Another way of putting this is that nature works through nurture, so what’s inherited only partly explains how we ultimately turn out.

Dr. House of the long-running TV series takes this position: "People don’t change, they just become more of who they really are."

Initially, such a statement sounds credible enough. You don’t change as such but rather grow older, and as you mature your inborn tendencies crystallize. So it could be said that paradoxically you “grow into” your innate personality. Given that as a child your natural tendencies have yet to stabilize, they can’t be corroborated or confirmed until later.

All the same, many times these tendencies don’t evolve according to your nature because of such aversive factors as disturbing parental deficiencies, serious bullying experiences, and traumas that can alter indefinitely your perception of yourself and reality.

So in a sense you can lose touch with who, by nature, you were created to be. And, through the vagaries of your interpersonal and sociocultural environment, you can get not shaped but re-shaped into becoming a person deviant from the “dictates” of your genes. After all, your genes alone don’t possess any self-determining agency.

Heritable and Developmental Change

These two kinds of change, separate from one another, have historically gotten entangled in personality literature. Yet it should be noted that for a change to approach the level of temperament or constitution, it should be distinguishable from what’s best described as environmentally-caused alterations in cognition, emotion, and action.

Since as you grow older your sophistication of how the world operates at once expands and becomes more refined, it’s in virtually everyone’s nature to modify their primal view of existence. And that’s really a function of evolution rather than change. In short, what started out as purely internal for you shifts on the basis of messages received (or perceived) from sources best viewed as external.

This is, prudently, how you adapt—not how you alter—essential traits you were born with. Nonetheless, many deep-seated psychological problems result directly from what we might call your over-adapting to environmental forces.

Introversion and Extroversion: Unwittingly Violating Your Nature

Let’s take the inherited characteristics of introversion and extroversion. Over the years, I’ve seen many clients who, having taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), clearly identified themselves as introverts. But regardless of how much they were aware of it, they had a strong desire to be extroverts, assuming that such a metamorphosis would make them happier and more secure.

In every instance what was in order was for them first to fully accept (if not celebrate) their introversion—as not constituting some weakness or genetic inferiority. And if they experienced loneliness, because by nature they were more inclined to pursue solitude than socializing), a major task in therapy was to help them develop better, more comfortable and less conflictual social skills.

Added to this, I’ve also worked with extroverts who were depressed because, even without realizing it, they were living a life of introversion. Without doing enough socializing, they felt empty, uncared-for, and unfulfilled. In these instances, what was needed was to explore the issues that prevented them from living an existence more in keeping with their extroverted nature.

The point here is that it wasn’t that they required a personality transplant but that they needed to examine what circumstances in their life induced them to shut down and close themselves off to others, as well as how they might resolve the issues prompting their acquired (vs.heritable) isolating tendencies.

How, Deliberately, to Modify or Revise Your Innate Personality

Although researchers studying personality traits now agree on their general stability, they believe, too, that they’re subject to both major and minor alterations, And that this revamping can happen all across one’s lifespan—surprisingly, and for various reasons, old age included.

Such “amendments” to what once would have come naturally to you can get actualized either through different environmental influences, where you’re relatively passive, or through painstakingly planned interventions, where you’re much more actively engaged in targeting what you want to change.

Much self-help literature—maybe even the majority of it—is devoted to effecting behavioral change. In the end, executing this change has considerably less to do with the desire to change than the mindfulness, motivation, and courage required to make such personality revisions your new, and enduring, reality.

One thing you can pretty much count on is that making significant alterations in your personality will necessitate your moving out of your comfort zone. Why? Simply because doing something that departs from old survival programming (however outdated, defensive, and inappropriate) immediately results in increased anxiety.

Therefore, your motivation to change must outweigh any (largely irrational) anxiety lurking inside you that’s paired with such change. If, as the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns famously put it, “the best-laid schemes o’mice and ’men/Gang aft agley [i.e., often go awry], then it will help you not to ignore your anxiety but become aware of it and accept it—but not be swayed by its fearfully avoidant messaging.

One can question his wording, but no doubt American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had it right when he wrote, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

© 2024 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.


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