Walk up to a random stranger, or even close friend or coworker, and ask this simple question — “if you could change one thing about your personality, what would it be?” After the initial shock of intrusion wears off, or the stranger calls the cops, they’ll probably answer quickly and with blunt honesty.
Full disclosure — I’m a people-pleaser and it often infringes on my own happiness. I’ll go out of my way to make anyone, even a new acquaintance, happy by adhering to their every request. Even if the request makes me fucking miserable. I’d kill for the ability to just say “no.”
During my admission, your own personality fault likely swam around inside your head. You’re not alone, obviously, as millions of people struggle daily with why they do the things they do. Almost since birth, every humans has struggled with the inner puppeteer pulling the strings.
What Is Personality?
Whatever the reason for our own personality traits, they serve a specific purpose. Lena Aburdene Derhally, a licensed professional counselor, explained in a piece on Psych Central that “our old habits, even if they’re unhealthy, may help us avoid shame, unhappiness or hurt.” I’m pleasing people because one time, lord knows when, I didn’t please someone and it ended up effecting me negatively. Now, I’m constantly trying to make others happy in an effort to right past wrongs.
Published in 1890, The Principles Of Psychology by American psychologist William James explains that all humans exhibit four traits — stream of consciousness, emotion, habit and will — with those traits combining to guide our personalities. The last two traits seem to be the clashing cousins, especially in our day-to-day lives, as habit tends to trump will in most instances. For example, the will is there to become a better listener or to take work more seriously but habit, doing what we’ve always done, causes people to zone out mid-conversation or slack off when the boss is gone for the day.
James, dubbed “The Father of Psychology”, also believed that as humans age, their ability to change their personality was more unlikely. In a line straight from Principles, James decrees “By the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again but new research might prove that perhaps sometimes father doesn’t always know best.
A Change Is Coming
Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley, psychologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studied 135 undergrads and asked them to complete online tests and surveys focusing on personality traits. The researchers asked how the students would change their personality, if they could. For 16 weeks, students re-took the personality test each week and the key finding of Hudson and Fraley was that “students who said they wanted to change a particular trait tended to display more change in that trait, in the desired direction, than other students.”
The duo also uncovered another interest nugget in their research — students were more successful in changing their personality when they gave themselves specific actions to elicit change instead of vague instructions on behavior. For example, if a student wrote down they wanted to “be more outgoing in social situations”, instead of using that specific command they’d amend it to laser focus on a behavior like “walk up to a stranger at a party and introduce yourself.”
This fascinating finding coincides with the work of psychology lecturer at the University of Cambridge, Brian Little. Little has done extensive research in these areas and is the author of Me, Myself And Us: The Science Of Personality And The Art Of Well-Being. Little explained to NY Mag that, as James pointed out all those years ago, some personality traits are just in our DNA and changing them is impossible, however, a human does have the ability to control their own behavior (remember free will?) and push back against genetic traits. “The general idea is that, no, we are not victims of our circumstances, of our genes — we can freely choose how we behave, to a certain extent.”
Personality Change: Is It Possible?
Based on all of the above, here are three simple steps to take to alter a personality trait. You might not be able to beat it completely but you can take steps to control it.
Identify The Specific “Issue” –– Just as the students had to be specific with the way in which they’d attack each perceived personality flaw, it’s best to drill down to the core issue internally. So in my case, instead of saying “I want to stop being a people pleaser” I would have to find a specific moment or trend in which my people pleasing brings the most inconvenience. “I have to stop agreeing to feed and walk my neighbor’s dog every time she’s away because I end up changing my own weekend plans to just to around for her dog.”
Choose The Specific Course Of Action — As the students learned, be specific as possible in the how you’ll react when the situation presents itself. For example, when my neighbor asks me to feed her dog, I’ll say “no, I have plans” even if I don’t have plans or just flat out say “no, I won’t have time.”
Review Daily — Each day, review your course of action and rate how well/poorly you did. It’s important to note you won’t ALWAYS be successful but if you take baby steps towards change eventually it will become easier and almost an afterthought. Case in point, I’m taking care of a dog all weekend.
While it might not be possible to completely overhaul your modus operandi, there are measurable steps that can be taken to adjust your personality to live a better life.