Can I change my personality?
Breaking old habits is hard. It takes practice, persistence and patience. Naturally, when you get stuck, you start to doubt whether a change is possible. “Is it my personality that stops me from changing?”
The ‘Big Five’ personality traits
For many years, psychologists have explored something called personality traits. Although there are endless ways we might describe each other, the research suggests that we can organise our personality differences into five distinct categories:
- Negative Emotionality
Let’s break down these fancy words into something more easily relatable.
Extraversion refers to how out-going and energetic you are versus being quiet and reserved.
Agreeableness focus on your levels of compassion, respect and trust versus being uncaring or argumentative.
To be conscientious means to be hard-working and responsible versus being disorganised and easily distracted.
If you score high on negative emotionality, it means you tend to worry or have mood swings versus being more generally calm.
To be open-minded is to be curious and imaginative, whereas to be closed-minded means to be disinterested in abstract ideas or artistic expression.
What have we learned from personality traits science?
The ‘big five’ personality test is often used in recruitment because some studies show that being conscientious and emotionally stable predict better job performance.
Some studies have found that people’s personalities tend to be relatively stable across their lifespan. They suggest that ‘who you are when you are in your twenties is likely to be the same when you are much older’.
On the flip side, other studies suggest that our personalities often change with age claiming that people become more conscientious, emotionally stable and agreeable with age.
Questions also hang over the validity of stable personality traits within different populations. For example, it fits if you are western, educated, live in an industrialised country that is rich and democratic. However, for smaller communities outside this norm, the big five seem less relevant.
What is personality?
One way of describing personality is a “characteristic set of behaviours, thoughts, and emotional patterns that evolve from biological and environmental factors.”
We know that people are different from each other, but what are the causes of those differences? Are personality traits inherited, or are they altered from interactions with our environments? Or could it be both?
Can we judge personality separate from context?
There is no doubt in my mind that power structures, privilege and wealth heavily influence the life opportunities of many people. If you have white heterosexual male privilege (WHMP/ pronounced wimp), then you already have a head-start. If we reduce people’s lives down to personality traits and evaluate their success while discounting the broader social and political context, then I think we are fooling ourselves.
I am also a pragmatist, which means I am not especially interested in concepts that you can’t influence. In my work and as a psychotherapist, I focus on helping people to change. If it’s true that our personality traits are primarily fixed, then what does that say about what we can improve and what we cannot?
I believe that people are capable of a great many changes. Some habits are easy to break, and others have us banging our heads against the wall. With the right ingredients, we can transform our lives. I know this because I have seen it time and time again.
What are the key ingredients to change?
In my view, there are three vital components to making any behavioural change. We need the knowledge, the skills and the support.
To tackle a problem with anxiety, low mood, procrastination, self-esteem, relationships, or feelings of guilt and shame, you need to have the relevant information that teaches you what you need to address. Without accurate knowledge of what works, you can be overwhelmed with ideas, many of which will be unlikely to help.
Our evolution is flawed, which means that we need to learn how to handle our thoughts and emotions. We need to learn the relevant skills and to practise them again and again. Without repetition, you stay the same.
We need the support of other people too. As I’ve said, change is often complicated and we significantly increase our chances of success if we are surrounded by other people who can offer support, shared experience and determination.
If you want to find out how you score on the big five personality traits, take the test for free here. In the very least, you’ll entertain yourself for 15 minutes. At most, you’ll discover some ways of reflecting on your identity that will help.
Either way, be mindful that you don’t buy into the absoluteness of your results. They can describe you, and they are not your destiny.
If you want to change, I recommend directing your energy and effort into what you can control. Learn about the issue you wish to address, develop the skills that make a difference and don’t do it alone. Use the support of your friends, family and other communities. Everyone needs someone in their corner.