Can You Ever Really Change Your Personality?

10/01/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2016
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The novelist Norman Mailer wrote in The Deer Park, it's a law of life that "one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same."

So true, though many people believe that who you are - specifically, your personality - is fixed. In fact, much conventional thinking in psychology holds that our personalities remain constant.

But that's not accurate: We're always changing and evolving, in some way - for better or for worse. Many of us mental health professionals witness that occur among our patients. Keep in mind that who we may "become" is being shaped and determined by who we are right at this moment, by the kind of person we are inside; the qualities that we express in our daily lives, relationships and aspirations.

It's good to see some recent research that confirms our capacity to change and grow dimensions of our personality. Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to "practice" them in daily life.

One example: Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study that tested the degree to which people could "grow" a particular personality trait or quality over a period of 16 weeks. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the participants who desired to change some dimension of themselves did so, in contrast to those who displayed less interest. The researchers pointed out that the results were modest, but that they show, " the very least, people's personality traits and daily behavior tend to change in ways that align with their goals for change."

They explained that it's an unfolding process: "Goals led to changes in behavior, which led to changes in self-concept, which prompted more behavior change."

I think this highlights the importance of having a vision of your more "developed" self; some aspect or dimension of your personality that you aspire towards. That has the effect of drawing you towards expressing those qualities of yourself, like being pulled by a magnet.

Similarly, another study from the University of Manchester and the London School of Economics found evidence that people's personality can change to a significant degree over time. And, that even small changes lead to greater personal wellbeing - greater, even, than increases in money or career advancement.

The study, published in the journal Social Indicators Research, looked at the extent to which personality changed over a span of four years and how these changes related to life satisfaction. According to the lead author Chris Boyce, "We found that our personalities can and do change over time -- something that was considered improbable until now -- and that these personality changes are strongly related to changes in our wellbeing. Our research suggests that by focusing on who we are and how we relate to the world around us has the potential to unlock vast improvements in our wellbeing."

Even seemingly fixed traits like social anxiety are found to change when the person attempts to serve another person in some way. This study, published in Motivation and Emotion, found that engaging in acts that help or benefit other people helps alleviate anxiety. In effect, it found that doing good for others helps socially anxious people become more socially engaged, in positive, satisfying ways. Why might that be? Letting go of preoccupation with your own self; of focusing on how others will perceive you, think about you or form assumptions about you, generates more positive expectations and behavior towards others. And those are dimension of your personality that grow, as a consequence.

So what helps to consciously change and grow dimensions of your personality? Here are a few exercises worth trying:

  • Identify and list some qualities of yourself that you believe exist within you, but have remained underdeveloped or dormant, that you desire to strengthen and expand.

  • For each one, envision what it would look like if you did embody that quality in your personality in daily life - in your relationships, at work, in your emotional attitudes.

  • Describe that more broadened, expanded picture of yourself in a paragraph or two.

  • Reflect on what you need to do each day to strengthen that dimension or dimensions of yourself, like strengthening a new muscle. Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.

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