Research evidence has been mounting for some time that the concept of “personality” is not as well-defined as we have long tended to think. And the evidences also suggests that the patterns of behavior that define our personality are not nearly as stable or as set immutable as many still believe.
That all of us have a unique personality is generally without dispute. And by the currently accepted definition, our personalities are comprised of traits we innately posses, the ways we’ve learned to cope, and the habits of relating we’ve developed as a result of both of these factors. Our acquired habits prompt us to behave in some fairly predictable ways in a wide variety of situations, which is pretty much what defines our core personality “style.”
Sometimes our habitual ways of seeing and doing things (i.e. our personalities) can be a source of trouble for us and for others. This is the very definition of a personality or character disturbance or disorder. And, as I have asserted many times, for a variety of sociocultural reasons, character dysfunction has become the more dominant mental and behavioral health issue of our time. But many folks have their doubts about whether it’s even possible to do something about the problem. They wonder: Can we really change who we are?
There are many misconceptions about personality, character, and the nature of personality or character disturbances. Some believe our personality is strictly a product of our innate, biologically-based traits and predispositions. And others believe that even when someone makes a lot of outward changes in their behavior, it’s simply not possible for them to change the person they are are “inside” (i.e. the notion that “it’s impossible for a leopard to change its spots”). Holding these notions, many believe personality is simply not something you can modify. Abundant research, however, has been telling us differently.
Several factors contribute to how much our personalities might change over our lifetimes. Time, and the wisdom that often comes with time and experience, are two of those factors. How many of us think the same things, hold the same values, look at the world the same way, or even perceive ourselves at age 50 in the same manner we did when we were in our teen years? It seems the more we come to know about the world around us and the more we come to understand about ourselves, the more likely our opinions and attitudes about a whole host of things are to change. We might even look back on the person we were 20 or so years ago (e.g., we might reflect on the tattoo that’s still on our hip or recall that person we once thought hung the moon but now realize was a total creep) and say to ourselves: “What in the blazes was I thinking?!” That’s when we realize that over time, we actually have changed, both in our attitudes and in our behavior. So, we’re really not the same, even though to some degree we think of ourselves as the same person that we have always been at the core.
Perhaps the greatest variable affecting our ability and/or willingness to change our personality is the degree of comfort we have with ourselves as a person. Some of us have liked the person we have been from early on and see absolutely no reason to change anything about ourselves. Others have not only been “set in their ways” for a long time but also have grown increasingly and more stubbornly fixed in those ways as time progressed. So the question always to be asked is: Are we so content with ourselves as we are that we simply have no motivation to change? And as readers of my books know, one of the things that distinguishes the more seriously disturbed characters from their relatively “neurotic” counterparts is how content they tend to be with the kind of person they are, despite all the problems their ways of doing things cause.
Dozens of folks contact me every month who have read In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, or The Judas Syndrome and who see themselves as one of the characters depicted in those books. Some see themselves as one of the more “neurotic” personalities I depict. Others see themselves one of the more character-disturbed or disordered types. Most of all them ask the same questions, however: “Can I change?” and “If so, how do I go about it?” One of things I’m quick to point out to them in my reply is that merely asking such questions (which necessarily indicates the person is feeling some internal pressure to change) is a pretty good indicator that change is indeed possible for them, even though it will inevitably entail some hard work — perhaps even more work than they bargained for (For more on the work of change you might want to also visit a few of the articles I’ve posted on why gaining “insight” in therapy is almost never enough).
Changing one’s “stripes” doesn’t necessarily require getting professional help. What matters most of all is the desire to change and the willingness to confront and correct the dysfunctional thinking patterns and behavior patterns causing problems. Still, therapists who specialize in personality disturbances and therefore have a variety of “tools” at their disposal to facilitate the process change can come in quite handy when changing who you are is your agenda. While no one can simply will away their innate or more biologically-based predispositions, any of us can learn to modify the way we look at things and the manner in which we have habitually approached things. Confronting problematic attitudes and changing them, targeting old habits and modifying them, and reinforcing ourselves for every effort is the process by which we can indeed change the kind of person we have been. Sometimes, our biologically-based predispositions are so strong and influential that meaningful change is not possible without medications to assist us (as in the case of Borderline Personality Disorder, where the ability to self-regulate mood is not only impaired but also the cause of many problems in conducting relationships). But with sound cognitive-behavioral intervention and the help of appropriate medication when necessary, even some of the most dysfunctional personalities can be modified.
Having specialized in the assessment and treatment of personality dysfunction for a long time, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that change never comes easily and sometimes doesn’t come at all. For a variety of reasons, some personality dysfunctions are simply too severe and too intractable to be modified by any of the means presently available. But over the years I’ve borne witness to many genuine success stories, and I can say without hesitation that there’s nothing quite like being a part of someone’s personal transformation and character development. Sometimes, I’ve had to have the “patience of Job” in this process. It’s not uncommon for a more severely disturbed character to be completely “unprepared” (i.e., insufficiently internally motivated) for change at the same point in time that everyone else around them is desperate for things to be different. That never stopped me, however, from calling out the issues clearly and directly. And that’s why when life’s circumstances and a softening of a person’s heart finally led them to a greater openness to change, they sought counsel from the person who dared to confront their pathology honestly and who they therefore had come to believe they could trust to guide them.
You can find more information on this and related topics in my books and in the articles: Can Character Disorders Hit Bottom? Do They Ever Change?, Therapy and the Face of Real Change, and Top Question about Manipulators: Can They Ever Really Change?.
This Sunday night’s Character Matters program will be live, so calls can be taken. But the week after, I’ll be on the road and you’ll be hearing a rebroadcast of an earlier program.
Enough parties have expressed interest in participating in the planned fall webinar, so once the best platform is selected and the date firmly set, look for information to be posted about the program and advance registration.