Can We Change our Personality?

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.

17 thoughts on “Can We Change our Personality?

  1. Spsthtard contacted me recently, the first time since it was O V E R. In just a few short minutes I could confidently say, nope! Same old same old, he hadn’t move forward one inch. Idiot.

    In regards to my own personality, I have a set of three baby pictures that used to hang framed on my parents bedroom wall. When I look at my expressions in those three pictures of my at about age 1, I see myself now. Having spent such a huge part of my life drinking, I feel like I am back to the real me and in the process of recapturing that person I had to go through some really painful emotions to get there. I’m almost positive that is what my drinking was mostly about, not that it ever gave me a complete escape from my emotions, but I do think it enabled me to avoid the deepest and most primal ones. Those are the ones that got kicked out of the closet via Spathtard and there I was without my usual escape route.

  2. Oh Puddle, Am so happy for you! I hope to get there too, one day. What was the most crucial element for you that facilitated change, do you think?

    1. LisaO, Honestly?? I would have to say self respect. It just finally hit me that I was just WAY too old for this nonsense! You know how they talk about “aging gracefully”? I think part of that concept is accepting that you are aging and it’s time to leave some of the toys in the sandbox. My identity was so tied in with being a partier………for SO long, decades!
      I really can’t point to one thing LisaO because it is so multifaceted and I’m still a little in shock? Like, really?? ME? I don’t drink?? unreal. But here’s the thing…….it’s a weird feeling because there is still a part of me that wants to drink, no doubt about it, but now I see that I can’t. It’s strange. It reminds me somewhat of how I felt about Spathtard at one point, before I had kicked it 100%. I was still listing towards wishing it could all be different but when I thought about it and tried to picture us “together” again, it just wouldn’t come together in my mind. I knew it was over, he could never ever be what he was to me again but I still wanted it. Drinking is kind of like that for me now sometimes.

      1. Puddle I know what you mean, by still wanting them in your life but knowing it can’t happen. That holds the deep sadness in my life, what I hoped for is all gone and can never be retrieved. It’s all over. That shows how our own personalities change, the environment wasn’t suited to us to allow us to grow. They can’t grow, they’re stunted in their own belief systems as warped as they are, it doesn’t work for them but they don’t see the need to change.
        Such a loss is hard to come to terms with but at the same time pushing through it builds something more. I can identify with the party girl scenario, so much of that was me at one time. What an unsustainable role that is, we all get older and oh it was fun at the time but caused me more problems in the end than it was worth…hence the CD in my life. Funny thing is now I am looked upon as too serious…oh how the penny flips over! I am searching for a balance and haven’t found it just yet but it has got to come from within me not some outside influence. It all takes time to recover your own personality or the new one that is waiting to build…at least we are open to that!

        1. Tori, Very well put. You just never know where the influence to change will come from, what the event or person will be that will spur you on initially. I choke on the words that Spathtard was indirectly just such a motivation for me but indirectly he was. Initially what kept me from drinking was knowing that if I did I would more than likely contact him and it would be the same old same old. BUT, ultimately up to you to take the ball and run with it and develop that into what it becomes, for me it is 3 years + sobriety and two+ years NC with him except for what he has initiated. Yeah, it’s hard at times but who says it, or anything worth having, shouldn’t be. Something with having is worth working for and going the extra mile to have.

        2. Tori, that part was sad for me too, wanting whst you know you absolutely will never have again. That part was a process for sure but the first part of that process felt like almost s panic attack to me or something weird. Just so bizarre that I felt that for someone I will never even allow to talk to me ever again.

          1. Yeah Puddle it has set me back, I feel very much in an emotional quandry. A lot of confusion has resurfaced, I find myself worrying about him. I can’t seem to push it away. There is absolutely no way I will go back or be his rescuer or anything like that but I feel scared that I will hear something awful everyday. I am not happy at all he’s in this state, it was better when I was discarded for another happy family that I thought he’d aquired. Should have known that would never last and now it’s like a haunting that won’t go away.

          2. Tori, remember…..you can call the police if you really think he is going to harm himself. You have the proof in your correspondence withe him.

    2. LisaO, maybe the most critical element is desire. That’s kind of glue that holds all the different elements together and the thing I return to when I feel a serious urge to party it up. Plus the writing was on the wall, clock ticking……it was just a matter of time before something bad happened, I was on borrowed time.

  3. My sister, borderline personality sweetheart, and I were very close for 10-15 years, then she was clearly upset with me but would not talk or try to work it out with me. She finally did one last mean thing, it got me into therapy, which has been the greatest gift of my life. Now the rest of the DNA packets falling in line behind her is painful, but they’re not worth much either apparently. I rejoice in that mean thing. So if Spath was the impetus to get you to stop drinking, then, to me, it is a good thing. I wanted CD to be something he was not and did not ever want to be. I guess I needed to be kicked in the behind a lot before I was ready to wake up to the reality. One, that he is a low life lying sob who played me, and I let him, for decades. Two, and even better, I am a worthy and beautiful person, much more than he deserved. Any feelings I had had for him were seeping away as I tried desperately to keep that marriage together. I still have difficulty with saying I am divorced, it feels like I’m a quitter, I didn’t keep a commitment. I’d rather go to a real jail than to have to spend an hour in the prison that living with him was. That he could lie so easily sickens me. So, when you look at the real Spath, or your personal CD, Tori, do you love that person? Or is it that you love what you thought you had in the beginning? I’m not sure why either of you would want them in your life. Tori, what have you lost that you will never have again? Maybe because my marriage was crap from the start, but I am so done with him. Yes, I struggle with the pain and confusion that comes when the I started connecting the dots. We were back in court and my anxiety was through the roof. Tori, do you know anyone who knows him and could check on him? CD offered me a cash settlement, then reneged, telling his attorney he would kill himself before I got any of his money. What a great gift to your kids, especially the one who struggles with guilt every day. Tori, obvi, I don’t know what your CD is saying, but could he be trying to play you?

    1. Lulu you ask some good questions. I don’t know exactly what I feel for him. I know I don’t hate him, even though I should. I don’t like him as a person. For some reason I do care for him on some level, or maybe it’s just that old I hate someone feeling that desperate. He knows that and yes, I believe he is playing me but on a good level at least he has finally spoken to his son. That has made me feel better because it makes my son happier. I’ve worried so much about his emotional wellbeing, I don’t even want to think about how it would feel to have a parent completely ignore you. (Actually I do know) but this is a little different.
      I’ve considered it’s that old familiarity you fall into the pattern, so I need obviously to work on that so I can completely cut off from his emotional abuse. I was in love with that man even though I was terrified of him, that is the strangest place to be in and it does not make sense. I don’t feel that anymore but there’s an emotional connection nonetheless and I need to severe that one completely. That will come I know and this little episode will be just another step toward that!
      Lulu I too have problems with admitting that I am not married any longer…is it that we took our vows seriously? I really believed in marriage, the for better or worse and til death do us part bit. I don’t any longer. Eighteen months separated feels like a long time but it isn’t in the emotional realm. I am glad I have compassion but I do need to err on the side of caution and not let it overtake me.

    2. Hi Lulu, from my perspective now I would have to say that the longing stage is multi faceted but a huge part of that phase is a form of withdrawal like you go through with addiction. These entanglements are very addictive, hooking you on a very primal level, an addiction they do everything to establish and continue. I’ve kicked the habit now, both Spathtard and drinking but there were many steps from there to here. Hugs to you Lulu!

  4. And hugs to you, Puddle and Tori.
    To me, hate only hurts me so I don’t hate him. I could feel sorry for him if he had not been so relentlessly cruel to me (and who cares about that in the legal system?) and, worse uncaring about what his endless rants about me were doing to “our” sons. I use ” because he was was never really involved in their lives until they were old enough to be drinking poker playing buddies. I don’t think that qualifies you to be called Dad. How could he be so callous about how the breakup of this family affected them?
    When we separated for the third and final time, after 35 years of marriage, every caring feeling I’d ever had for him had been drained out of me. Then I was blindsided and dumbfounded by the things he started doing. To me and my sons. Debilitating anxiety. Which I still feel when I have to deal with yet another legal matter about him. Four years this month.
    Tori, I do take commitments of any kind very seriously. I am also not a quitter. Both of those traits connect strongly for me with the word divorce. I have always been able to figure out a way to get something to happen. And I will work for as long and as hard as I need to, I’ve always been successful until then. I feel like I failed. Yes, it takes two, I get that to a point, but this has felt somewhat like a personal defeat. Flip side: I also wonder what it was/is about me that made me stay so long. Not blame-y, more curious.
    It wasn’t until I got on this site that I could begin to understand my utter confusion. Why he was still so upsetting to me.
    I think we are all extremely caring, sensitive people, that’s what makes us such great victims. In my mind, the good times depicted our marriage, when it was clearly the covert, manipulative power game that i was unwittingly playing. Our flaw (or maybe just mine) is always expecting that people have good intentions.

    1. Lulu, how could you not expect that people have good intentions unless you have learned first hand that not all of them do? It’s one thing to hear or read about bad people and I have encountered done personally but this goes so far out of the ball park that I was sitting in there is no way I could have prevented it. I didn’t even understand most of it till it was over and I still don’t claim to fully understand it! Lol!
      You answered your own question about why you stayed so long, confusion? It’s a powerful tool when used on someone who has never been through this.

      1. Lulu, I don’t Hate Spathtard either. I find him repulsive enough that I don’t even have to go there. It’s funny how he can’t even generate a feeling of hatred in me and never did they are so far out of the box that even typical words and feelings don’t exactly apply.

  5. Lulu,

    Does it help you now, knowing that nothing you could have said or done would have changed anything? His problem is a non-caring personality with zero incentive to change? Narcissists, so I have read, use the strengths of their victims against them. One of those traits, (I have also read) is making and keeping commitments, regardless of circumstances.

  6. Yes, LisaO, it does help, at least intellectually, that I could not have done anything that would have changed anything. What it is it about the sow’s ear and a silk purse? Keeping commitments is an integral part of more core so in that way it is still somewhat of a nag. If I take 1/2 second to think about it rationally, I know that I was close to the point of being broken, of crawling into bed and not being able to get back out.
    I love your image, Puddle, so far out of the ballpark. Incomprehensible until you are out and are lucky enough to stumble upon a warm, loving group like this to help you put the pieces of the puzzle together.
    While I feel so fortunate, there is also an element of sad, to have this place for warmth and support. People I’ve never met, yet make me feel so understood and cared about. My charming “family” has struck yet again. One of my nieces has tried so hard for so long and is now pregnant! I had infertility struggles as well, so I am overjoyed. Yesterday I got an email “save the date” for a baby shower for her which was also sent to aunts, sisters-in-law, and a cousin. It was one of those fake invites that I’m supposed to graciously turn down. If I accept, my sister, the charming borderline, will go off into an endless rant, so to appease her, I will be told just kidding, you really can’t come. She is the one with the problem, she is the one who will make everyone miserable AND she is the one who is placated. No one will stand up to her to say if you don’t like Lulu being here, stay home. Stop yapping about this, I don’t want to hear you bad mouth Lulu any more. But no, it is always her way. I don’t think I need to tell you how very deeply that cuts.

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