Can I change my personality?
It’s a fascinating question. Are you hoping to alter a habit but not sure you can? Do you wish you found it easier to control your emotions?
Breaking old habits is hard. It takes practice, persistence and patience. You start to doubt whether a change is possible when you get stuck. “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 outgoing and energetic you are versus being quiet and reserved.
Agreeableness focus on your levels of compassion, respect and trust versus being uncaring or argumentative.
Conscientious means being hard-working and responsible versus being disorganised and easily distracted.
If you score high on negative emotionality, 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 predicts better job performance.
Many studies have found that people’s personalities are relatively stable across their lifespans. They suggest that ‘who 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.
Questions also hang over the validity of stable personality traits within different populations. For example, it fits if you are western, educated, and live in an industrialised country that is rich and democratic. However, the big five seem less relevant for smaller communities outside this norm.
What is personality?
Personality is a “characteristic set of behaviours, thoughts, and emotional patterns that evolve from biological and environmental factors.”
We know that people are different, but what are the causes? 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), 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 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, 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?
I believe 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 to address. Without accurate knowledge of what works, you can be overwhelmed with ideas, many of which will unlikely help.
Our evolution is flawed, so we must learn how to handle our thoughts and emotions. We need to understand the relevant skills and practise them repeatedly. 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 surrounded by others 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. At the very least, you’ll entertain yourself for 15 minutes. At most, you’ll discover ways to reflect 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.