By Abby Ellin, published on January 2, 2018 - last reviewed on January 2, 2018
Beverley Rice was lonely. She had a big career as a painter, tons of friends, and a penthouse apartment in Greenwich Village. But after a brief marriage in her 30s, she had spent the next few years attracted to "liars and psychopaths," she says, only half-jokingly.
Therapy had helped her make some serious shifts in the past, most notably to quit bingeing. Still, she couldn't crack the love thing. Eventually, she hit a breaking point. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life alone or chasing men who didn't want her. Something had to change, and she knew exactly what: She did.
She found a therapist with whom she clicked. With his guidance, she discovered that she had an enormous fear of losing her independence, that she needed to balance her desire for love with her "need to maintain myself in order not to feel trapped," she says.
It turned out she hadn't been ready for someone to treat her kindly. "All that BS about loving yourself internally—it's true," she observes. Coincidentally (or not), around this same time she went online and met a man—good, successful, kind—the sort of person she would once have run from. "I never thought I could have good, just good," she says. "I couldn't shake the past. My mother was sick, and she came first because of her sickness. She took the oxygen out of the room. My father was chasing women. I got lost in the shuffle. I lived in my tragic family."
With the therapist's help, she learned to open herself to a relationship that wasn't all fireworks but was still exciting. Until then, Rice "didn't think it was possible to have it all. I thought maybe I could have only one thing—a career but not love." Three years later, she's still in the relationship.
"Change is not magic," she says. "My therapist was tough, and I was ready for that. He said, 'I'm not here to stroke your good parts. We know what they are. I want to work on the shortcomings.' That's what we did. When the student is ready, the master arrives."
Here's the kicker: When the master arrived, the student was 71.
Who doesn't have something they want to perfect about themselves? No matter how happy they are, or how confident, there's always some element to be tweaked (more friendships, less self-doubt), if not overhauled altogether (eradicating anxiety, ending procrastination). At least 78 percent of people at every age from 18 to 70 (and probably older, but 70 was the age at which one large study stopped) say they want to change a fundamental aspect of themselves. They want to move toward the positive end of the Big Five personality traits—to be more open and extraverted, also more agreeable. Just about everyone (97 percent) wants to be more conscientious, and to feel more motivated.
Personality traits are defined as fixed patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving. Change is deemed a young person's game, notably for adolescence, when identity is most in flux. As William James declared in The Principles of Psychology, "In most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." Or to paraphrase Popeye: We yar who we yar.
Except James—and Popeye—were wrong.
As the pace of scientific and cultural change accelerates, we become ever more aware of the dynamic nature of life. Conveniently, research over the past decade has documented that we have the psychic stuff for it: Even the adult brain is plastic, its neurons ever able to forge productive alliances in response to new experiences and information. The emerging view of change encompasses personality traits, too—it is possible to change stripes at any age. Shifts may come more slowly later on, and age may naturally move us toward positive adjustment, but the updated axiom is that we have the capacity to alter even bedrock features throughout life.
That doesn't mean volitional change is easy. If it were, there wouldn't be an $11 billion self-help industry. Moving forward is not simply a matter of will. At some level, no matter how much we want or need to evolve, our current behavior patterns work for us even when they don't.
Perhaps even more, the desire to actuate our dreams taps deep existential fears. Chief among them is the fear of disappointing—oneself or others—by failing to meet a wanted goal. The prospect of change pitches us into a deep dialectic between hope, disappointment, and accountability. Even if we pierce the ambivalence enough to aim for a goal, we are outed for all time as the sole author of the life that lies ahead. Change, then, takes courage. Examining the tensions hidden within the desire for change carries sweet rewards: It smoothes the path to success—and may be the best measure of possibility and purpose in life.
"Change sucks," declares Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and the author of Smart Change. "The brain is a prediction engine. It wants to be able to predict what's happening in the future and then act accordingly, even with things that are bad for you. As soon as you make significant changes in how you do things, you no longer know how to predict what the outcome will be."
Whether it's a question of leaving an unsatisfactory relationship, increasing self-confidence, or reducing screen time, people have to be willing to struggle with themselves, says Lawrence Birnbach, a psychologist in New York City and Westport, Connecticut. "It's always an inside job." There's a choice between the comfort of the old way and the terra incognita of the new. However seductive the old pattern, taking that route, even by deferring action, kindles a sense of failure that spreads through the psyche and undermines future attempts to change.
"What I do is somewhat counterintuitive," Birnbach reports. "I accept people as they are, with their dilemma. What are the pros of changing, what are the cons? What gets in the way of changing? What feelings of frustration, discomfort, and discouragement arise? Who will I be if I change? Over time, a tipping point can be reached where the resistance to giving up the old habit can be overcome."
Ross Ellenhorn calls it "the paradox of disappointment." A sociologist and psychotherapist based in Boston and New York City, he has spent three decades helping patients with psychiatric symptoms develop the psychological strengths for living without hospitalization. His interviews with people at the extreme have given him insights into the mental mechanics of change that everyone grapples with. "A person who has made a prior effort and experienced a setback can become afraid of the very thing that motivates us the most: the hope that life will improve," he says. Hope can actually seem dangerous—a fast road to more failure and a threat to psychological security.
"When we attempt to change something for the better—become less judgmental, care less about what others think of us, boost self-esteem—we always risk disappointing ourselves if we can't achieve or maintain the change. Disappointment denotes the experience of a dream unreached—and it is awful; we call disappointment crushing for a reason. It forces us to recognize that we lack the power to realize our dreams."
Angel Wilson, 36, who works with autistic children in Los Angeles, always expected the worst in life. The glass wasn't half empty; it was totally empty. She wouldn't go after job opportunities because she didn't imagine she had a shot. Thinking negatively was a defense against hurt or disappointment.
"Shifting my thinking equaled being vulnerable in my eyes," she says. But her way of looking at life was hindering her happiness and success. At some point, "my desire to see more of the good in life and in people overrode the fear."
What breaks the deadlock and catalyzes change? Ellenhorn borrows from pioneering social psychologist Kurt Lewin the idea that we all exist in a field between forces that move us forward and those that push us back. "You either need to lighten the forces coming at you and keeping you in place or strengthen the forces that can move you forward," he says. "Or both." There's no one thing, no direct route. "There are a bunch of gears that can move, and if any of them shifts, we can move toward change."
On the strengthening side: Building faith in yourself. Boosting your mastery—at anything. Say you want to diet, says Ellenhorn. "Taking up the piano is actually a great thing to do. You're gaining a bit of mastery, and it generalizes in the psyche. It builds faith in yourself." Not all of the gears are strictly psychological. Some are social. The support of friends helps. Likewise falling in love. On the lessening side, the most primary is loosening the fear of disappointment. Having people around is good for that.
Ellenhorn considers taking an inventory essential—cataloging all the forces working against (and for) change. Most people beat themselves up for their problems, he points out. They make negative judgments that mire them in shame, possibly the greatest demotivator: "I'm a jerk for not losing weight." "I'm no good at doing this." He advocates looking at problems in a nonjudgmental way, seeing what purpose they serve. Often enough, they are attempted solutions to other problems, ways you have been protecting or nurturing yourself. "You understand, 'Oh, I was doing that for a reason,'" Ellenhorn says. Then it is possible to forgive yourself, freeing up the psyche for forward movement.
Each change a person makes testifies that she is accountable for the life ahead, says Ellenhorn. Accepting personal accountability for making life meaningful exposes our existential aloneness. It touches the core of our existence. But it also provides us with a strong sense of mastery, and the sense of being a master of your own life, that you can handle whatever it throws at you, is the best shot at security we ever get.
For years, Pete Harrison, 51, was angry at the world, which he was happy to let people know in no uncertain terms. "I have a wonderful side—I am fiercely loyal, a great problem solver," says Harrison, a real estate agent in New York City. "If someone is in crisis I will listen to every word. For a lot of people, I'm the first call if they kill someone." But he was also the guy who would yell at the store clerk when products he bought didn't work, who left vicious voicemails for his colleagues late at night.
To manage his anger, he turned to vodka and cocaine, which worked for a while: He was nice when he drank. He liked himself more. Although every so often he tried to quit, he always found his way back. But that made him feel like a failure, which made him stop trying to quit, which made him feel even worse.
"I was embarrassed by my own behavior," Harrison says. "I had so much anger, even drinking wouldn't solve it." On May 19, 2008, he took his last drink. That was the easy part. Then he had to figure out what the anger stemmed from. Ultimately, he had to learn how to channel it elsewhere.
He made a list of all the people he hated. "I had a grid of who I was angry at, why, what happened, how it made me feel, and what was my part in it," he says. "I had a lot of assholes in my life. Then I realized, I was the asshole. I saw how desperately I wanted recognition."
Growing up the youngest of four children, he often got lost in the crowd. As a gay son in an Irish Catholic family, the recognition he got was all for negative things. "I was always told I was wrong, I was bad," he says. "I felt shitty about myself. I had a real strong desire to prove I was right and that I was strong."
Today, he makes a conscious effort to be a "good person." He helps people cross the street. He sponsors others in recovery. He tips generously. "I am happier by being less angry and much more successful and productive at work because I can let stuff go."
If change takes courage, it also takes a plan. A plan serves as a blueprint for transforming intentions into actions. Want to change jobs, find a partner, be more forgiving? Cleaving any goal into actionable steps directs the considerable effort that is needed to bend behavior. Taking small, incremental steps toward a goal is exponentially helpful; the completion of each one unleashes the motivation to go on—it builds a sense of mastery.
"Someone might say, 'This year I want to be more fearless,'" explains Markman. "Great. So, what does that mean? You say, 'I'd like to get up in front of other people and give a talk without going weak at the knees.' Or, 'I'd like to be willing to meet new people without crawling into a hole.' You have to be specific. At that point you can start to create a plan for action. But until you get to a specific thing, you're paralyzed because there's no action to take."
Now a psychologist at Southern Methodist University, Nathan Hudson forged an interest in personality development while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Studies he conducted there helped establish that the vast majority of people want to change basic elements about themselves. And along with Chris Fraley, professor of psychology, he has probed just how people can do it.
Subjects were then randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half nominated traits they would like to change, wrote a brief essay each week envisioning what their changed selves would look like, and made small goals each week to help them attain their desired changes. The other half simply wrote about their existing personality traits each week.
After 16 weeks, those who wrote about goals had not only made significant personality changes but also reported gradual changes in their behavior that corresponded with the changes they wanted to make. Someone with a goal of being more open would report feeling more open.
The actual amount of personality change that took place was moderate. But the researchers didn't expect miracles in such a short time. Based on the progress that did occur, they expect the changes to compound over time, leading to permanent personality shifts.
Helping participants to set small, attainable goals that align their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with the desired traits facilitated change. "If someone wants to be more extraverted, for example, simply helping them take small steps to behave in an extraverted manner during their daily life can help," says Hudson. The trouble is, many people generate amorphous goals, such as "Be more sociable." The vagueness can actually undermine motivation. Daily checklists of highly specific behaviors that align with goals are particularly helpful. Aiming to become more extraverted, you get more out of "Did you start a conversation with someone today?" than "Are you a talkative person?"
Necessary as parsing goals into small steps is, it also holds a danger. "Breaking things down for someone who feels rotten about himself makes each unit feel like an insult," says Ellenhorn. Each step is a reminder of distance yet to go. That's where it's necessary to tinker with some gears—to reduce shame on the negative side and to add social support on the positive side.
We also gain power to reshape ourselves through circumstances we place ourselves in and social roles we assume. "Getting and staying married, holding down a satisfying job, being invested in and committed to your career, avoiding drug and alcohol abuse have all been shown to relate to positive changes in personality traits with age," says Brent Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.
Experiences and roles "serve as consistent presses for new patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors," explain Fraley and Hudson, and they promote the adoption of new identities. "It is the modified sense of self and the new patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior in and of themselves that eventually crystallize into enduring trait change." People who want to be more extraverted, for example, both modify their behavior to be more extraverted and begin to see themselves as more extraverted—and the two processes propel each other.
Small steps moved Angel Wilson, the teacher of autistic children, toward a positive outlook on her own life. Wilson engaged in a technique of cognitive behavioral therapy called thought stopping; she hit Pause whenever she felt a negative thought pop up and wrote the thoughts down in a notebook as soon as they arose. "There was something about seeing the thought in black and white that made it look rather silly compared to when it was just bouncing in my mind's echo chamber," she recalls. Over time, the negative thoughts dissipated.
She also took larger action, like applying for a new job. If she didn't hear from a prospective employer after an interview, she would call the company and ask what had happened. "Just taking that step made me feel better. Even if I didn't get the job, I felt good that I was proactive," she says.
She also encouraged friends and family to intercept whenever they saw her heading into a negative place or if they hadn't heard from her in a few days. She asked friends to force her to get out of the house and do things with them. "It was so much easier to just sit in negativity. But my friends wouldn't let me."
She learned that she, not a yogi or motivational speaker or self-help guru, was ultimately in charge. "You have to be willing to admit that it is you who are not doing all that you can for yourself, and that's a tough pill for many people to swallow."
Says Ellenhorn: "Enacting change, a person recognizes that she alone is the originator of things she has made happen in the past, of what she is making happen now, and of what she will make happen in the future."
It's possible to make fundamental changes in behavior —and even personality—at any age.
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