The novelist Norman Mailer wrote in The Deer Park that it’s a law of life, “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.” That’s true. But 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, evolving, in some way — for better or for worse. Many of us mental health professionals see that occur among our patients. Who we may “become” is being shaped and determined by who we are right at this moment; the kind of person we are inside; the qualities that we’re expressing in our daily life, relationships and aspirations.
It’s good to see some recent research that underscores our capacity to change and grow dimensions of our personality. It occurs from awareness of what we want to change or develop, and working hard to “practice” those aspects of ourselves in our personality.
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, “…at 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 to. It has the effect of pulling you towards it, drawing you towards expressing those qualities of yourself, like 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 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 diminish when the person attempts to serve another person in some way — which is a form of “growing” a dimension of personality. 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. This shows that letting go of preoccupation with your own self, or focusing on how others will perceive you, think about you or form assumptions about you, generates more positive expectations and behavior towards others. And that reflects growth of a new dimension of your personality.
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 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.
Blog: Progressive Impact
© 2015 Douglas LaBier