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How to Polish Your Personality

Most people recognize the need to tweak various facets of their personality, and it’s entirely possible to do so. Change starts with a critical assessment of your traits and whether they work well for you—or don't.

Ryan McVay/Getty Images. Illustration by Ed Levine
Ryan McVay/Getty Images. Illustration by Ed Levine

Every one of us is endowed with a personality, an assemblage of more or less stable traits that consistently influence how we move through the world and, often, our success in it. Yet many people know more about their cars and how they operate than about themselves. They have but a vague sense of their personality traits and how to use them to achieve their goals in life.

Of course, our own characteristics can be difficult to recognize. And when they are less than flattering or lead to difficulties in living, they can be painful to consider. But most personality traits are not binary, either good or bad. Agreeableness is not a positive quality when it manifests as people-pleasing, setting aside one’s own important needs to avoid conflict or incurring the displeasure of others.

With few exceptions—namely, the extremes of sadism, psychopathy, and emotional instability (neuroticism)—most personality traits and personal characteristics can be either healthy or unhealthy, used adaptively to move you toward your goals, or maladaptively, posing problems that tend to recur.
It is a fact that most people want to change their personality for the better. Psychologists Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley found that, on the low end, 87 percent of people expressed a desire to be more extroverted. More than 97 percent wanted greater conscientiousness, and to roughly the same degree, most desired to change other personality traits as well.

The same researchers also showed that it is possible to consciously change personality traits. Changing oneself is a daunting prospect under the best of circumstances, and having some form of guidance is a must. After identifying their own personality traits and what they wanted to change, people were able to move forward by setting goals, identifying specific behaviors they wanted to change, working on those behaviors, and assessing themselves at regular intervals.

To navigate the facets of yourself you like and those you wish to improve, an up-to-date model of your unique personality structure is critical. How singular versus multifaceted are you? How secure versus insecure? How clear is your sense of who you really are, your sense of self?

Whether it's thinking style, emotional intelligence, or quality of self-control, any one personality feature can be adaptive or maladaptive, depending, in part, on what’s going on around you. It can be helpful to see how personality can be shaped in healthy or unhealthy ways by looking at familiar dilemmas that people face. Let’s start with Tom.

Known for his brilliance, and directness, Tom was often praised for saying what needed to be said but was painfully aware that people found him abrasive at times. Like everyone, he knew that emails and text messages lose a lot in translation, and he thought he couched candor with tact, but he was confused when what he saw as a straightforward request of a colleague was received as having a “hostile tone.”

A computer engineer with C-suite aspirations, his tendencies to worry, to be overly conscientious, to feel comfortable without a lot of human contact, and to focus on the excellence of his work had allowed Tom to succeed. He was also a family man who valued his friendships. Although deep down he was warm and caring, he sometimes dispensed with the effort to connect the emotional dots he thought others ought to be able to easily follow. Displays of warmth and empathy just didn’t feel natural to him—although he was fairly extroverted in other ways, often enjoying the company of people and the excitement of socializing. Having been raised in a family short on parental warmth, he’d grown up priding himself on his stoicism. If someone hurt his feelings or displeased him, he often pretended that it didn’t matter and moved along as if nothing had happened.

Still, he suspected that the same characteristics that got him this far were also holding him back. Very specifically, he couldn’t resolve the cognitive dissonance between his sense of caring and being perceived as hostile. When he saw that others were misinterpreting him, Tom tended either to let things slide—while feeling resentful and victimized, leading to conflict—or to react too defensively, which created problems. He began to see these responses as failures of his own ability to govern himself when stressful situations exposed his own personality foibles. Having better people skills, he suspected, would help him manage others more effectively.

As someone with a high degree of self-awareness, Tom was able to rattle off his personality strengths: conscientiousness, especially a sense of responsibility and drive toward achievement; a strong moral compass; strong executive function in terms of overall intelligence, memory, and openness to new experience; being a good listener who could contain himself even when he knew he had something to say—and amaze people by remembering every detail needed for completing a project.

The inventory of strengths gave Tom insight into the challenges—to not just cultivate but to display warmth and gregariousness with others, things he once cut short. Tom made a specific point to voice appreciation to colleagues and staff, noticing and complimenting good work and helpful acts, and expressing his enjoyment at being in their presence. He'd always liked working as a team, but he gained the added pleasure of knowing that his intentions would be understood and his actions appreciated, useful, and heartfelt.

Sally faced a serious dilemma about her best friend, Molly. She had spotted Molly’s husband, Desmond, in intimate conversation with another woman. Desmond had cheated before he and Molly were married, and even after they wed, but Molly had always hoped for the best. Sally, for her part, was always quick to dismiss her own suspicions; she never wanted to upset others. Still, she was pretty sure Desmond was straying again. She struggled whether to say anything to Molly and how she might say it.

A good person with a strong sense of ethics and fairness, Sally also knew what a healthy relationship looked like—she had been raised in one. It wouldn’t work just to declare that there was a problem; she knew Molly couldn’t take that in.

Besides, she didn’t want to hurt her feelings too much. As conscientious as Sally was, so was she agreeable and prone to worry. That trio of traits had made it hard for her to speak her mind at times when she felt she should. She could be quick to see the negative fallout of stating her views and felt reluctant to confide her concern out of fear that she might be blowing up her friend’s marriage for no reason—or the friendship.


Sally was at war with herself. Her sense of duty—a facet of conscientiousness—and her sense of doing the right thing convinced her that she must say something to Molly. But as deeply ingrained as these traits were and as much as they were a source of healthy pride, they were counterbalanced by too much of a guilty tendency to fear hurting other people, even though she knew that Desmond was the real villain.

After a great deal of inner debate and reflection, Sally came up with a plan to discuss her concerns with Molly in a way that was most tolerable. It was a big step, taking the emotional risk of alienating her friend. Being agreeable, she tended to be compliant and tender-hearted. Overworrying made it easy for her to imagine she was hurting people by sharing concerns—an adaptive trait in many work and personal settings, and a trait that made her a valuable team member. But it got in her way when she needed to be more assertive and risk what she assumed would make others feel bad.

Personality traits can be in balance with one another or out of balance with one another. It’s more adaptive for personality traits to be in balance—for example, agreeableness and conscientiousness aligned in order to speak up when you need to, without being silenced by fear of the other person’s reaction. Agreeableness is not especially useful in the face of a problem that necessarily will evoke upset in others. At the extreme, it blurs into submissiveness, which can set the stage for being abused. There are times, however, when agreeableness adds great value to human experience. It certainly makes for great teamwork.

Life demands flexibility, and that requires development of self-governance. Specifically, everyone needs the capacity for cognitive agility, the ability to switch back and forth between different parts of personality as situations require.

Recently promoted into the executive leadership of a humanitarian aid organization, Joan was acutely aware of personal challenges ahead. She had a strong vision of the organization’s mission and goals and intuitively understood how to reach them. And while she was good at mentoring those who worked under her, it was more difficult for her to bring others into her vision and help them to map out the specific steps required to achieve it. She knew she had a tendency to expect perfection from others as well as from herself, a tendency to take things too personally and to take too long to get over minor slights.

One day, in spite of planning to keep her cool during what she knew would be a difficult meeting, she found herself “losing it.” A tendency to get easily frustrated had served her well in the past; it spurred her to action when something wasn’t to her liking. But now, as an executive, and a conscientious one, she felt she needed to show more emotional aplomb. She felt she needed to strive to let her team move through meetings without being interrupted by her reactivity. She was bothered that she wanted others to keep their cool when she couldn't.

Joan was ready to take on the challenge of leadership even if she wasn’t entirely sure she’d find success. After all, getting promoted is just the beginning. She knew her strengths: being deliberate, achievement oriented, and having a strong sense of duty—all facets of conscientiousness. But detail oriented she was not, and that sometimes confused those who worked under her. They felt she needed to be more authoritative with them and spell out exactly what she expected of them. She worried that she was too intrusive—until she realized that, rather than feeling worse when she detailed what they needed to do, they felt relief. Not everyone enjoys autonomy as much as Joan; they wanted to make sure they were not messing up.

Her overworry about negative outcomes may not have benefitted her relationship with staffers, but it had served her well on the way up, in planning, in foreseeing risks. For example, when she noticed other organizations were going after the same contracts, she could swiftly analyze what those competitors were doing and take action to secure the win. Risk-aversion, researchers know, is associated with creativity—it takes a certain amount of imagination to envision all the ways things could go sideways.

Self-help books and psychotherapy helped Joan harness her automatic maladaptive reactions. Instead of operating strictly on a fear of what might go wrong, she made an effort to imagine positive outcomes and work intentionally toward them. When she lost her cool, she avoided obsessional worry. Gradually, she let go of perfectionistic concerns that nothing is ever good enough, while continuing to strive for excellence.

She put extra effort into meeting agendas. She strove to make clear to her direct reports what she wanted and when she wanted it. And knowing that she could get derailed in heated discussion, she practiced mindfulness to center herself before difficult meetings. When things didn’t go well, she would not only reflect on what didn’t work but itemize what she would do differently the next time. She made a conscious effort to identify positive future outcomes.

Alezander Spatari/Getty Images
Alezander Spatari/Getty Images

Shelly found a lot of personal satisfaction in business relationships, which often involved socializing with clients. This usually worked out fine, but when one of them wasn’t paying her bill, Shelly was paralyzed, caught between knowing she deserved to be paid and not wanting to offend the client. She let the situation drag on until it was eating her up, throwing her off her game, and making her question herself. Why couldn’t she address a straightforward problem?

But things were rarely straightforward for Shelly. She tended to see things as either/or. Her friend was either a friend or a businesswoman. She had trouble with the idea that the friend was both, a blurry boundary to manage. A lack of cognitive flexibility often got Shelly stuck in resentment and feeling victimized.

Her tendency toward hostility and feelings of vulnerability—prominent facets of trait neuroticism—bumped up against a sense of duty, a desire to be competent, and a strong sense of fairness, heightening the inner conflict. Shelly resented being put in the position of having to ask a friend for money. Her friend tended to avoid discussion of the matter and played up their friendship when they did connect.

Financial issues were especially supercharged for Shelly. Success was a matter of survival. She’d grown up poor, with six siblings, and money took on heightened importance; she faced a stark choice—make it big or end up destitute. Conscientiousness, along with intelligence, had carried her to professional and personal success, but now it was hindering her.

The situation required her to speak to the friend candidly, clearly, and calmly, then make sure the check didn't bounce. She needed to separate finances from friendship and set better boundaries. Instead, Shelly wrote emails she never sent, worrying about ruining the relationship if she insisted on getting paid.

Eventually, Shelly leveraged the same conscientiousness that made money issues such a struggle and applied it to self-awareness. She took a hard look at herself and saw the deep roots of her difficulty. She didn’t berate herself for her failure, she did something far more adaptive—she acted to remedy it, by seeking guidance from others on how to speak to the friend.

Instead of accusing the friend of not wanting to pay and worrying about being taken advantage of, she was able to distinguish her own anxiety from beliefs about her friend’s motivation. She simply conveyed concern about payment, laid out a firm due date, and expressed appreciation for their friendship and her desire to preserve both the personal and the business aspects of their relationship.

Had she stuck with feelings of being mistreated, cheated, and victimized, she would have stayed mired in misery. She had to accept the moral ambiguity—that the “friend” wasn’t doing the right thing—in order to actually get what she wanted.

Mehaniq/Shutterstock. Illustrations by Ed Levine
Mehaniq/Shutterstock. Illustrations by Ed Levine

Danny had a serious crush on June. She was smart, funny, tender, and interested in him. Each had a difficult upbringing, a fact that fed a sense of kinship sustained through months of flirtation in shared classes and breaks. Playful and pleasant as the back-and-forth teasing was, it was never clear how certain the affection behind it was or how openly vulnerable either should be. That, of course, is a given of flirting.

But over time, June felt more secure with Danny, thought she was letting her feelings show, and wondered why he wasn’t asking for a date. Knowing they both valued their mental toughness, June threw out an edgy challenge when Danny warned he could have a mean streak. She dared Danny to make her cry. The challenge appealed to his thrill-seeking side; he took it at face value, shot from the hip—and succeeded beyond June’s wildest intentions. He'd impulsively targeted a major insecurity and was thoroughly baffled by her deep distress.

The last thing he wanted to do was hurt June's feelings. He liked her too much. But he'd critically misread the situation—an outgrowth of both his own nature and his personal history.

Feelings of closeness were difficult for Danny. Intimacy made him self-conscious, and he was uncomfortable with emotional risk. His mother had died while he was still in grade school, and his family had adapted with considerable stoicism. Affection took the form of teasing, which could be merciless. Mean jokes were exchanged callously, and often enough the teasing verged on bullying.

The problem was, he mistook one context for another—both were situations of intimacy, after all—and assumed June was in on the joke. He was doing what he'd learned to do when you care.

Worse, it was hard for him to empathize with her hurt feelings, as he tended to be more focused on protecting himself, a measure of emotional vulnerability driven by the early loss. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry, I never really want to hurt your feelings—are you free Saturday for a real date?” he watched her walk out of his life.

Greater empathy might have led him to curb his impulses and exert a measure of self-control. Inhibiting habitual maladaptive responses makes people more flexible in deploying their personality traits, fostering change over time. When we overcome our own sense of woundedness and the way we accommodate to other people’s cruelty by learning to be emotionally numb, we open up our ability to be kind and sensitive with ourselves and other people. That allows us to make decisions appropriate to the situation at hand and to avoid repeating the past patterns that can lead to further injury and loss.

Katherine had been in an unhappy, sexless marriage for almost 20 years. She and her husband had drifted apart as the kids got older. While Barry seemed content with the way things were, Katherine felt lonely, sexually deprived, and starved of life’s adventures. She felt a strong sense of duty to her husband and believed in honoring her vows. Still, the older she got, the more important her own happiness became to her. She made efforts to speak with Barry, but he was unwilling to change anything or even engage in the discussion.

There is considerable research on why people in long-term relationships turn to infidelity rather than leave. Inertia plays a role. Also, people avoid squandering their investment in the relationship, and they worry what others will think. But personality plays a role, too. Barry’s even temperament, for example, was appealing when the two were starting a family. But factors useful at one stage of a relationship can be problematic at another. With parenting behind, an early interest in exploring the world reawakened in Katherine—a clue to an inclination to openness.

What had kept her faithful over the years was her sense of duty, a key facet of conscientiousness, a strong sense of ethics, and perhaps a bit too much agreeableness. As stability lost its value for her, she came to be less tolerant of deprivation. A growing interest in her own development made her increasingly aware of how her agreeableness, combined with a sense of duty and fear of negative consequences, had made it easy to feel that her own needs didn’t matter.

Moreover, she was all too aware that she herself felt anxious in relationships, preoccupied with the other person’s happiness. Research shows that people whose sense of self is less fully defined—they lack clear self-continuity—are particularly likely to return to undesirable relationships. They may find it hard to leave until they clarify who they are, what motivates them, and what they really need. The relationship provides a stable identity.

Katherine found herself open to weighing her options and putting her own conscientiousness to work by exploring how others dealt with similar problems. It wasn’t just a matter of growing responsibility for her own well-being. She began to realize that she would not live forever.

Katherine was grappling with a problem of identity, a problem that, I find, is much more common today than is generally recognized. Who she really was had been suppressed for years, in part due to her sense of duty, in part to her desire to please others, and in part to worries about what would happen if she didn’t conform. Yet she never completely forgot who she was.

When the circumstances of her life and marriage changed, the authentic needs and personality traits she had long downplayed took on new importance. She now had more opportunities and the freedom to pursue them. The awareness of mortality can be clarifying. It drives a lot of our decisions.

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