Altered Ego

With time, a bit of elbow grease, and an understanding of your own character strengths, you can become friendlier, more caring, and less stressed by life.

By Joann Ellison Rodgers, published November 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Lauren had been in one committed romantic relationship after another since age 16. It seemed simpler to negotiate life in tandem with a boyfriend, who could listen to her stories, stand as a buffer against her family, and supply emotional support in a steady, easy way. She thought of herself as skilled at relationships but weak in areas like self-reliance, independence, and simply being alone, and at first she was OK with it.

As time went on, however, she found herself unable to end relationships even when they felt mired in humiliation and hurt. Her college boyfriend made brutal offhand comments; his reaction to the joyous Grateful Dead song "Sugar Magnolia" was to tell her "I want to feel that when I'm with someone, but I don't with you." And still she stayed. Her next boyfriend was even more demeaning, returning home drunk at 2 a.m. and frightening her with insults and rage. She spent years in that relationship too, because the thought of being alone seemed worse. But she was no longer 16.

If she wanted her life to work, she had to become independent—she had to change. So at age 24, Lauren left the rage-filled boyfriend, got a studio apartment, and vowed to stay independent and single, until being alone was no longer hard. She thought the transition would take months but it ended up taking years—the most difficult and disciplined years of her life. During that period she worked steadily not just on her confidence but also on her writing career, becoming more resilient, more organized, more assertive, and more optimistic about her future.

Lauren's effort to stand alone required conscious vigilance in the way an alcoholic must steel himself to avoid drink. To aid in the project, she acquired a new, less social circle of female friends; furnished her apartment with a single bed, and spent the long nights of solitude reading seven volumes of Proust. She even posted a New Yorker cartoon in her apartment to symbolize her resolve: Depicting a lone human drinking with aliens at a bar in outer space, its caption read, "As soon as I've made it, I'll come back to earth." Like that space traveler, reaching her goal required years of rigor. When Lauren finally touched down, she felt independent enough to withstand the lure of dysfunctional relationships. She knew she had truly changed when she married a man who, with his straightforward honesty and enormous flexibility, supported her goals without trying to control her or diminish her sense of self.

Some might view Lauren's twentysomething odyssey as garden-variety growing pains, a woman fully maturing into herself. But her struggle to achieve confidence and independent footing is just as easily seen as a case study in self-directed change. "For almost a century, psychologists have struggled with the question of whether adult personality and personality traits change in consequential ways, whether they are set like plaster or marked by persistent change," says University of Oregon psychologist Sanjay Srivastava.

If lifelong temperaments are predestined or at least calcified by a certain age, then what do we make of the whole Western canon of self-reinvention and auto-improvement manuals? On the other hand, if our dispositions are supple—if we can, with enough intellectual and psychological elbow grease, use our noodles to change how we deal with stress, opportunity, and each other—then can we simply retool the way we view the world? And should we be expected to smooth out bumptious traits, alter our egos to suit mates and bosses, and replace undesirable, unpopular or uncomfortable aspects of our adult selves?

Historically, the predominant scientific view of personality was that it was pretty much "set" while we weren't looking, if not by the time of Freud's id-driven age 5 calculator, then at least by about age 30 or so. "People don't really change," was the perennial refrain, among researchers and laymen alike. Even psychologists who allowed that personality continued to develop well into early adulthood and in the context of life experience considered basic temperaments shockproof and mostly rooted in our genes. The child who was generally pleasant, adaptable, and approachable at age 3 was likely to stay that way. The difficult, whiny, emotionally high-strung infant, alarmed at a new face, was destined to be difficult and predictably indisposed. In short, the early patterns of behavior, thought, motive, and emotion, called personality, marked people forever, and no matter what they did or what happened to them, the shy would not morph into the gregarious and the social clod would not rise to lead charm brigades.

More recently, though, a new wave of research has offered evidence that fundamental personality traits—modern psychology's so-called Big Five Factors—not only evolve over our life span but in some cases can be changed at will. In this view, our inner Woody Allens aren't necessarily replaced by Cary Grants, but changes in conscientiousness (ability to handle tasks and organize skills), agreeableness (warmth, generosity, and helpfulness), neuroticism (worry and sense of instability), openness to experience (desire to try new things) and extroversion (need to seek social support)—occur naturally and may be to some extent self-directed if we ourselves only try.

"Temperament is not stable," says Stanford University developmental psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, and a leader of the morphing personality school. "Even when we are able to predict adult personality from infant or childhood temperaments, it's only in the extreme 5 percent at the top and bottom of personality that we can do so. While the vast majority of mindsets are powerful and long lasting, they can indeed be changed. We all have the potential to make those changes and we are wasting that potential if we don't."

Meet the Elastic Self

Personality shifts over time, and the change is often flavored by life's big events such as marriage, parenting, and increased responsibility. According to a landmark study published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Big Five do morph—mostly for the positive—as we age. To conduct the research, a team led by Srivastava surveyed more than 132,000 adults ages 21 to 60 over the Internet. The online assessment tested two prevailing theories: The "hard plaster" theory, which holds that personality is set by age 30, and the "soft plaster" theory, which says change is ongoing and personality is often variable, depending on the situation at hand. In this massive online survey, soft plaster won. Well into adulthood, such progressive experiences as education, courtship and marriage, parenting, the need to make a living, and exposure to an expanding network of social, family, and business connections, altered personality, and generally for the good.

Among study participants, conscientiousness—being organized, self-disciplined, goal-directed—rose across the board over time. The biggest increases were during the 20s—no surprise given that the demands of work and family kick off during this period. Agreeableness, shown by generosity, selflessness and helpfulness, and most commonly linked to building relationships, increased most during the 30s. Neuroticism in women declined with much older age, but not so with men. Openness declined persistently over time for both sexes. Extroversion dropped among women but not men. "If the timing of personality change is linked to the timing of role transitions, there should be important changes in conscientiousness and agreeableness, and these changes should be apparent well into the thirties," says Srivastava. And that is exactly what his team found.

When it comes to character, we all have unacknowledged social "clocks," and expectations of particular age groups often match perfectly with the personality traits they are assigned. We expect teenagers to be forgetful and downright rude, but we demand that adults on a career track be civil and conscientious. In older people we look for agreeableness, emotional stability, and less openness, and this aligns for many people with active parenthood, which requires generosity, tolerance, and protectiveness, says Brent Roberts, an expert on personality development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Studies are convincing that emotional stability and such aspects of conscientiousness as impulse control can and do change a lot."

Self-propelled Evolution

Lifelong personality drift may well be inevitable, but can we, like Lauren, actually will ourselves to change? According to Stanford's Dweck, the answer is yes—especially if we think we can. Those who believe their personalities and abilities can change, she says, are more resilient, more open to experience, and more likely to take risks.

Perhaps the defining human trait, she notes, is "the capacity to be more skilled, more effective, more resilient, more extroverted, more nurturing, and more tolerant than we are at any given moment."

Her studies of people in school, the work place, and sports demonstrate that putting individuals in a "growth mindset"—defined by the desire to change—can indeed help alter such personality markers as nurturance and competitiveness. If one believes in fixed traits, there's no motive to change, she points out, but you may not need to change a trait in order to change its impact.

Take, for instance, shyness, which often interferes with interpersonal relationships. Shy people who are determined to develop their social skills can force themselves to interact despite the nervousness it provokes, and end up garnering great satisfaction from the effort even if the bashfulness remains. "Our studies show others rate these people highly non-shy when they interact," despite their feeling of anxiety, says Dweck. "That's real change. But if they believe their traits are fixed, then they avoid social situations and do poorly."

The power of belief is key. One Dweck study found that students who believed they could change had significantly higher grades, more confidence even when they failed, more optimism about future performance, and more enjoyment of learning overall. Dweck also worked with failing students who were pessimistic and introverted; as a group, they saw their personalities as fixed. To help them change, she taught them that their brains were plastic, always growing new connections, and that mere belief in the ability to change could make it easier to turn things around. After the sessions, the failing students became more optimistic and their grades rebounded, Dweck reports.

Changing Your Life Even When You Stay the Same

Sometimes, of course, it's not so much about changing personality as accommodating it. According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement in the U.S., changing personality may not necessarily be the point. "You don't need to use clever techniques to get people to change," says Seligman. Instead, the focus should be identifying strengths and gearing your life to maximize those as buffers against whatever weaknesses weigh you down.

Brenda, for instance, went to law school and built a career in the District Attorney's office in Brooklyn, New York. A crackerjack prosecutor, she excelled at sparring with other lawyers, aggressively questioning witnesses, and putting criminals in jail. Yet Brenda, whose natural tendency was to be friendly and agreeable, hated arguing. Perhaps she was a star at work, but the job made her sick. Finally, exhausted by fighting her true nature, she fell into a depression and decided to quit law and become a teacher in the New Jersey suburbs. In that role, as a helper, she regained a sense of herself and, for the first time in years, began to feel good.

New situations can sometimes alter personality traits whether or not the change is of our design. To investigate associations between such traits as extroversion and neuroticism, and such life factors as romantic relationships and work satisfaction, a team led by Christie Napa Scollon at Texas Christian University analyzed 1,130 Australians surveyed over the course of eight years.

They found that people who enjoy their jobs become more extroverted and less neurotic over time. Those with satisfying relationships become less neurotic but also less extroverted. These context-dependent changes make sense. Consider Randi, who had struggled for years as an assistant to CEOs who found fault with everything from the way she typed her memos to the pitch of her voice. The constant criticism so undermined her confidence that she became halting and diffident in everything she did in and out of work. She hit her stride only when she became a real estate agent. As she showed houses to customers, her natural friendliness emerged as an asset and, with the ability to tap this strength, she found higher levels of social success. Out with friends, she was able to be more outgoing and was far less daunted by perceptions of slight.

Be Careful What You Wish for—When Change Is for the Worse

Trait psychologists note that variety is the spice of life, and that even traits considered "negative" have behavioral value. That's why nature conserved them. Says Dweck, "Being self-critical, which is a form of pessimism, is a very good thing. A mix of discontent is a healthy thing; it creates striving."

The very traits we hope to alter or expunge may help us survive. People feel most pressured to change their levels of neuroticism, with its trademark fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, and feelings of stress and inadequacy, notes British personality theorist Dan Nettle. "Negative emotions aren't well tolerated in our society," he says. But some worry is good. Remember the Wall Street "masters of the universe" in the roaring '90s before the bubble burst? It turns out, Nettle says, that some large proportion of high-flying brokers and investment bankers were taking antidepressants, chemically altering their basic temperaments, enabling them to fear nothing and foresee no end to the boom in the face of every factor predicting a bust. Wall Street, of course, attracts just this hard-charging type. "If a few more guys had been neurotic, pessimistic, and depressed, it might have been a lot better in the end for a lot of people," says Nettle.

As a prey species, adds Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin, humans have been primed by evolution to be neurotic because "they've honestly got a lot to worry about. The world is a dangerous place and it's good to be jumpy when there's real threat everywhere in rocks and thistles." Gosling and others caution that personality traits evolved carefully over time, and those that remain with us are the result of trade-offs with survival value for both individuals and society.

The take-home message: The notion that the "positive" affects work best, or that determined individuals can dramatically alter bedrock personalities with the aid of a self-help book, may be facile. We can change ourselves throughout life, but not without great determination and, often, years of grueling work. And while adult personality is more flexible than once thought, much of that "flex" occurs in the context of changing social needs, from parenting to partnering to work. We do best when we change to meet our needs, not to fulfill some preconceived "personality ideal."