Is Our Personality Our Trap?

Get more from life by not being yourself

Posted Feb 01, 2012

Have you done a personality test? Most people have, or will at least have a view about their own type of personality. Do you have a predictable way of behaving? Probably.

But is it even wise to have a 'personality?' On the face of it, it just doesn't make sense for a person to behave the same way in all types of different situations. The world is constantly changing, families are dynamic, people die, jobs change or are lost, finances grow and shrink and these changes call for adaptability and different responses. The more fixed a person's personality is, the harder they'll find it to adapt to the new. The more vulnerable they will be to anxiety and stress.

Life is so varied and so changeable that there isn't one personality 'type' suited to it. Different personality traits suit different situations. So, how can a person make the most of what life throws at them if they have fixed ways of being? If they approach today's situations with yesterday's strategies? Yes, we can learn from experiences to change how we react, not  to keep doing the wrong things. But unfortunately the brain is a habit machine that wants to do more of what it did before.

No wonder people often commit faux pas, make fools of themselves, feel overwhelmed or out of their depth. How can we develop and grow unless we learn from the old and adapt our wisdom to the new? People's failure to do so explains a whole catalogue of missed opportunities, misunderstandings and dysfunction.

And yet most humans are predictable in the extreme. Most have a limited repertoire of fairly predictable behaviours. That's why psychologists can give them a personality profile.

Yet many people are vain enough—some would even say deluded enough—to believe, when they reflect on something they have done, that they acted out of choice. Moreover, that they were able to put their personality aside for a moment and act in the 'best' way. They would say that they meant to take the course of action that they did and that there was some careful consideration involved.

Even though anyone who knew them could have predicted they would behave as they did.

The rather unpalatable truth is that most of our seemingly conscious intentions are just illusions.  Our past habits, which make up our personality, hijack our ability to exercise free will or act differently. They inhibit wakefulness and take the decision out of our hands. Many intentions to act, or choices, are not the result of having judged the situation and made a conscious choice. They are more likely to spring from past behavioural patterns. From our auto-pilot. We do what we do in a new situation because we did that kind of thing in the past. We are not very responsive to situations because we all too easily become prisoners of our own personality.

Extroversion-Introversion is one of the 'big five' personality traits. Yet consider for a moment the extrovert who is the life-and-soul of the party and happy being the centre of attention. His extroversion is not always an asset. In fact it becomes a handicap when he's forced to have a quiet night in, or on a visit to his girlfriend's sombre parents. The introvert on the other hand may cling to the walls at a wild party, but knows how to enjoy his own company or that of more serious folk.  A person who can flex, using extroversion and introversion traits appropriately, is equally comfortable in either context. His personality does not alienate him from any corner of the world.

This is why in 'Flex: Do Something Different' we refer to the 'personality trap'. Our personality may actually be working against us. It may keep us from doing the best for ourselves, from having good relationships, and from coping with all facets of our world.

You may be thinking that having a definite personality has some advantages too. And indeed it does. We like to be seen to be consistent. People like to feel they know us and know what to expect from us. They like to be able to label us and put us in a box. That predictability - our personality - becomes our personal trademark. It defines who we are and is our behavioural footprint on the world. There are personal and social benefits, for ourselves and others, from being consistent in how we behave. It is also a highly energy-efficient way for the human system to operate.

But if you want to get the most out of life you will need to learn to override those natural personality habits and become more responsive to situational demands. This means getting 'outside yourself' and realising when your personality habit trap is gripping you tightly. That is why it is so important to Do Something Different. Only then is the personality trap made visible...........

About the Author

Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil, Oxon, is a professor of psychology, a behavior change expert, and the author of Flex: Do Something Different — How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

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