Can You Make Lasting Changes in Your Personality?
Small personality changes endure and lead to improved emotional health.
Posted August 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Personality is defined as the enduring and characteristic ways of behaving, thinking, and exhibiting emotional patterns.
Historically, the ways of figuring out personalities included humors in the blood, bumps on our skulls, temperaments, a personality inventory — the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the Rorschach Inkblot test, and the Enneagram, with nine interconnected personality types. Today, we commonly use categorical and “type”-based personality traits and dimensions from self-report questionnaires. A widely used assessment is the Five-Factor Model (FFM) that assesses five factors using factor analysis.
A New Approach to Identify Personalities
My colleague, Homer B. Martin, M.D., and I discovered a new way of understanding personalities and treating personality problems. We provide these findings in our book, Living on Automatic. We did long-term dynamic psychotherapy over a combined 80 years with thousands of people of all ages.
We learned that self-assessment of personality is flawed because most people have little insight into what type of personality they have. Ill-tempered people may believe they are kind to and thoughtful of everyone. Instead, they may be disrespectful and thoughtless. People very attentive to others’ needs may behave in ways others do not want. They may be unaware of their intrusion. Many people are oblivious not only to what kind of personality they have but also to how their personalities operate, especially in relationships.
Many people who come to therapy have symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, but no idea why. We usually uncover a personality dysfunction during therapy We identify and wrestle with their personality. The tentacles of personality reach into all aspects of our lives — work, leisure, thoughts, activities, ways we use language, and especially the management of our relationships. In Living on Automatic we discuss the 13 personality factors we identified for 2 predominant types of personalities. We observed these attributes through working with people for years and not by using self-report questionnaires.
A Conditioning Process Creates Personality
Through the decades Dr. Martin and I, along with others, discovered that personalities form in early childhood not only from the influence of caretakers’ expectations of us but also their ways of relating with us. A baby’s inborn temperament may also influence his or her personality development.
Imagine that you are trained like you train your dog. Dr. Martin and I call this process emotional conditioning because this conditioning has an emotional component. Parents teach children many things — how to make a bed, read books, meet relatives. But parents also teach children how to emotionally feel about bed-making, reading, and how to react emotionally to and with Aunt Jane.
Is It Possible to Alter Personality?
We cannot completely change our personalities. But we observed people can make sufficient change to lessen their anxieties, depressions, relationship conflict, and substance overuse. The changes can be long-lasting if enough work is done in therapy. How might this work?
We saw that the personality becomes more rigid as we age. There is no assurance that over time people will mature and become more flexible, reasonable, and socially adept. While living, we repeat those aspects of personality formed in childhood using the emotional conditioning process of reinforcement from everyone we meet. You’ll respond to Uncle Bob the same way every time you see him. You’ll respond the same way to anyone who makes you feel like you feel with Uncle Bob. Over time, we become more proficient at living in our emotionally conditioned role or personality.
Making Personality Changes
Therapy is the ideal place to make personality changes, but not the only place. In therapy, we first help people grasp what their personality is like in all of its conscious and unconscious dimensions. It takes time to make the unconscious aspects conscious and to appreciate how personality affects our management of relationships. People acquire an awareness of how they live: conditioned, and on automatic. With automatic living, people respond to others without thinking about what they do in relationships. Relationship conflict ensues.
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Our New Treatment
Dr. Martin and I call our treatment deconditioning therapy because it deconditions, or lessens, the original emotional conditioning done in childhood. The deconditioning changes one’s personality to some degree.
The next step is to help people decide what they want to change for their emotional distress and illnesses to dissipate. We help them alter how they manage relationships. To do this, we explore together the emotional support conflicts and imbalances they experience. Who gives too much and who too little when they are together? Deconditioning psychotherapy helps them move out of their emotionally conditioned roles and personality styles. They discover how to stop managing relationships by automatic reactions to each other.
Deconditioning therapy helps the ability to observe others and yourself. We introduce deliberate thinking instead of conditioned reacting to others. We invite people to dissect interactions in their lives — who says or does what and when? What are the circumstances of a given interaction with a person you have a conflict with? Who gives and who receives support in the encounter? How is the giving and receiving of support unbalanced between you and the other person?
People arrive at a realization to slow down their automatic reacting and rapid decision-making until they have time to think. Careful thinking removes the automatic conditioned response to another person.
Eventually, people improve their logical thinking in relationships and no longer revert to reflex automatic responses. People decide a reasonable approach to conducting themselves in each situation with another person. They base decisions on observation, questioning, and evidence, rather than on emotional persuasion. They no longer pursue a narrow, emotionally conditioned, and stereotyped role in their life. A deconditioned person successfully changes his or her personality.
Freedom in a New Way of Managing Life
There is freedom in pursuing life and relationships differently from the way you were trained in childhood. With deconditioning therapy, you successfully can make lasting personality adjustments. Change requires dedicated work. At first, it is difficult. It gets easier as you daily tackle revisions in yourself. We discovered that every day you are not working on making alterations in your personality, your personality becomes more inflexible.
Steps you take toward deconditioning yourself go a long way toward lessening emotional illnesses and relationship conflict. You alter your personality, your emotional health, and your relationships for the better.