Book Review: 'Personality Isn't Permanent'
A good case for the transformational capacity of the human spirit.
Posted May 12, 2020
I’ll admit it—I was skeptical about the new book Personality Isn’t Permanent by Benjamin Hardy before I even opened it. As a temperament researcher, I believe we are hardwired with certain tendencies that do, in fact, influence our personalities. So, I began reading the book with that mindset firmly in place.
Despite the title, Dr. Hardy’s central tenet isn’t that we aren’t hardwired with certain tendencies. It’s that we can make choices about what to do with those tendencies. As my own research mentor, Dr. Sandee McClowry, says: Temperament is inborn. Behavioral expression of temperament can be taught and shaped.
In a storytelling style reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s, Benjamin Hardy sets out the case for personality being malleable. He uses incidents from his own life—such as the way a personality test almost derailed his marriage to the love of his life—to point out that we are more the sum total of our choices than our wiring. The stories Dr. Hardy tells—Andre Norman, the former-convict-turned-Harvard-graduate, Rosalie, a woman who gave up on her dream of writing children’s books due to the harsh criticism of her professor, and many others—work well to illustrate his case. The storytelling style of the book makes the concepts Dr. Hardy introduces extremely user-friendly.
Hardy weaves together the work of such diverse thinkers as Adam Grant, Roy Baumeister, Daniel Gilbert, Steven Covey, Dan McAdams, Barry Schwartz, and John Sarno. He uses their work in surprising ways to present his case about the transformative nature of human decision-making. Using both illustrative stories from his own life and those of celebrities, as well as the research and books he cites, Hardy argues his case well.
The chapters on trauma and change are particularly useful for therapy. Hardy argues that we can’t always distinguish personality from the sequelae of significant experiences and trauma. He sees a rigid and unchanging personality as evidence of a decision formed during a traumatic event. One of the most clinically useful quotations in the book is:
Your personality is merely a by-product or a reflection of where you are emotionally. If you maintain suppressed emotions, you’ll develop a personality to either cope with or avoid them.
While Hardy is not a clinical psychologist, this insight and the way he leads up to it can help a “stuck” patient see their choices more clearly. So many people come into therapy with the irreconcilable beliefs that personality can’t be altered, and that they want to change. When we try to explore suppressed emotions and their history, they often don’t want to “go there.” Hardy makes a compelling argument that without “going there,” there won’t be any change.
Each chapter ends with some questions for contemplation, making the implications of the chapter immediately accessible for personal change. This is the kind of book that can be read for enjoyment or can be recommended as background reading to a psychotherapy patient or consultee. The deceptively light and entertaining nature of the book makes the questions more inviting. They don’t feel like artificial “workbook-style” prompts.
Dr. Hardy talks about psychological flexibility as being the key component to change. While he doesn’t reference Acceptance and Commitment Therapy directly, the underlying philosophy of the book is consistent with that school of thought. ACT therapists use a lot of metaphors to help clients understand psychological flexibility, and many of the anecdotes and personal examples Dr. Hardy cites would be an excellent expansion of an ACT therapist’s vocabulary of metaphors and examples. His questions would also make for excellent therapy homework for ACT, as well as many narrative approaches to therapy.
I’m not entirely sure that Dr. Hardy makes the full case he set out in the prologue. While personality isn’t permanent, our neurological wiring is pretty resistant to change. As I read the book, I contemplated my own life journey. I know I’m an introvert. But I didn’t like feeling discomfort in social situations, so I set out to change. I learned the art of social chit-chat. I engaged in a deliberate practice designed to push me out of my comfort zone. I taught myself social confidence by acting as if I was socially confident.
Today, I am much more comfortable in social situations. But my wiring persists. Give me a choice of an intimate lunch with one or two close friends or a loud party, and I’ll choose the friends every time (except when I'm choosing to read a book on my own, that is!). My takeaway from the book? It’s not that personality isn’t permanent; it’s that personality isn’t a prison.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020
Benjamin P. Hardy, Personality Isn't Permanent: Break Free From Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story. (New York, Penguin, 2020)