For many years evidence has been mounting that the construct we call “personality” is not as well-defined as we might think and that personality patterns are nowhere near as stable or as intractable as we once believed them to be.
Each of us has a unique personality. By definition, that personality is comprised of innate traits and acquired habits ingrained to the point that we behave in predictable ways in a wide variety of situations. This is what makes up our distinctive personality “style.” For the most part, once fixed (generally, around age 6 or 7), our core personality patterns generally don’t change very much. What if our very personalities are a source of trouble for us (i.e., we have a dysfunctional personality or possibly even a personality or character disorder)? Is it possible to do something about it? Can we really change the person we have always been?
Misconceptions abound when it comes to the topics of personality, character, and most especially, personality or character disorders. Some folks erroneously believe that personality is strictly biologically determined, equating the concept of personality with our innate traits and predispositions. Others believe that when someone has a significant personality disturbance or disorder, although they might make outward changes, it’s simply not possible for them to modify who they really are “inside.” Such notions contribute to the common perception that personality is not something we can change. For many years evidence has been mounting that the construct we call “personality” is not as well-defined as we might think and that personality patterns are nowhere near as stable or as intractable as we once believed them to be.
Several variables figure into how much our personalities might tend to change over our lifetimes. Firstly, there’s the issue of time itself and the learning that comes with various life experiences. At age 50, few of us think the same things, hold the same values, look at the world the same way, or even perceive ourselves in the same manner we did when we were 18. Then there’s the closely related issue of education. The more we know and learn about the world around us, and the better we understand ourselves, the more likely we are to change our opinions and attitudes about many things. We might even change some of our most stubborn habits over time. Finally, there’s the issue of the degree of comfort we have with ourselves. Some of us have liked the person we have been from early on and see no reason to change. And, of course there are folks who have not only been “set in their ways” for a long time but also have grown more stubbornly fixed in those ways as they have become older and less adaptable. Not all of us are so inclined. Some of us look back on the person we were 20 years or so ago (e.g., we might reflect on the tattoo that’s still on our hip or that person we once thought hung the moon but now realize was a creep) and say to ourselves: “What in the world was I thinking?!” That’s when we realize that over time, we actually have changed considerably — in both attitudes and behavior patterns — even though at some level we might think of ourselves as the same person we’ve always been.
I get about a dozen or so emails every month from individuals who have read one of my books (In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, or The Judas Syndrome ), who identified with one of the character descriptions (most of which depict significant personality disturbance or “disorder”) therein. Most of them ask the same or similar basic questions: “Can I change?” and “If it’s possible, how can I do it?” When I reply to them, inevitably one of the things I’m quick to point out is the fact that merely asking the question about the possibility of change (which necessarily implies the person is experiencing some internal pressure to consider making changes in themselves) is a pretty good indicator that change in their case is indeed possible, although it’s likely going to entail a fair degree of work — possibly even more work than the person bargained for.
Utilizing professional help is not always a requirement for changing aspects of our personality, although it’s often quite helpful to have access to the special “tools” therapists who specialize in personality disturbances have at their disposal to facilitate the process. What matters most of all is the desire to change and the willingness to confront and modify the thinking patterns and behavioral habits that have been a problem. We can’t simply will away our innate or more biologically-based predispositions. But we can always modify the way we look at things and the manner in which we do things. It just takes a lot of practice (in behavioral terms, this is called “rehearsal”) to reverse old, destructive habits. Practice itself doesn’t make perfect. For if we do similar things over and over again, we’re only going to get similar results. Rather, we have to confront old, problematic attitudes and change them, target old habits and modify them, and do this over and over again, reinforcing ourselves each time for the effort, even for small gains. In the process, we can indeed change the kind of person we have been. Sometimes, our biologically-based predispositions are such a factor that meaningful change is not possible without medications to help re-balance our brain chemistry. This is often the case in conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, where the impaired ability to self-regulate mood is not only the reason for many problems but also represents a major impediment to modifying destructive behavior patterns. Still, with the right cognitive-behavioral regimen and the help of appropriate medication, even the most dysfunctional personality can be modified.
As a therapist specializing in the assessment and treatment of personality dysfunction for many years, I’ve had to make peace with the reality that personality change does not come easily and sometimes doesn’t come at all. But I’ve also borne witness to many genuine success stories. I can say without hesitation that there’s nothing quite like being a part of someone’s personal transformation. Sometimes, you have to wait a long time for it, because many dysfunctional personalities aren’t “ready” (i.e., sufficiently internally motivated) to make the kinds of changes they need to make at the time everyone around them is more than ready for them to do so. But in the end, the patience pays off, because when the right desire is finally there, we now have the tools to facilitate exactly what I and others got into our profession to do: help people change.
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