Whether you’re looking to change your personality to manage a mental health condition or personality disorder, or you’d just like to change some aspects of who you are, you may be wondering if it’s possible.
Personality is complex, and there is a huge mental health stigma in regards to personality disorders and behavioural struggles that may add a certain pressure to want to change (although this desire to change should not be based on appeasing the judgements and prejudices of others, but should instead come from a place of wanting to change for the sake of one’s own well-being).
This post will delve into what we know about personality, as well as whether it is possible to change it – this conglomeration of habits, preferences, and styles that we tend to feel is unshakeably who we are.
What is the Personality?
‘Personality’ is the word we use to describe who we are deep down. It’s a combination of repeated behaviours, sense of self, opinions of others, and the actions we take in our lives. For example, someone who constantly interrupts others holds themselves in higher regard than those around them and refuses to share will often be seen as having a self-absorbed personality.
Personality can also be a label that we assign ourselves or get assigned from others. Perhaps you’re a prolific artist or writer. You might be called a ‘creative’. Our passions, likes, and dislikes can also be added to what we assume our personality is.
People vary widely in their personalities. These variations are often healthy, although some personality traits may result in roadblocks and stagnation for some, whereas others may have traits that result in significant emotional distress and difficulties at work, in relationships, and in other areas of life.
Most people would like to be caring, selfless, and hard-working. These are considered virtues. In this way, then, the way we think about personality is often normative in nature, with some traits seen as commendable, while others are viewed as vices and in need of being corrected. Traits that people often don’t like to see in themselves (or in others, perhaps due to psychological projection) may include a lack of goals, drive, or enthusiasm.
When it comes to personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), there can be traits that result in unhealthy patterns of behaviour (towards yourself and others). For instance, people with BPD struggle with emotional instability and impulsivity, which can lead to self-harm, a deep fear of losing people, unhealthy attachments to others, cutting off ties with people, and a sense of self-worth that is based on the behaviour of others. They may see themselves as always being the victim of other people, accusing those closest to them of acting maliciously against them. A condition like BPD does not define people, however. What it does mean, though, is that the condition needs to be worked on so that the personality can flourish.
Can Personality Be Changed?
So, can personality be changed? What if someone has developed some narcissistic traits and wishes to rid themselves of the traits? It’s quite often that children pick up the behaviours and personalities of their parents. Can that be undone?
Psychologists continue to argue to this day on whether personality is able to change or not. In the case of those with severe personality disorders, many psychologists believe that it is impossible to make changes in behaviour and patterns.
Nonetheless, many studies show otherwise. Personality does change in adulthood, and bigger changes can occur based on repeated actions you make, although it seems that some traits are more malleable than others. For example, introversion and extraversion appear to be fairly stable, with these two traits being the most strongly influenced by hereditary factors. So if you feel you are clearly more extroverted than introverted, or vice versa, the likelihood is that characteristic will be consistent over time. Stable, core personality traits like these are not necessarily a cause for concern; each simply entails natural preferences for varying levels of aloneness and social stimulation that can be accommodated by our life choices. Each personality style also has unique advantages for the individual, others, and society at large.
Then there are traits that seem to be more amenable to change. Emotional stability/neuroticism (how calm and content/anxious and insecure you are), conscientiousness (how organised, efficient, and committed you are), agreeableness (how warm, friendly, and helpful you are), and openness to experience (how curious, adventurous, and open-minded you are) can change significantly over time, in ways that are clearly visible to others.
It is also possible for a single life experience to lead to these alterations in personality. There is research indicating that psychedelics like psilocybin can lead to significant decreases in neuroticism and significant increases in openness, with such changes being sustained in the long term. While extraversion and introversion are relatively stable throughout a lifetime, trait extraversion (including the facets of warmth and positive emotions) does increase following psilocybin therapy (as does conscientiousness – including the facets of competence and self-discipline – to a lesser degree).
Alterations to personality structure are not just singular changes that occur from childhood to adulthood. Personality is fluid and can change based on life experience, access to services, self-esteem, and many other factors. People can develop personality problems or gains at any point in their life, regardless of whether their brains are fully developed or not. Hebbian theory sheds light on how our personalities can change over time. It’s possible to change negative personality traits, ones we’ve struggled with for many years, even if doing so is difficult.
Can Personality Disorders Be Cured?
This discussion may bring on the question that many people want a response to: Can personality disorders be cured?
To understand the response to this question, we need to look at the scientific literature. One study in 2018 showed that behavioural treatment for those with severe personality disorders reduced the need for hospitalisation significantly. Some psychologists state that treating personality disorders like BPD with dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) is highly effective and possible, albeit difficult. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), including when combined with other treatment modalities, has shown to be efficacious as well.
Current studies underway are looking at possible trauma-informed treatment methods for those with personality disorders, such as a study on the possibility of EMDR as a treatment method. Since many personality disorders are trauma-caused, it makes sense to treat the symptoms by treating the trauma.
Some psychologists believe that personality disorders are heightened forms of PTSD, which means they could potentially be treated and cured completely in the same ways that PTSD is, with trauma therapy and intervention.
More research is currently being done on this, as previous psychologists did not put much effort into it. These studies are paramount for learning more about personality because they would give hope to the thousands, if not millions, of people with personality disorders who have been improperly labelled ‘psychopaths’ or ‘sociopaths’ and put into a category of ‘untreatable’. New psychology research shows that hope is possible and that giving up on treatment is not warranted or wise.
Techniques for Change
If you struggle with personality traits that you’d like to change, there are some techniques that make this achievable.
Try a Form of Behavioural Therapy Like DBT or RO-DBT
DBT has been seen as the most effective current treatment for personality disorders. However, it can be utilised by any person and has shown to be effective for young children in schools and even regular people who are looking to learn new skills in their life.
DBT shows people ways to practice mindfulness, regulate emotions, handle extreme distress, and change things that no longer serve them. A newer therapy, RO-DBT, is similar but is focused on treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, and personality disorders with extreme controlling or Type A personality types.
Practise New Skills Daily
To change a part of your personality, it’s essential to practice new skills daily. Learning a habit takes repetition, especially if your brain is used to something different. For example, if you wish to change your response to conflict, you have to practice in a controlled and safe environment first and then use your knowledge and experience to change it in more stressful and active environments.
The best way to do this is with a trained therapist or by utilising worksheets, training modules, and research to learn more. For instance, if you tend to yell when you get upset, it is possible that people have associated your personality with aggression and hot-headedness. To be seen as a calm and collected individual, working on your initial response and changing the way you interact with others can change your personality, and in a way that is noticeable to others, thereby transforming your relationships for the better.
In summary, we can say that it is possible to change your personality (with some traits being more flexible than others), but it does take a lot of hard work, especially if you’re an older adult who has spent years with a certain mindset or coping mechanism. For traits that are a cause of distress or dysfunction in one or more areas of life, a growing body of evidence indicates that treatment options like DBT can be helpful.
This article was developed in partnership with BetterHelp. All views expressed are my own.