By Aruna Sankaranarayanan,
On your commute back home, you curse yourself for not having spoken up at the meeting. When a colleague took credit for the group project, you should have highlighted your contribution, which was pivotal to its success. Yet, you just sunk in your chair, bristling within.
Last week, you resolved that you would not react to your teenage son's emotional volatility. But when he slammed the door with the infamous adolescent declaration of "I hate living here," your anger boiled over and you gave him an earful of how he was being both disrespectful and ungrateful. This only exacerbated your son's tension, leading to yet another familiar family meltdown.
You really want to quit smoking as it's taking a toll on your physical health and souring your relationship with your spouse. After kicking the habit for a month, you give in to temptation when a friend offers you a smoke after a stressful day. Before you realize it, you are back to smoking a pack a day though you dislike yourself for it.
In each of the above scenarios, individuals want to change facets of themselves. The meek worker wants to grow more assertive, the tempestuous father more tranquil and the chain smoker more resolute in the face of temptation. But is it possible to alter core aspects of ourselves? After all, one of the more robust findings in social psychology, to have stood the test of time, is that personality differences between people can be understood along five dimensions- openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (now called emotional stability)-that are fairly stable across a person's lifetime.
In Be Who You Want: Unlocking The Science of Personality Change, writer and psychologist, Christian Jarrett argues that though personality has been found to be more or less stable, you can aspire to be the "best version of yourself" as personality is also pliable and modifiable. After all, your personality is a reflection of "your style of thought, motivation, emotions and habits." By changing these, we can alter parts of our personality. Jarrett also avers that authenticity ultimately involves behaving like the person you aspire to be as opposed to how you currently are. To help recast yourself, he provides ten principles of personal transformation.
First, your personality is more likely to morph if a larger purpose drives your mission. Suppose you are getting into frequent and avoidable skirmishes with your kids, though you later regret the impulsive jibes you made at them. If being a kind, loving father is something you value, then you are more likely to curb your emotional reactivity and build positive rapport with your children. Likewise, if you are an insurance agent who wants to cultivate more diligent work habits, you are more likely to succeed if you reframe your job as helping people in stressful situations tide over emergencies as opposed to merely selling insurance policies.
The next dictum of Jarrett involves appraising yourself honestly. Only by acknowledging your weaknesses and warts can you work on reducing them. People often have "blind spots" regarding their own personalities. While you think you are a beacon of patience, only your family knows how irritable you can be when you return home from work. So, in addition to introspecting, solicit feedback from family, friends and colleagues regarding your traits to gain a more objective and complete picture of yourself.
Altering facets of your personality, like any habitual change, is more likely to happen when you have specific and actionable steps that you can implement. Resolve how you are going to act differently in various situations. For example, if you desire to be more extroverted, tell yourself that at the next company get-together, you will talk to at least two people from other departments.
While most of us harbor noble intentions to be better parents, partners or peers, few of us act on these motivations over the long haul. Changing your personality is a protracted affair and you need to persist despite the setbacks. As you are trying to cultivate new styles of thinking and acting, you need to keep at them until they become more natural and instinctual. Jarret cites a research study that documented how habits come to stick. On average, people need to persevere with a new habit for a minimum of 66 days for it to feel more or less automatic. So, if you slip up, try to rebound quickly to keep the momentum going.
Another tenet that Jarrett advocates is that you need to track your progress, which may not always be smooth or tending upwards. But if you keep tab of your successes, you will know if you are moving in your desired direction. If not, you may need to change course and try some different strategies. Further, you need to set goals that are realistic and achievable. As genes also impact aspects of your personality, don't expect radical shifts. While you may focus on improving one feature of our personality, remember that there can be ripple effects in other areas, which may not always be conducive. For example, if you are trying to become more agreeable by getting along amicably with your colleagues, you may find that you are slacking in terms of submitting your projects on time. Though you may target specific areas to change, keep a watch on all dimensions of your personality.
Next, your attempts to change may be bolstered by family and friends who support your aspirations. If they model the values you admire, you will find it easier to become more like them. Jarrett also cautions us that life circumstances may not always support your goals. Suppose you wish to become more conscientious about working out regularly, but then your father gets hospitalized suddenly. You may then find an alternative way to meet you exercise goals. Perhaps, you can walk to the hospital instead of riding your bike. But if circumstances don't permit, you may have to shelve your goals for a while.
Importantly, Jarrett also exhorts us to be kind to ourselves. When you slip up, be compassionate instead of berating yourself. Any form of self-improvement requires that we extend kindness to ourselves. Finally, you need to believe that change, including modifications to your personality, is possible and a lifelong enterprise. The self, after all, is a fluid construct that keeps evolving. By trying to realize your best possible self, you can ensure that you keep growing in fulfilling ways.
(Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.)