Friday, June 20, 2014

Prisoners of Personality?


"I am what is mine. Personality is the original personal property." - Norman O. Brown

I have always been fascinated with personality and its impact on our lives. Personality determines how we interact with the environment, and through that it shapes our experience and our lives. Personality is considered to remain stable throughout life, hence it can be looked at as our life sentence, or at least our destiny. It is okay if we like our personality traits, it is much more challenging if we don't. We don't want to be prisoners of our innate predispositions; we want to believe we are capable of changing. As a therapist I firmly believe change is possible - my whole work revolves around helping others to change. However, it is not that the personality changes in the process of therapeutic work, but rather the way we utilize and express our personalities in everyday life. Our personality is our original personal property and since we cannot reject it or deny it, we should learn to respect it. But first things first: What is personality?

Confused Personality

"My personality is up and down, sassy and cheeky." - Katy Perry

Before writing this blog I was curious to see what are some common beliefs about personality. In order to learn more about this, I reviewed multiple wisdoms expressed by famous people on their own personalities. As a result, I realized that most people tend to use the term "personality" very loosely. As a matter of fact, it seems as though we add "personality" to many different (sometimes very narrow) traits, habits or even occasional behaviors that we exhibit. Some people claim to have a "big personality", some a "hyper personality", others to have a "sexy"  or "magnetic personality", finally there's a quite large group of people who claim to have "addictive personality". I also identified a group of people who labeled their personality by a comparison to certain stereotypical roles or contexts, e.g. "politician personality" or "television personality". What do all of these "personalities" entail? And in the end, how many personality types are there? Are there as many personalities as there are people?  And finally, what is "personality"? Is it simply a hodgepodge of our habits, traits, skills, behaviors, looks, preferences and values?

Personality is a combination of characteristics that marks individual differences among people in their behavior, cognition and emotion patterns. Simple observation of everyday life shows that the same situations evoke different reactions from different people. At the same time the same person acts fairly consistently in a variety of circumstances. There is no doubt about the fact that our behaviors are not just simple reactions to stimuli, but rather they are reactions modified by our internal qualities, our personalities. 

Nature or Nurture 

Our personalities do have significant impact on how we interact with the environment, but the relationship is not unidirectional. On the contrary, the environment impacts the person just as the person impacts the environment. Think of a little boy who is very open, curious and outgoing. He is interacting with his caretakers and others in his environment in a very engaging manner and is getting a lot of positive feedback for his openness and cheerfulness. This allows him to thrive as an open, curious and engaging person and years later he becomes an open-minded, easy-going, fun man. If the same boy was born in an environment where there is a constant sense of threat, danger and mistrust of others, his aforementioned personality traits could have been changed completely and years later he could have grown into seemingly different person. Would he be a completely different person though?

Psychologist Steven Pinker stated that, "Personality and socialization aren't the same thing." They are not the same thing indeed, but as illustrated above they are closely related and they do impact each other. Our personalities predispose us to interact with the environment in a certain way, but the socialization can either reinforce our personality traits or impede them. It is very hard to determine what has the biggest impact on our lives: biology (our personalities) or environment. There are proponents of both theories, as well as proponents of the interactional approach. I also believe that neither our biological predispositions nor our environment are solely responsible for who we are. Instead it is the interaction of both. The environment can change a lot about how we express our personality, but not the personality itself.

Is our personality our destiny then? Even though personality is fairly stable it is not completely resistible to change. According to a psychologist Gordon W. Allport, "Personality is less a finished product than a transitive process. While it has some stable features, it is at the same time continually undergoing change." Most traits are shaped on the foundation of biological predisposition as a result of development and interacting with the environment. In other words, our personalities have a significant impact on our lives and relationships, but they shouldn't be treated as a life sentence that we cannot revoke.

Befriending Your Personality

Since personality remains stable throughout our lives, what can be done if we don't like our personality traits? I think the answer is simple, yet difficult to implement: we should learn to like it. It is not to say you cannot change the way you express your personality. But trying to change it, is  trying to become someone you're not. We live in a society that like most other societies fortifies certain personality traits, but not other. Living in a society that rewards extravertive go-getters can be highly challenging to introverts. Agreeableness, that can be considered a virtue in more collectivistic cultures, here in the US is often times considered a sign of a lack of assertiveness (I myself was highlighting the advantages of being assertive in my blog post from a few weeks ago) and low self-esteem. As you can see, we place values on certain personality traits: some of them we consider desirable while others inconvenient. However, treating the "unpopular" or unwanted personality traits as a life sentence is not very helpful. Knowing that personality is fairly stable and fixed, it may be a good idea to take an honest and nonjudgmental look at your own personality traits and acknowledge them all. I am sure some of them are your strengths, and the other ones don't have to be your weaknesses as you can learn how to work with them. I will talk more about different personality traits in my next post.

...To be continued!



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