Some people have enviable levels of self-esteem and think that their sparkling personalities are flawless, set just the way they are. But others of us often wonder whether certain aspects of our personalities can be changed. Being more extroverted, for example, sounds like fun, or being more confident or risk-taking.
This begs the question: How much of our personalities are set in stone? Can we really change who we are?
Personality Traits That Are Resistant to Change
Personality research indicates that certain parts of our personalities are fairly resistant to change. The following “Big 5” personality traits are fairly stable over time:
- Openness to Experience
Of course, the same traits may look very different over time. A sensation-seeking child who puts everything in their mouth may turn into an adult who drives fast on the highway. In other words, if you look closely, there is usually a great deal of overlap between the manifestations of personality in childhood and adulthood.
However, this doesn’t mean that with time and effort, you can’t change how you interact in the world on these dimensions or others. In therapy, people can learn to change certain aspects of their personality.
For example, I have had many clients who are naturally introverted but understand how useful it is to act extroverted in certain situations, like getting back into dating, or going to an important work event. Although these clients will never fully identify as extroverted, practicing their social skills and exposing themselves to more social situations may, over time, slide them over a bit toward extroversion on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.
It isn’t only therapy that can change people’s natural personalities.
How “Life-Defining” Moments Change our Personalities
Life-defining moments, whether positive or negative, can also have a massive impact on personality traits.
For instance, becoming a parent often makes people feel more confident and assertive; now, they have someone to advocate for and protect. On the other hand, stressful or traumatic life events can change personality as well. A child who is innately extroverted but is raised in a neglectful or abusive home is likely to appear more withdrawn and introverted. Although their basic personality may be unchanged, it is buried down deep and may not ever be expressed as it would have under better circumstances.
Overall, your personality is set from a young age, but there is some malleability that is possible. A baby who is slow to warm up to others is not likely to become a naturally gregarious, life-of-the-party adult, but they can learn to master, and even enjoy, social situations. Similarly, a child who is perfectionistic and extremely conscientious about schoolwork is unlikely to turn into an adult who is laid back or even careless about their work, but they can learn to be more relaxed and to see the bigger picture.
Self-Acceptance Helps Us Progress
A good path is to balance acceptance of your innate character traits, while putting in some effort toward altering the aspects of yourself that you are most interested in changing.
Self-acceptance will give you the confidence that you need for the hard work of changing behaviors that feel hardwired, and therapy — or introspection and effort on your own — will give you the tools you need to make progress on moderating certain aspects of your nature. Nothing is unchangeable; with hard work and self-awareness, transformation is possible in every aspect of your life.