The notion of whether it is possible to change your personality has been an ongoing topic of research and debate over the years. Is personality inherited or developed? Nature or nurture? Can people truly change? For many years, research showed that our personality was mostly stable. However, evidence continues to emerge that we can—and do—change parts of our personality across our lifetime.
Personality can be defined as “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.” You can likely think of some qualities or characteristics that have been with you your whole life.
For example, I am and always have been an optimistic and adventurous person. I love a challenge and thrive in change and unpredictable environments. These characteristics were true when I was six years old —climbing a 60-foot tree in the backyard, when I moved to New Zealand on my own at 16, and when I left for Australia out of college at 21. They are part of who I am and likely won’t change.
I am always seeking something new and different and avoid anything that feels too routine or predictable. Right now, I’m writing this article from Hawaii, where I relocated from Los Angeles in the middle of a global pandemic.
There are likely traits that have been with you your whole life, too. Perhaps you’re logical, hands-on, even-keeled, organized, positive, outgoing, encouraging, thoughtful, spontaneous, disciplined, cautious, friendly, challenging, or sensitive.
In my twenty years of coaching and consulting and working with people, I have found it is not an either/or debate—it is both. Ultimately, we are all born with a predisposition and characteristics innately hard-wired in us. And, over time and with age and experience, we can build and change parts of our personality, behavior, and actions as we grow and evolve as human beings.
So, the short answer to the question is yes, you can change aspects of your personality. But before you do, here are a few things to consider.
Many ancient philosophers, from Aristotle to Socrates and Pythagoras, touted the benefits of “knowing thyself.” One of the most important things to do before you try to change yourself is to know yourself.
You can get to know yourself better through self-reflection and a little soul searching.
Another great way to gain self-awareness and learn more about yourself and your personality is to take an assessment. There are all sorts of great profiling tools out there. Some of the most popular include; MBTI (preferences), Strengths finders (strengths), DiSC (personality), and my personal favorite—Instinctive Drives (core drives and motivations).
If you’re interested in learning more about yourself, you can take any of these tests, free of charge by creating a profile on one of my favorite tools for personal development—Cloverleaf.
Be True to Yourself
Shakespeare famously said,
“To thine own self be true.”
We read books about how we should do things, take courses on how we are supposed to behave, and model what we see others doing to improve ourselves.
There are many reasons we want to change who we are—many of which come down to fitting in or meeting the demands or expectations of others. We often wear different masks or show different parts of ourselves based on the situation we are in.
However, if you keep changing to meet others’ needs and expectations, you’ll be like a ship at sea getting blown wherever the wind takes you. I’ve worked with many people who have tried to change themselves to fit in with society, their families, and others that they have entirely lost their sense of self.
Bronnie Ware is a palliative care nurse who has worked with hundreds of patients in the last few weeks of their lives. When she talked to them about the most common regrets they had or things they would have done differently, the number one answer was this:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. So, if you are working to change something about your personality, do so with thought and an abundance of caution. You are uniquely you. Perhaps it is not your personality that needs to change —but the job, situation, environment, or relationship you are in.
Set Yourself Up for Success
When making any efforts to change, it’s essential to keep the following things in mind:
1. Understand “Why” You Want to Change
To make a lasting change, you must have a compelling and meaningful reason for why you want to make the change. It must come from the inside out—not from the outside in.
You must see the reasons for change and believe in the benefits of doing so. If you’re trying to change your personality because everyone else thinks you should but deep down, you don’t believe it is essential or feel it is important, it doesn’t matter how much you try—the changes won’t stick.
2. Get Specific About “What” You Want to Change
You might say, I want to be a better person, but you must get clear and specific about what that means. What does that look like? Do you want to be happier, more optimistic, or disciplined? Do you want to be kinder, more thoughtful, or less selfish? You want to be more social and personable instead of ‘all business’? Get specific. If you don’t know what you want, how are you going to get it?
3. Take Action on “How” You Want to Change
You cannot change things about your personality by just thinking about them. Real change, especially with things that have been with you for a long time, require time and dedicated effort. It’s not easy to start doing different things differently and exhibiting behaviors you want to show.
You need to create a habit. How long will that take? Research has shown it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
Additional research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology studied personality changes over the course of 15 weeks. The study highlights the importance of specific, dedicated activities and challenges that support the behavior you are trying to change.
Merely wanting to change does not appear to be sufficient to evoke trait growth. Successfully changing one’s personality traits may require actively and successfully implementing behaviors to change oneself. Even then, certain personality traits were more malleable than others.
The Onion Skin Model for Making Changes
For years, I have used the onion skin model (© Link-up International Pty Ltd) to show the distinction between what people see on the outside (our personality, behavior, and actions) and what’s influencing those from the inside (our hard wiring and innate motivations). The I.D. in this model stands for Instinctive Drives, which is a profiling tool I mentioned earlier.
Ultimately, if you want to change your personality on the outside, you must shift something inside. The further towards the outer layers of the onion, the easier the change. The deeper you go, the more difficult it is.
Let’s take a look at a few of these layers.
Onion Skin Model
The Easiest Thing to Change? Your Attitude
Studies on confirmation bias have widely proven we find what we are looking for. If you’re looking for the good, you’ll see that. If you’re looking for what’s wrong, guess what you’ll find? You guessed it.
The easiest way to change how you see or feel about something? Change your perspective and show up with a positive attitude. Choose hope and optimism over fear and negativity.
You might be more-hard wired to see the risks or what might go wrong while others are naturally more optimistic and positive, but you always have the power to choose and improve your attitude. One of the quickest ways to shift your attitude? Practice gratitude. There are also other mindset shifts you can make today to shift your attitude.
Invest in Education, Training, and Skill Development
The best investment you can make is one in yourself. First, identify what that personality trait is that you want to grow, change, or improve. Then, go out and find a way to change it. There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts, online courses, resources, and books on any topic you could want to change.
Want to be more conscientious? Learn how to be more efficient or organized through time management courses or books. One of my favorites is the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Looking to be more agreeable or relate to others better? Take a course on developing your emotional intelligence (EQ). Hoping to be more curious or open-minded? Seek out stories about other people’s lives who are different from yours.
Build Your Self-Esteem and Confidence
While much of our confidence and self-esteem is hard-wired in us from our early experiences, we can also grow these attributes.
One of the best ways to increase your confidence or self-esteem? Take action. When you are idle, sitting around wondering what to do, thinking about what can go wrong, and questioning yourself and your abilities, you will always feel self-doubt and fear. Instead, take action. This will inspire further action, momentum, and confidence.
Understand Your Values and Beliefs
Understanding your values and beliefs is key if you want to change your personality.
Values are the guiding principles or ideals that are deeply important to you. Sometimes, you don’t even realize what they are. Still, they influence every decision you make and have a massive impact on how you interact and show up in the world.
There are no good or bad, right or wrong values—just your values. The critical step is to be aware of your values since they influence everything about you and how you show up in the world.
For example, if you value relationships, you will likely make time for people important in your life and go out of your way to make people feel special. If you value health, you will probably look very disciplined when you wake up at 5 am every morning to work out.
If what you value and what you want aren’t adding up, something needs to shift. For example, I’ve worked with many highly successful entrepreneurs who want to spend more time with their family or take more time off but find it difficult as they keep defaulting to work. Why? Because they value success, money, ambition, power, hard work, or something else that is overriding what they are trying to change.
It is critical to dig deep and understand your values so you can either be more closely aligned to them or re-evaluate where they might not be serving you. There are lots of ways to discover your values including journaling, working with a life coach, and values cards.
Beliefs are an attitude that something is the case or that some proposition about the world is true. Everything stems from your beliefs. For many, beliefs are formed from a very young age, and you may not even realize you are holding them or how much they are influencing you.
Take Sam, a client who reached out to me to improve his confidence. His boss shared that he needed to be more confident, especially in board and executive team meetings if he wanted to continue his path up the corporate ladder. As we dove in, we found that Sam believed confidence meant being cocky and egotistical and that he had to be an ‘uptight suit to’ be a high-level executive. (This was the furthest from the person he wanted to be in the world.) We also discovered he highly valued being humble and approachable and was worried that he might lose his openness and willingness to learn if he showed up too confident.
With awareness of his values, shifts in beliefs, and new strategies to be more confident, he changed his behaviors (while maintaining humility and authenticity). As a result, he was able to secure a promotion, and more importantly, greater trust and respect from the leadership team.
Common limiting beliefs I uncover with clients include, “I’m not good enough,” “I don’t deserve good things,” “things never work out for me,” “It’s not possible to enjoy my work and get paid well.” How do you think someone will show up in the world if they are walking around with these underlying beliefs?
Contrast that to someone who believes that “I am worthy,” “everything is happening for my greatest good,” “I believe in myself,” “people are doing the best they can,” and “miracles are possible.”
It can be hard work to uncover your values and often painful and challenging to look at limiting beliefs. This is usually best done with a coach, therapist, or counselor. But once you do, you will notice that you can more quickly shift your behaviors and how you show up in the world.
In the words of Gandhi:
While some parts of your personality may be hardwired and stable, you are not stuck. You don’t just have to live with traits that may be hurting your life or relationships. With clarity and a clear understanding of what you want to change, a deep understanding of why you want to change, and dedicated time and effort, you can change your personality.
However, remember to be cautious not to make changes because someone else said you should. Ensure the changes you are aiming to create are in alignment with who you are, who you want to be, and ultimately, how you want to show up in the world.
More About Changing Personality
Featured photo credit: Daniel Salcius via unsplash.com