Sunday, February 26, 2012

You Are What You Are…Or are you?

Key points.

1. We often don’t understand the impact our personality has on others.
2. Personality drives much of our behaviour.
2. Personality is partly genetic but is modified by our experience.
3. What can be an attribute can also be irritating.
4. We can modify our personality, to a point.
5. A simple change technique.

My Uncle Jack was a man of few words and had a very down to earth view of life. I guess being raised in a single parent family with two other hungry brothers during the great depression determines how you see the world. Which bring us nicely to the topic of this blog, the shaping of personality.

On discovering that I had become a psychologist and being a bit bemused by it all, Uncle Jack, who was visiting us in Australia at the time, said, ‘Well, it seems to me that you are what you are and you can’t get any arer’.

Sage advice especially given the antipathy with which humans confront change and our lack of insight of self and others. It is probably true that personality traits are hard-wired, genetic and biological. However, more recent research has shown that it is not that cut and dried. It appears that personality is modified by life experience. Moreover, we can change our personality traits by consciously working on them.

Well, that’s all well and good but why would anyone want to change what appears to the owner to be a perfectly good personality? My personality traits enable me to have a unique perspective on the world that then drives what I think and how I behave in given circumstances. I can’t help it if the idiot over there doesn’t see the same world as me!

Certainly diversity makes the world go around and it would be boring if it didn’t. Families, tribes, and organisations thrive on the fact that people see the world differently. However, as someone once said, one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. In other words, it is all a matter of perspective.

What is a great strength such as attention to detail can easily morph into nit picking and obsessiveness in the eyes of another person who, most likely, does not share these traits.

Similarly we have:

Big picture thinker becomes Vague and unfocussed
Likes facts and information becomes Autistic
Sticks to their guns becomes Autocratic
Sociable and good networker becomesTalks too much-over the top
Stoic, solid, decisive becomes Autocratic
Gets things done becomes Inflexible
Busy becomes Stressed
In touch with feelings becomes Emotional
Adventurous becomes Undisciplined
Focussed becomes Autistic
Fun loving becomes Irresponsible

An attribute that attracts us to another person can eventually become irritating. In clinical work I often used to see evidence of this phenomenon in couples. It especially seemed to have an impact when circumstances changed and there was additional stress in the household such as the arrival of children, extra work responsibilities, and a change in financial circumstances. Sometimes people’s needs shift as they mature and their perception on life changes.

Having a fun loving, carefree, adventurous spouse might be very exciting for the first couple of years of marriage. It might not work so well when children come along and routine, sharing of tasks and focus are required.

The same problem can apply in our other relationships and workplaces too. We might be attracted by the decisive nature of our entrepreneurial boss and an organisation that has a reputation for getting things done. Eventually, however, this same decisiveness can become ‘poor consultative process’ and ‘aggressiveness’.

Working with someone who is extraverted and thinks out loud, likes ideas and acts on intuition can be exciting and powerful. It becomes a challenge to someone who likes order and certainty, especially when they are under stress. That person when ‘under the gun’ becomes more controlled, serious and focussed, which then confuses the extraverted intuitive type. Failing to understand what is going on can lead to an increase in tension and sometimes the fracturing of relationships.

There might be good reason, then, to think about changing our behaviour, at least in certain circumstances. This is achieved by firstly being aware of self, which is no easy task, and then being concerned enough to change. If this is achieved a simple technique for change involves:

-catch yourself thinking about behaving in a particular way.
-saying STOP before doing it.
-talk to yourself about the change and the value of doing it.
-do the desired behaviour
-congratulate yourself afterwards
-monitor reactions and reflect on the experience

Repeat as necessary.

The interesting thing is that if we keep practicing this technique, the behaviour becomes more automatic (allow at least 3 months) and personality might change as a result. The change in our values, attitudes and beliefs happens as a result of changing behaviour: much too hard the other way around.