Do We Ever Really Change?
Assignment – Discussion – Personality Theory & Research: How is personality stability and change a topic that is particularly relevant to clinical psychology? Based on the assigned readings, what takeaways do you have about the implications for clinical psychology? Are there research findings or constructs you would want to share with your clients?
Personal Story Concerning Change
Before discussing some of the science regarding personality stability and change, allow me to share a personal story concerning how my own belief in people’s ability to change has actually changed slightly over the years. I used to believe that anyone can change themselves or their lives as long as they just want to. All you have to do is decide to change, take action, and then assess if you’re moving closer to the desired outcome. If not, learn from your mistakes, make necessary adjustments, and try again. In hindsight, after gaining a little more wisdom and a better understanding of psychology, I recognized that this was more consistent with how I and many other self-motivated individuals work, but not necessarily with how everyone else functions.
Then, one day, a close friend stated unequivocally that he believed people never truly change. Rather than that, he believed that people remained the same throughout their lives. While my friend’s point of view was initially difficult for me to fully accept, I concluded after a while that he may be on to something. For instance, I realized that although I personally believed that I over the years had experienced a lot, learned many things, and as a result grown as a person, I hadn’t changed all that much. I remained the same person with the same fundamental values, beliefs, and behaviors as before. Even though I liked change and learning new things, I had always been this way – curious by nature. Thus, maybe I had not changed all that much over the years, as I have always have enjoyed change. As a result of this realization, my belief in human potential became a little more nuanced. Rather than believing that anyone easily can change their lives, I realized that true change is difficult, but nonetheless possible if the desire is strong enough. Furthermore, while people may want to change, they are not always willing to make the necessary effort to actually change. Not only that, but we are occasionally willing to put up with extreme discomfort in order to avoid the unpleasantness of change.
Personality Stability and Change
Funder (2016) argues that, despite the fact that people change through time, they also remain the same. Thus, paradoxically enough, both change and stability are central concepts in research on personality development. One reason personality remains stable over time is that the environment in which a person lives tends to be stable, for example, because people will seek out environments that complement and enhance their unique personality traits. This means, for instance, that individuals who score highly on agreeableness and openness seek out environments that reflect and support these characteristics, creating a positive feedback loop in which these qualities also may be amplified. Nonetheless, although personality traits tend to remain stable over time, as my friend strongly believed, it appears that among the Big Five, conscientiousness increases as we age, while neuroticism decreases.
It has been demonstrated that changing one’s personality is possible, though it is not an easy task (Funder, 2016). While psychotherapy is one method, going through difficult life experiences, such as stressful or traumatic events, is another (Funder, 2016). Interestingly, research shows that people with higher levels of optimism, emotional stability, extraversion, and conscientiousness are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth after adversity, whereas people with higher levels of neuroticism actually may be prone to have more negative life experiences (Sutin et al., 2010).
The most important takeaway from this discussion, which I will do my best to help and inspire my clients to incorporate into their journeys of recovery and personal development, is that, as Gilbert (2014) states, change is the only constant in our lives. In nature, there is nothing that does not change. Everything in nature evolves or regresses, grows or dies. Even a rock or a mountain undergoes change, albeit at a slower rate than a butterfly or a flower. Just as plants and animals follow natural cycles, we humans do as well. In this regard, I believe that the more adept we are at recognizing the critical patterns in the various cycles of human life and honing the necessary skills for each phase, the more fulfilling life can be.
After about fifteen years of working with people going through crisis and trauma, I experience that there are two fundamental paths to personal development. The first is that we can choose to grow and develop as human beings proactively by acquiring necessary skills and gradually increasing our level of wisdom over time, for example, through reflecting and integrating our various daily experiences, reading books, receiving coaching and therapy, and so forth. The other alternative, which sometimes still happens together with the first, is that life can force us to grow through pain and adversity, through what Sutin et al. (2010) refer to as stressful events that either serve as turning points in our lives or as a source of learning. Nonetheless, change is the only constant. Or, to put it another way, the only constant in life is growth, or pain if we don’t choose to grow. Nonetheless, although we may not always be aware of it, we have the option of using either a carrot or a stick.
Funder, D. C. (2016). The Personality Puzzle 7th Edition. W. W. Norton & Company.
Gilbert, D. (2014). The psychology of your future self. TED Talk. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_the_psychology_of_your_future_self
Sutin, A., Costa, P., Wethington, E. & Eaton, W. (2010). Turning points and lessons learned: Stressful life events and personality trait development across middle adulthood: psychology and Aging 25(3).