The Myth of Personality

Written by: Nick
Topics: Lifestyle
An artist looks in a mirror and paints a self-portrait.

Well, sure, that’s your self-portrait today…

If you were to describe me, you might say some­thing like, “he has blue eyes, brown hair…hmm….reads a lot, likes for­eign languages…hmm….I don’t know?” None of these things are wrong, in fact they’re all cor­rect, but after this, you’d strug­gle.  Not because I inher­ently defy descrip­tion, but because it’s dif­fi­cult to describe any­one past their obvi­ous phys­i­cal appear­ance and a few basic obser­va­tions about their likes, dis­likes, and habits.

Go ahead, try it, attempt to describe any of your friends.  You’ll feel you have a sense for what they’re like, but you will find it dif­fi­cult to attach any con­crete state­ments to their var­i­ous qualities.

Now for some­thing really mind-bending: try and describe your­self, beyond your phys­i­cal appear­ance. Be hon­est, but try and be as detailed as pos­si­ble.  Not very easy, is it? And so brings us to the the­sis of this post: for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, per­son­al­ity is a myth.

Every­one is Always Changing

I know, that’s a con­tro­ver­sial state­ment, but nec­es­sar­ily so. The rea­son it’s so dif­fi­cult to describe your friends or even your­self in any mean­ing­ful way is that peo­ple are not con­stants, they are con­stantly in flux.

What you like one day is not what you like the next.  How you act one day is not how you act the next, and how you act in three years is prob­a­bly even more dif­fer­ent. You develop bad habits and break them, you learn new skills and apply them, you treat oth­ers poorly one day, and roy­ally the next. To describe your­self as “loyal” or “unre­li­able” or “petty” or “friendly” is really just an approx­i­ma­tion — every per­son has such a range of pos­si­ble behav­iors, opin­ions, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for growth or reces­sion that words sim­ply fall short of appro­pri­ate description.

This is not meant to be lin­guis­tic exer­cise, but rather a cel­e­bra­tion of the flex­i­bil­ity of the indi­vid­ual. Who you are today is who are you today, and noth­ing more. If you decide that you want to be some­one totally dif­fer­ent tomor­row, that is com­pletely within your power.

I am not a fla­menco dancer, nei­ther am I a water-skier, but there is noth­ing to stop me from being res­olute about becom­ing both in small steps through­out the next three months. Sim­i­larly, I could decide to exam­ine my opin­ions on, say, my ideal morn­ing rou­tine, and com­pletely change the way I do things.  I could stop snooz­ing my alarm, stretch for twenty min­utes after get­ting out of bed, eat fruits and yogurt for break­fast, and get a run in before my morn­ing shower. Those things are com­pletely within in my capa­bil­ity, and the only thing stand­ing between me and real­iz­ing them is other choices I’ve made, con­sciously or unconsciously.

Speech Becomes Reality

So how do these changes in your per­son­al­ity come to be? Well, in large part they are shaped by your thoughts about your­self and oth­ers’ state­ments about you. Have you ever had some­one say, “Don’t be so dif­fi­cult,” when you didn’t feel you were being dif­fi­cult at all? And then maybe you sat and thought about it, and real­ized you weren’t act­ing very rea­son­able? Or con­versely, maybe you had plans to go out with friends, or to the gym, and for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son, started think­ing, “I’m really tired, I don’t really know if I want to do that.  I know I had already made plans, but I’m tired.”

And maybe you were actu­ally tired, but likely you felt more tired after the thought occurred to you. The thoughts you vocal­ize, out loud or men­tally, have a strong effect on your per­cep­tions. Just look at this recent post on Life­hacker about impulse spend­ing, and about how you’re more likely to lose your thrift if you’re hun­gry, angry, lonely, or tired. The fact is that your state of mind can color your thoughts, and those thoughts end up becom­ing state­ments that define your actions.

Your will power has a sim­i­lar effect. A desire to have a cer­tain result, say phys­i­cal fit­ness or good grades or a more com­fort­able pay­check, can rewire your state­ments about your­self and cre­ate a dif­fer­ent personality.

What Does Your Self-Talk Sound Like?

For prac­ti­cal pur­poses, you per­son­al­ity could be more accu­rately defined as the tone of the self-talk that guides your choices and actions. If you’re doubt­ful of your own capa­bil­i­ties in your self-talk, think­ing things like “I wish I could learn to be orga­nized,” or “I know I need to study for that exam, but I just don’t have the drive,” then your actions will fol­low suit.

As an exer­cise, try and imag­ine what some­one is suc­cess­ful in your field thinks on a daily basis. Does Steve Jobs wake up in the morn­ing and think, “I just don’t know how I’m going to come up with any good ideas today.” Well, maybe he does, but he clearly does let that thought process con­tinue.  As Descartes’ Latin adage goes, Cog­ito, ergo sum, “I think, there­fore I am,” so to do your thoughts cre­ate the sub­tleties of your existence.

New research sug­gests it takes up to 66 days to form a new habit, so clearly rewiring your thoughts, and there­fore your per­son­al­ity, can take some time, but this may explain why the changes in oth­ers’ per­son­al­i­ties often go unno­ticed, as they are very grad­ual. Gestaltism sug­gests that our brains try to make sense of chaos and look for pat­terns and con­stancy, so our per­cep­tions of oth­ers are likely no different.

Rec­og­nize now that no one has a con­crete per­son­al­ity, and you are no excep­tion. It is pos­si­ble to change and improve and to divine the seem­ingly impos­si­ble from your­self, but it starts, as with most things, with imagination.

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