Recently, I read this article in The Atlantic about the costs of attempting to “change” your personality. Filed under the Health section of this magazine, its title feels like that all too familiar rose-colored-glasses, find-yourself-in-the-self-help-section: “Would You Be Happier With A Different Personality?” Come on. You better believe I clicked on it, out of curiosity, and because I’m currently in my own web of personality questions. Consider me, unashamedly, in the self-help section.
The article is mostly research done in Australia, a country that most mirrors ours as far as lifestyle goes. What was fascinating about it, though, was how it didn’t really answer much beyond the acknowledgment that we all need to find a balance when it comes to trying to change our personalities. When I say “change” what I really mean is “improve” since we all seem so consumed with self-improvement these days.
“The implication is that it’s good to accept and love who you are, but it’s also good to know that you can change for the better. Ideally, in approaching personality, a person should understand their repeated patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and work on improving aspects of their personality that are hindering their happiness. But at the same time, people should not get too focused on drastically changing who they are.”
See what I mean about the kind of cyclical answering to the nagging article headline? Maybe it is and was (I’ve since been in therapy since I drafted this piece) more confusing to me because I have had that same nagging feeling.
Putting vulnerability on full blast here: I started to question my character, what I stood for, my passions, and my convictions.
In a country where racial and gender inequality and political divide exist; where sexual harassment and rape bear no consequences; where religious affiliation is this or that, because this is wrong or right; where gun control is mocked, but another family was wiped off the face of the earth because of domestic gun violence — we have preached freedom from political podiums, but we dole it out in short and long straws. I mean, we had to create federal laws for equal opportunity.
I just felt stuck. So stuck I felt like screaming, but instead I wrote blogs and posted about it. I could not not say something. It wasn’t until one evening, in a heated conversation with friends regarding these things, that I saw myself — mostly the bad — and wanted to never open my mouth again. In turn, I started this mental, silent and alone journey of “changing” my personality.
Well, until I sat down on a couch across from my therapist. I explained the situation, tried to guide her as best as I could to where I sat mentally. As we talked through it, I began to understand what I was really trying to get at with this: I should be quiet.
Growing up, I was told be quiet a lot. My opinion didn’t matter, because I was the child. (It still doesn’t matter, quite honestly.) I don’t know if, in turn, my passions stirred for too long and at such a depth, that when I finally found safety in my voice, I didn’t have the right tools to use it well. It’s like warming up an oven, but the temperature only rises instead of stopping at its desired point. Gotta love the effects of childhood!
Saying “I think I need to be quiet” out loud physically hurt. I started crying, because I said what I thought I should be aloud, but it didn’t resonate with who I believe I am, perhaps even created to be. For a few weeks, I had been walking around feeling inherently “wrong” about being me. And this was to no one’s fault but my own, because I am truly the hardest judge on myself. My therapist said some wise things as per usual as she helped me walk through the thicket of personality confusion.
What I ultimately recognized was this: I’m OK. Sure, I can work to be less rude and more patient … but I also don’t have to feel inferior because of my beliefs. I study the things I do, speak about the things I do, feel for the things I do because I care. I care deeply about seeing humanity wobbling around on crutches. (Really, in a wheelchair at this point.) This isn’t to say that I am perfect in my compassion, either. I will walk right past the homeless woman at the light while on my way to lunch. I still have so much to learn. And in that, my personality will feel the ebbs and flows of change much more naturally than the sudden burst of switching to OFF.
More importantly, happiness hinging on personality itself is a scary thought. Sure, I think we all come across the curmudgeon and assume they’re unhappy. In some regard, we could be right. But someone somewhere loves that curmudgeon. I thank God for the grace that sees through my own personality traits, imperfect cracks and all. And, well, for giving me a voice.