Can one’s personality really be changed through workshops and classes?
The recent mushrooming of innumerable “centres”, whether of the hole-in-the-wall variety or more exotic five-star initiatives, offering to transform the personalities of young men and women in the country, tells me that large numbers of young, urban Indians are unhappy with their personalities and are more than willing to cough up hard-earned money to trade theirs in for the latest model.
I have always been intrigued by how precisely these centres went about accomplishing what they promised, and naturally pursued the matter a bit. From what I’ve been able to gather, many of these programmes had to do with polishing an individual’s presentation to the world, by enhancing grooming, styling, etiquette, conversational skills, socialisation skills, decision-making skills, public speaking, body language, voice modulation, and so on. Whether they actually work or not is hard to tell, but that is not really the point of this piece; the precise understanding of the term, personality, is.
Going by popular usage, the term is used, and often abused, in several different ways. Often we are told of people with “pleasing personalities”. Flamboyant people have “colourful personalities”. Shy people are referred to as “retiring personalities”. Attractive people are considered to have “good personalities” and bland people are “colourless personalities”. Thousands of people like to believe that they or others around them are “split personalities”. And many more speak of “clash of personalities” when they cannot get along with some others.
So, what then is this personality thing?
If you want the official definition, the American Psychiatric Association describes personality as “the unique psychological qualities of an individual that influence a variety of characteristic behaviour patterns (both overt and covert) across different situations and over time”. These psychological qualities are manifested as “personality traits” that are defined as “enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts”. A more home-grown definition of personality would be something like, “It’s who I think I am, and who others think I am”. As may be evident, the term personality really refers to a set of consistently extant thoughts, beliefs and perceptions in our minds, that together result in a relatively stable pattern of behaviour that distinguishes us from the next person. What is implicit in this definition is that one’s personality traits don’t change from one day to the next.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we are unlikely to change over time. We most certainly are, and most certainly do, based on the life experiences we accumulate. But, many personality theorists believe, although I don’t necessarily concur, that only “surface traits” are amenable to change and our “core traits” remain imperviously obdurate to our life experiences. Which probably explains why the personality development programmes referred to earlier, seem to focus on providing their trainees the skills and tools with which to re-sculpt their surface traits.
Ever since the days of Charaka’s descriptions of the three doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) that resulted in the three gunas, (sattva, rajas and tamas) and Hippocrates’ almost identical postulation of the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) that resulted in four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic), personality theorists have been obsessed with classifying people into personality types, spawning innumerable classificatory systems. At the risk of over-simplification, the common element of all of these are that certain sets of consistently co-existing traits coagulate themselves into certain distinctive and inexorable personality types that all human beings in this world could be fitted into. Current thinking seems to favour the idea of personality dimensions (often referred to as Goldberg’s Big Five: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) and an individual’s personality is said to be derived from the possible permutations and combinations of these.
If you took all the research literature on personality, put it in a pot and boiled it, you would be left with six definite conclusions: Some personality traits are related to genes and hard-wiring and others to life experiences and learning; core traits are more resistant to change than surface traits; apparently contradictory personality traits can exist in the same individual; some people have severely maladaptive personality traits (personality disorders) which are notoriously difficult to change; some specific personality traits are associated with certain illnesses of both mind and body; and one’s personality is fully formed only around 30 years of age.
Now, coming back to the issue we started off with, can we makeover our personality or are we pretty much stuck with what we were born with? Clinical experience does confirm that even what were considered to be fundamental personality traits do change over time, and one commonly hears of former introverts becoming extraverted, risk-takers becoming risk-averse and emotionally unexpressive people becoming emotionally intimate in later life. Even if the overall personality remains relatively constant, we can certainly eliminate maladaptive personality traits and inculcate new ones, but only over time and with much mindful introspection, self-awareness and sustained conscious endeavour. And while I have no quarrel with your buying yourselves some skills and tools to navigate your world, you simply cannot buy yourself a new personality, even on e-Bay.
Keywords: Vijay Nagaswami column, personality makeover, pleasing personalities, colourful personalities, retiring personalities, good personalities, definition of personality, American Psychiatric Association