If you have ever wanted to change one of your personality traits, a way of thinking, a bad habit or a deep-rooted belief, you will know that it is not an easy task. Sometimes you may even have the feeling that you take one step forward and two steps backwards. And that can be extremely frustrating, to the point of making us believe that “we are that way” and cannot change.
The problem, perhaps, is the way we are dealing with that change. To change it is not enough to want it, you have to get down to work. Desiring the change is not enough to transform something we have been doing, thinking or feeling for years. Now science confirms it.
Tell me what you do and I’ll tell you what you can change
Psychologists from the universities of Illinois and Michigan asked 377 college students to choose two of the five major personality traits (openness to experience, responsibility, extroversion, kindness and emotional stability) that they most wanted to change in themselves. Most people chose to improve their emotional stability or increase their level of extroversion.
Half of the participants were also asked to select up to four challenges per week that would allow them to implement the change of the chosen trait. For example, those who wanted to be more extroverted chose to greet a stranger in a store or conduct a class project.
They were all asked to complete a personality test at the beginning of each week of the 15-week study, especially designed to measure how much their personality might be changing, or not.
The authors discovered that people who wanted to change, but did nothing to achieve it, further strengthened the unpleasant trait they wanted to eliminate. In fact, those who wanted to be more extroverted became more introverted and those who wished to be more emotionally stable became more neurotic.
On the contrary, those who got involved in the challenges did change over time.
The commitment to change is not enough, it is necessary to take small steps
Committing to change is not enough. In fact, it is often a double-edged sword because it generates the feeling that we have already done something, that we have taken an “important” step, which is why we trust ouselves and do not work hard to change.
The researchers concluded that “actively participating in behaviors designed to change personality traits predicts a greater reduction of that trait over time.” In other words, if you want to change something, you have to work on it.
Taking small steps over time, aligned with our goals of personal growth, helps us to improve. Interestingly, the researchers found that not even the degree of difficulty of the challenges we pose is important, but that personal growth depends more on its consistency over time.
That reminds us of Confucius’ phrase: “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.” We must take small steps that also serve as motivation along the way to realize that we are getting closer to our goal.
Wanting to change but not doing anything to achieve it only generates frustration and, in the long run, will consolidate a negative and stagnant image of ourselves. Wanting to be better, but keep doing the same, in the end will make us see ourselves in an even more negative light. Therefore, the next time you want to change, ask yourself if you are really doing something to achieve that transformation or it is simply a desire that does not materialize in any action.
Heaney, K. (2018) You Can’t Change Your Personality Just by Wanting To. In: The Cut. Hudson, N. W. et. Al. (2018) You have to follow through: Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.