There is a pretty good chance that who we were at 16 will be amplified by the passing of years, but only if we buy into the notion that personality is set in stone. If our teen years gave us ample opportunity to learn, express and grow in a healthy environment we’d all be enjoying a happy, productive, and meaningful adult life. However, few people escape childhood and adolescence without some level of trauma so it’s good to know that while some personality tendencies are innate, our personality can continue to develop even as adults.
As you read or listen keep this question in mind “If my personality is malleable what role can I play in directing it?” as I will be offering you questions at the end of this post.
Have you ever met someone back from your high school days and thought, “S/he hasn’t changed a bit!” They are as outgoing or introspective, closed off or open, unstable, or well-balanced, honest, or deceitful, ambitious or lazy as they used to be. They may look older and are likely heavier, but their mannerisms and character seem to have withstood the tests of time.
Recently I saw a fellow from my high school days, and 35 years later he was still sporting the same style of flannel jacket, a mullet hairdo, and an outward “screw you world” attitude. But honestly, I don’t know this fellow well enough to say how much he has changed over the years. While he looked the same on the outside, who’s to say if his sense of self and how he operates in the world has altered over the years?
It would have been easy for me to make some assumptions about the flannel shirt fellow. His outward appearance may be the same but there is little doubt that over the course of 35 years, he would have had his share of life’s ups and downs like everyone else. We can’t escape life’s challenges but we can avoid life’s lessons if we stay adamant like Popeye and declare “I am who I am.”
Every one of us makes assessments about the personalities of people we know or meet. We do this without really understanding much about what personality is, how it is formed, and whether it is fixed or malleable. When we assign personality traits to someone it allows us to make predictions about them without truly knowing what makes a person tick.
There are many different theories of personality development and a range of personality tests available. But, fundamentally, personality is simply the patterns of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and our basic characteristics. (You will remember from the workbook I use the term cow paths to label our ways of being.) Our personality is simply a combination of our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors but again, it is not set in stone.
We are each born with innate tendencies but the development of our personality is influenced by the world around us. Parenting styles, family composition, culture, community resources, other social influences, and life events do impact the development of our personality.
For example, introversion and extroversion are important dimensions in some personality theories. Yet, a person who tests high for extroversion will not necessarily demonstrate the characteristics we expect of an extroverted individual if their early (and current) social environment places a strong value on quiet introspection or does not support the level of social exchange the extrovert thrives on. On the other hand, introverts may present as extroverted when their environment emphasizes high social activity levels and gregariousness
Certainly, longitudinal studies, and our own observations, show that what we see in a child of 5-7 will likely still be evident in an adult. But what about what we see in adolescence? In many ways, this developmental period is as important as our early years. By the time we are 16, we’ve had more experiences outside of the limits of home, we have been privy to how others feel, think, and behave, have had exposure to a great number of role models and countless opportunities to compare ourselves with others.
At 16 we are still continuing to form beliefs about ourselves. At 5 or 7 we may have believed that we were the center of the universe, talented, funny, smart, and lovable. By 16 we usually have had enough experiences that make us doubt just how wonderful we really are. The emotional and chemical instability of adolescents, coupled with unhealthy environments is a perfect breeding ground for the development of unhealthy ways of being and skewed concepts of self.
What did you think of yourself at 16? What was important to you? What were your goals? How did you react to stress? Did you thrive on social activities or prefer your own company? Were you usually content or did you experience more periods of depression, anger, or anxiety than your peers did? Were you the partier, the bully, the jock? Were you bullied? Were you a social butterfly or did you hug the walls on your way to class? Did you see the world as your playground or a war zone? Did you share your thoughts, feelings, and problems with others or keep them to yourself? Did you use drugs or alcohol to help you manage your state?
When you think of the 16-year-old you and compare that to who you are now, what similarities do you see? Have there been significant shifts in the ways that you think, feel, and behave?
How has your life changed over the years? Are you the same person you were at 16? In some ways but not others? Have some of your beliefs changed?
I wouldn’t be doing the work I do if I didn’t believe that we can change. Yet, change can be hard and personality is a tricky thing. It’s like a lens we view the world and ourselves through.
Changing ourselves requires an understanding of the dynamic interplay between innate tendencies and the role of environment social programming. To make real change we need to want it badly, we need a solid “why” and we need to be open to experimenting with new tools and strategies.
There is no doubt that social programming plays a huge role in the ways we come to see ourselves, our worldviews, and the habits we develop. We are not born as a blank slate but we are molded by the world around us.
We can do little about genetic predispositions but we can make decisions and take actions that limit the impact of programming that does not serve us. I’d like to push for the notion that we are always in a position of choice, especially now as adults. If we are not happy with ourselves or how our lives have turned out then the belief “this is just who I am” needs to go.
To be the confident CEO of our lives we need to look at the lens we are viewing ourselves through. Are we still looking through the eyes of a 16-year-old? This is important to think about.
You will remember that I asked you to keep this question in mind “If my personality is malleable what role can I play in directing it?”
Terri Lee Cooper MSc. RSW