I’ve always fancied myself as one of those girls who just ooze confidence and charisma. You know the type I mean – those who glide effortlessly into a room, make the first three people they come across crease in hysterics and can comfortably strike up a conversation with virtually anyone and everyone.
Unfortunately it’s not working out so well for me. I was painfully shy as a child, and even though now I am somewhat able to cope in socially scary situations, deep down I still have a mild panic attack when faced with a room full of new people.
I am — and most probably will always be — an introvert with a dollop of extrovert. Like everyone, my personality is comprised of a mixture of traits. Some of these I am happy with, and others not so much.
But if I really wanted to change my personality type would it be possible? Or am I stuck exactly as I am forever, whether I like it or not?
Type A vs. Type B
Before we can attempt to answer that question, I think it is important to think about what personality types are. The simplest way of examining personality types is to split them into two categories: Type A and Type B.
This theory was first introduced by a couple of cardiologists (Friedman and Rosenman, 1976) who observed their patient’s behaviour in the waiting room. They could divide them into type A’s – those who generally were more impatient, and type B’s – those who were a little more relaxed.
These are some of the traits now associated with the two personality types:
- Type A – more competitive, outgoing, aggressive, sense of time urgency, ambitious, impatient.
- Type B – typically more ‘relaxed’ traits. Creativity and imagination.
Of course, you’re probably thinking there is a massive flaw here already. People are overwhelmingly complex beings, and the idea that we can divide everyone into either type A or type B is naïve at best. Most people will find they have a mixture of personality types taken from both categories.
Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
Another psychological theory of personality is the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI questionnaire is still used today in situations as diverse as marital counselling and executive development. That and the fact it places individuals in one of 16 personality types (rather than the above described two) may straight off give it a little more oomph.
The technique breaks your personality down into 4 dimensions:
- Focus of attention: Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)
- The way you take in information: Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)
- How you make decisions: Thinking (T) or feeling (F)
- How you deal with the world – Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)
There are 16 different combinations that can be made from the letters. For instance, if you are an extrovert, who uses intuition, makes decisions by feeling and judges the world around you, your personality type is ENFJ.
So, can we change our personality type?
If you asked Isabelle Briggs Meyers that question, the definitive answer would be no. The theory claims that our personalities are fixed early in life and do not change with age and experience. In fact, the MBTI manual states: “A person’s type does not change over time; however, people may express their type in somewhat different ways at different times and at different ages and stages of life”.
I guess that means some of our personality traits may change and develop over time, but our core underlying personality type remains the same.
However, this is just one theory which, in my opinion, seems rather rigid and set in stone. The Briggs-Meyers Type Indicator is now a relatively old theory, which was based on book-style research and personal observation, not large scale data. Indeed, other personality psychologists have found shifts in personality do take place over time. There is a trend for people to become more introverted as they get older. Moreover, people can change in response to new relationships and circumstances.
Drugs and Alcohol
The term “Dutch Courage” may be an expression some are familiar with – the experience of gaining confidence after having a few drinks. Many will also be familiar with the notion of becoming more outgoing, sociable and ‘fearless’ after drinking alcohol. Recreational drugs can have similar effects. The argument here is that personality can be changed through substance use on a temporary basis.
But again, do we fall into the trap that this is only changing our outward personality traits, and not our underlying personality type?
Neuroplasticity and Personality
Recent psychology gives hope to the notion that we can change our personality type. This is based around the idea of growing new neurons in our brains correlated to personality, founded by our life experiences.
Everyone is unique. Even identical twins, with the same genetics, growing up in the same environment will have different personalities to one another. And why is that? Because our daily habits constantly reshape our brains, and consequently form our personalities.
In the 2013 publication “Emergence of Individuality in Genetically Identical Mice”, researcher Julia Freuden demonstrates that the adult brain continues to grow with each and every challenge an individual faces.
Freudon studied 40 mice with identical genetics, all in the same environment as one another. Each mouse’s behaviour was recorded and monitored by the research team.
The mice differed in their daily habits and it was found “animals that explored the environment to a greater degree also grew more new neurons than animals that were more passive.”
The fact that our actions can change structures in our brains and reinforce personality traits would suggest personality is not something entirely innate, but something that can be adapted based on our experiences.
Maybe it is tricky to completely overhaul your personality type, switching totally away from, say, a strong type A to a type B, however, there is some hope we may be able to tweak some of our slightly more dysfunctional traits. And here’s how:
How can we change our personality traits?
- Fake it till you make it.
If you’re shy, throw yourself into a slightly uncomfortable social situation. The idea is by throwing yourself into situations, and essentially practicing a behaviour, it will soon start to feel like second nature.
- Stop Labelling yourself.
If you label yourself as ‘disorganized’, you are more likely to act that way. Keep an open-minded view about yourself and you may find that you begin gravitating towards opportunities you otherwise would have shied away from.
- Try new things.
Join a new club. Start a new hobby. Join a running group, book club or something you never imagined you could do before. You might just be surprised what it brings out of you.
Some people swear by meditation being the cure to a healthy and happier life. It has been said to help with various issues such as depression and insomnia and help calm the mind, making it easier to handle problems as the arise in day to day life.
- Reflect on your new personality.
Keep a journal so you can look back on the changes you have made, and talk to friends about the aspects of your personality you are dissatisfied with.
It would certainly be nice to believe we could change personalities if we wanted to, and that we are not completely ‘fixed’ whether we like it or not. Whilst it seems to be agreed amongst psychologists that drastic shifts in personality are still very unusual, one could argue that with motivation, over time, certain traits can be changed. It would also appear that as we get older we can grow, mature and develop ways to handle things better.
Our label of ‘A’ or ‘B’ may never fully change, but then again, why do we need a label anyway?