Can you change an unwanted personality trait?
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide
related traits

Can you change unwanted personality traits? Yes and No! Let’s have a look at some traits that cause people trouble.

  • Are you too much of a perfectionist?
  • Would you like to feel less rigid?
  • Would you like to be less of a worrier? 

Which personality traits would you like to change about yourself?  Make your own list.
Now have a look at that list and describe all of your past efforts to change any of these things.
Have your endeavours to change been successful? 

If so, congratulations: You are one of the lucky few.
People try to change all the time. The question is: Why do they so rarely succeed? 

That’s the question Ellen Langer, the mother of positive psychology, asked herself. Hence she embarked on a research project with the following hypothesis: 

People who profess they want to change, but don’t, in fact don’t actually want to change. 

Huh! And how would you test that? 
Here’s what Langer did. Her team asked their research participants what I’ve asked you above: 

“What is a trait you would like to change about yourself?”

They had them list those traits, and then presented the participants with a list of related traits. The participants had to then rate how positively they viewed these related traits.
To give you the picture, here are some of the pairs of (unwanted) personality traits and related traits:

Perfectionism — Drive / ambition

Rigid — Consistent

Worry / Anxiety — Responsibility

The more positively the participants rated the related trait (drive / ambition), the less likely they were to change their unwanted trait (perfectionism). In other words: Some people wanted to change on the surface, but deep down, a part of them said: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

So if you feel stuck, use this question to explore the trait you perceive as negative:

What positive traits, if any, do you associate with the trait you would like to get rid of? 

This inquiry might lead you to an inner conflict over how to best manage your life, how to be safe, or happy, or successful. 

While parts work (IFS) was not even in its infancy in the 70s when Ellen Langer revolutionised psychology with her studies, her research points right to our complex inner system:

When we are in two minds about something, these two minds are not passive! They wage a battle inside of us. The effect on us is that we can neither make progress towards our goals – nor can we let go of them. We’re caught in a tug of war which consumes a lot of energy, and it causes frustration with ourselves. 

To reconcile the contradictions that keep us having “one foot on the break and one on the gas”, as Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, creators of the Immunity to Change approach have aptly framed this, we need to explore the contradicting voices, be less judgmental and impatient, and become more curious and compassionate towards them.

Curiosity and compassion are the doorway to reconciliation, both in interactions with others and with ourselves. And in a perfect inner world, your different voices, or parts, can be your inner council while you hold the reins of your life, guided by purpose and aligning all your parts around that.

Schedule a complimentary coaching session with me to explore an area of your life where you would like to finally make a change.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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