Are you born the way you are and never change?
Or, are you always changing?
In Western Culture, the predominant belief is that, for the most part, your identity is a “fixed” characteristic. It’s DNA-based, and possibly solidified through your experience in the womb and before the age of 6 or 7.
Without question, your DNA, birthing experience, and childhood experiences are super important.
But what about the rest of your life?
And what about this “fixed” mindset?
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In the book, THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE, Bessel van der Kolk M.D. explains that traumatic experiences can “freeze” a person’s personality.
When a person experiences traumatic stress, they often have a difficult time “disassociating” themselves with that stress.
The memory gets sealed into their long-term memory. Unlike normal memories, which are social and flexible, traumatic memories become isolated from context, isolated from other people, and are rigid.
Your memory can get stuck — and then you get stuck.
As a person, traumatic experiences keep you in the past.
You stop looking forward.
You stop integrating new memories in. You live in the past. You have a very difficult time fully embracing the present moment — and allowing present experiences to continue shaping your personality.
Life is hard.
It’s projected that approximately 28% of woman are sexually abused in their lives.
The world is constantly changing and highly demanding.
When I was 11, my parents got divorced. That shook me up pretty good. Then, at 16, I was in a car accident where my mom was almost killed. I was the driver. That was rough.
Chances are, you’ve experienced some degree of trauma. Chances are, that trauma could be keeping you “frozen” as a person.
Challenge to personality development #1: traumatic experiences
If you’ve experienced trauma, there are a few powerful ways to be healed.
One form of therapy is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or “EMDR” therapy. It’s based on the notion that memories are formed during R.E.M. sleep — which stands for rapid eye movement. When you’re in REM, your eyes are moving back and forth really fast. This is why your dreams can seem random. But it’s how your memories are INTEGRATED into your long-term memory and how your identity develops.
Yoga has also been found to be a powerful way to work through trauma. As has writing in your journal, getting massages, and other traditional forms of therapy. Physical touch is very powerful, when a person is embraced. Connection to self and others is very healing — and loving touch can be a powerful vehicle.
The main idea is that you need to reframe your memory. You need to begin experiencing present moments again.
You need to stop living in the past. This isn’t easy. Eventually, you can get to the point where you see the past experience as the past.
It’s not YOU anymore.
It’s an experience YOU had. But that’s not you anymore. You’re a new person now. The present is actually pretty great.
Challenge to personality development #2: not creating “peak” moments
In the book, THE POWER OF MOMENTS: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath explain that certain experiences in life have the power to totally alter your worldview and direction in life.
Some scientists would call these experiences transformational learning experiences.
Others call them “disorienting dilemmas.”
Others have simply called them “peak experiences.”
The main idea is that, while growing up, a person often has powerful and emotional experiences that inform their worldview and personality development.
According to the Heath brothers (and all the research they cite in their book), most of these “paradigm shifting” experiences happen during a person’s teens, 20’s, and begin tapering off during a person’s 30’s. They become almost non-existent for people over 40. And thus, people become frozen at a certain stage of their personality — and assume that’s how it’s supposed to be.
However, the Heath brothers explain that this doesn’t need to be the case. You can actually manufacture these experiences regularly, and throughout your entire life.
The reason most people stop having “peak experiences” — which according to Dr. Abraham Maslow, is required to become fully actualized as a person — is because they settle into societal norms.
They stop growing.
They stop putting themselves into wildly new and demanding situations. They stop exercising faith after having life experiences — and grow to become skeptical or cynical.
I was on an airplane with a woman in her late 60’s yesterday. She’s been an acting coach for 20 years. Before that, she spent 20 years in human development jobs. Before that, she was an actress.
I was explaining these ideas to her and she LOVED THEM. She said that she’s very close to retirement, and is feeling really, really ready to begin LEARNING AND GROWING again.
She doesn’t want to plateau. She is ready for the next chapter, where she is a new person. Of course she uses all of her past experiences to inform whatever she does. Just like she uses all of her experience in human development to inform how she coaches actors and actresses. But she also develops radically new sides of her personality that never existed before.
If you’re not having life-altering and peak moments, you’re “frozen” in time. Don’t settle. Never stop evolving.
Challenge to personality development #3: you’ve bought into the myth of a “fixed” personality
Personality is not a fixed characteristic.
In Western culture, we’ve become obsessed with personality and “fixed” traits in general. We love our personality tests. We love putting ourselves in boxes.
We love diagnosing ourselves.
Because in Western culture, there is an obsession with individualism and an utter ignorance of the context that shapes the individual. It turns out, this is actually a very costly mental mistake. According to Stanford psychologist, Lee Ross, “People’s inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior, has been termed the ‘fundamental attribution error.’”
Who you are in one situation is different from who you are in a different situation.
Your “authentic” self is not some fixed trait— but who you feel you should be at a certain time and place. Additionally, your “authentic” self shouldn’t limit growth — but be something that draws you to continual growth.
Personality isn’t a fixed thing.
Personality is DEVELOPED. And it never has to stop developing.
The belief that who you are at birth is who you ARE, is a “fixed” mindset.
Don’t buy into it.
You can always change.
You change by:
- believing you can change
- continually creating peak-experiences
- and overcoming traumas you have through life.
Don’t “freeze” your personality.
Ready to upgrade?
I’ve created a cheat sheet for putting yourself into a PEAK-STATE, immediately. You follow this daily, your life will change very quickly.
This article first appeared on Medium.