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Are our personalities inherited and permanent? Or are they learned and acquired traits that are always subject to change?
Merriam Webster defines personality as “the totality of an individual's behavioral and emotional characteristics.” Before I learned about social styles and personality types, it was hard for me to understand why people behaved the way they did. I used to wonder why some people seemed colder and less empathetic and why others seemed bossy and quick to tell me what to do, as opposed to asking me what I’d like to do.
In turn, some of those people probably thought I was too sensitive and wished that I was more assertive. But I later realized that we adopt the personalities we need to survive in this world.
How Are Personalities Formed?
Although we have a “variety of inherited qualities” that are genetic and come “from strength and weakness of constitution,” as Abdu'l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha'i Faith, explained, we also acquire characteristics that are often formed and developed from our early childhood experiences.
In the book “Star of the West,” Abdu’l-Baha said that we “acquired personality through the process of education.” Our “personality has no element of permanence in it, it is a shifting, changeable quality in man which can be turned either way” — for better or worse.
According to the American Psychological Association’s journal “Psychological Review,” we were all born with three basic psychological needs: “the need to predict our world, the need to build competence to act on our world, and, because we are social beings, the need for acceptance from others.” Psychologist Carol Dweck explained that as infants, we start forming beliefs about whether or not the world is “good or bad, safe or dangerous,” and asking ourselves, “Can I act on my world to meet my needs?”
I remember that when I was a young child, I used to be very friendly, outgoing, a little silly, and extroverted. But when I would reach out to different classmates in my elementary school to eat lunch with or play with at recess, I repeatedly experienced rejection and exclusion. It caused me so much stress that I started sleepwalking when I was around 6 or 7-years-old, and the sleepwalking did not stop until summer break.
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When my gregariousness was repeatedly met with hostility, I unconsciously learned that I could not be safe from emotional scars if I kept being outgoing and friendly. So, I stopped trying to reach out to new people at recess and started reading books to pass the time. I became more withdrawn, reserved, and quiet. I developed social anxiety that I wasn’t able to resolve until a decade later. And as my personality changed, my hobbies changed as well. When I was an extrovert, I was involved in more extroverted activities that required me to interact with other people, like dancing and acting. But as I became more introverted, I learned to love more individual activities like reading, writing, and drawing – pastimes that I still enjoy today.
In a talk on impact theory, Dr. Joe Dispenza explained that “the stronger the emotional reaction you have to some experience in your life,” the “more you pay attention to the cause.” He said that:
"If you allow that emotional reaction — it’s called a refractory period — to last for hours or days, that’s called a mood…If you keep that same emotional reaction going on for weeks or months, that’s called a temperament…And if you keep that same emotional reaction going on for years on end, that’s called a personality trait.”
He said that when people have a traumatic event, “they keep recalling the event because the emotions of stress hormones — the survival emotions — are saying ‘pay attention to what happened because you want to be prepared if it happens again.’ Turns out most people spend seventy percent of their life living in survival and living in stress, so they are always anticipating the worst-case scenario based upon a past experience."
Interestingly enough, researchers have found that neuroticism and introversion are the two most changeable personality traits. Now, while my anxiety was unpleasant to experience and I needed to overcome that, I have grown to love being an introvert, and I am happy that I changed. But what my experience — and this research — shows is that our personal and spiritual growth is never stagnant. We are always capable of acquiring and developing, as the Baha'i writings say, the “spiritual characteristics and the praiseworthy virtues of humankind.”
How Can You Change Your Personality?
The individual alone must assess its character, consult his conscience, prayerfully consider all its aspects, manfully struggle against the natural inertia that weighs him down in his effort to arise, shed, heroically and irrevocably, the trivial and superfluous attachments which hold him back, [and] empty himself of every thought that may tend to obstruct his path…
He explained that to the degree that we are cleansed from “impurities, liberated from these petty preoccupations and gnawing anxieties, delivered from these prejudices and antagonisms, emptied of self, and filled by the healing and the sustaining power of God, will he be able to combat the forces arrayed against him” and serve humanity.
How do we rid ourselves from these anxieties and inhibiting thoughts and let go of what’s holding us back from acquiring the spiritual characteristics we desire?
In a talk to the Theosophical Society in London in 1912, Abdu'l-Baha said:
The attainment of any object [or goal] is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming there is no execution or accomplishment.
First, we have to assess our personality and know what changes could be made and what characteristics could be improved. Then, we have to have the volition, or will, to obtain and develop these certain spiritual qualities. Lastly, we have to fulfill these desires through action.
As Olga Khazan, an award-winning writer for The Atlantic and author of the book, “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World,” explained, “Changing a trait primarily requires acting in ways that embody that trait, rather than simply thinking about it. In one study, people were able to become more extroverted or conscientious over the course of four months just by listing the ways they’d like to change and what steps they would take to get there. So, someone who wanted to become more extroverted might write down, ‘Call Andrew and ask him to lunch on Tuesday.’ After enough lunches with Andrew (and presumably with others, too), people became the extroverts they hoped to be.”
This makes the phrase “fake it until you make it” more accurate than not. If we behave like the people we want to be, we will later become those people. It simply needs to be enforced through practice. So, if you have ever wished you were more loving or gentle or more friendly or assertive, nothing is holding you back. We are capable of obtaining any spiritual quality or personality trait that we desire. The change simply starts with you.