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The Nature of Personality Change

October 7, 2011

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

   So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.

 via Romans 7.

Qualitative and quantitive research has shown that personality traits tend to remain relatively stable in adults, although certain life-changing events have been linked to major changes in core measures of temperament.

 via Discover Magazine.

Recently, I’ve realized that my personality kinda sucks. I’ve noticed this before to an extent, but recently, I’ve been just getting into scraps with people, both offline and online, and I’m wondering why.

My father made a few comments to me on Facebook, and while at first I resisted them, and tried to think of all the ways that what he was saying was just so off…when I looked back over the comments, I realized he was spot-on.

I have pretty strong opinions sometimes (don’t we all?), but combined with strong opinions, I seem to have little self-awareness or control about how and in what venues to express those opinions. As a result, I piss a lot of people off.

This in and of itself isn’t so big of a deal, but the problem is that I also don’t really pay attention to whom I’m pissing off…and so while so far I’ve just been making some minor enemies with people I don’t really have to deal with, sometime in the future, I could piss off someone who has a lot more power over things that go on in my life. And that’s no good.

…to be honest, I’ve noticed this lack of self-control because of my graciousness project. What I’ve noticed is that I don’t really think about what I’m doing or saying when I’m saying them…and I don’t really self-assess in the moment either…if anything, I assess far after the fact, or only when something negative happens (e.g., the other person reacts). And it’s only then that I realize that I have failed.

So I have a conundrum…even when I recognize that there are things about my nature that I need to change, it’s really difficult even to begin changing them because, well, these things are pretty habitual and characteristic…it mostly happens on autopilot. (Think about it: my problem is that I am not self-critical…in other words, I need to learn somehow to turn off my autopilot. But how do I do that without falling into autopilot?)

In this way, it seems very similar to what Paul had to say to the Romans…unfortunately, Paul didn’t really have workable solutions. (At least, committing to Christ and just accepting that your nature is broken doesn’t seem to be a workable solution to me.)

My father had something to say, but again, I don’t know how to move from concept to practice:

Remember that it is easier to take advantage of the wisdom offered and move forward successfully than to have to learn the lesson painfully and hope you can recover.

And indeed, it makes sense conceptually. Yet, for a long time, I’ve thought that the only way you can truly learn a lesson is through learning it painfully. My very first post at Mormon Matters of why I almost went on a mission was virtually my epiphany that one could not live off the borrowed light and testimony of others. Seth R has expressed a similar concept in his criticism of those who have not earned their morals.

…but the thing about my father is that he has rejected that concept. He rejected it then and in his latest message, he continues to reject it. You shouldn’t have to learn the lesson painfully and then hope you can recover from whatever hurt you. You should be able to listen from others who are more wise…and somehow internalize the lesson.

I tried to think to my past…and I realized that I wasn’t always this way…and then I began to fear that over time, I’ve been devolving personality-wise. Before, I was pretty cautious and careful with what I said.

…but then I realized that in fact, I never was completely like that. Rather, I was always the same as I seem to be now…but years back, I got burned by it. And because I was burned, I stopped trusting anyone and stopped talking to or engaging with anyone beyond the bare minimum*.

37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

In reality, that was probably an overcompensation. And so, over time, I’ve thought that I’ve “healed” from the event and that I’ve become more at ease with people…and that’s true…but what’s also true is that I’ve simply become the same person I was before everything happened. Someone with strong opinions who doesn’t watch to whom he expresses those opinions.

…so, it seems that I have little track record of changing my personality through preventive measures…it’s always been proactive. It feels like I’ve always relied on life-changing events…and even though can lose effect over time…

*Some people say that introversion is a disorder caused by a negative experience…and that in actuality, since all humans are “social beings,” then all functional humans will be extroverted. I don’t buy this idea at all, but I think that given everything in my life, I still tend toward introversion as a way of re-energizing, but if I am in a crowd of people I know, I will tend to be very outgoing.

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From → Dad Talk

13 Comments
  1. I think we can learn by following the advice of others… I don’t think genuine learning HAS to be the hard way.

    I’ve learned this in my yoga class. There are certain techniques that I just haven’t been able to get right doing it on my own. Perhaps, over time, I would eventually figure it out myself. (This has sometimes happened.) But on occasion, an instructor will tell me (or show me) how to do something, and if I just follow their instructions, bingo! The posture completely changes, and I click right into a much better way of doing it. Without the instructor guiding me, it might take me years to learn things that, with an instructor, I can learn in a single lesson.

  2. I guess this assumes having an instructor who knows what he or she is doing.

    And of course, from the perspective of the learner, we have to trust that our instructor knows what he or she is doing. We can’t learn from someone with whom there isn’t a relationship of trust.

  3. John,

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that you have an instructor who can successfully communicate in a way that you understand what you need to do to fix what you’re doing wrong, and who also can communicate what right feels like. Or, at the very least, you’re at a point where the right and wrong poses reinforces themselves. It just “clicks” if you’re doing it right.

    But if you didn’t have that communication, then even if you trusted your instructor, it wouldn’t work because you wouldn’t know how to comply with their directions… Or even what correct compliance would feel like. Alternatively, if you’re trying to learn something that doesn’t have some immediate feedback, then it’s not necessarily true that you’ll know when you’re improving until something disastrous happens.

    In this sense, doing something wrong can often give you SOME context…You may not know how to do things right but you know that you want to avoid getting things wrong.

  4. Learning things the hard way is always an option.

    In my life I’ve had my share of bad instructors/teachers, who teach something incorrectly, or who don’t know how to communicate. So I understand exactly where you’re coming from here.

    For what it’s worth… As far as the difficult task of self-improvement goes…

    Taking more time in one’s life to be reflective and attentive is an important practice. Whether that comes in the form of prayer, meditation, journaling, whatever… When I pray, I take time to do a self-evaluation… What am I working on? How am I doing with that? Have I made any improvement? If not, why not? Then I also try to take time throughout the day to breathe, to pray briefly, to reflect on my prayers from that morning. I check periodically… How am I doing at this moment in relation to the things I’m trying to improve at. Over time, I’ve found things do get better. For example, I have my ups and downs with being patient. But when I look back over the last five years or so, I’d say I have become a much more patient person, a much less angry person… Being conscious and attentive has helped me, because when I’ve found myself in situations where I am tempted to get angry, I remember, “Oh, I’m supposed to be working on patience. Hey, this is a chance to be patient.” Then I breathe, and relax, and usually even smile to myself just a little… A situation that would normally make me mad has now become an opportunity to self-improve… And it gets easier as time goes on…

  5. I guess my feeling is, whenever I write a journal/meditate/whatever, then it feels like it’s too late. I’m then reflecting on things that happened over the entire day/half-day/whatever, and by then I’ve missed a lot of opportunities (or have failed at those opportunities).

    I guess it would be better to take time throughout the day to breathe, but that’s the problem I’m having. I most often say/do the worst things when I’m NOT slowed down.

  6. Hi. Longtime lurker, first time commenter. I don’t have any great advice for getting over this, but it sounds like a major part of your problem is that you don’t actually think it’s wrong to get into these tiffs with people. You seem very concerned that it might cause you trouble down the road, and that it caused trouble once in the past, but that’s very different from being concerned that your behavior is wrong in itself. I think having a conviction like that helps people monitor themselves in the moment, and maybe be the kind of thing Paul was talking about.
    On the other hand, if you don’t feel it’s fundamentally wrong to talk the way you do and you’re only trying to change because other people think it’s wrong, it seems natural that the effort isn’t producing major change.

  7. dustydistaff:

    Thanks for commenting!

    I think that is an interesting point. In a sense, I absolutely don’t think heated discussions are wrong. I feel that a lot of times, people take things far worse than I intend them. what I do think is wrong is offending others because that is not my intention. But that then is precisely based on “what other people think is wrong.”

    I guess my conflict is that I recognize that in social spheres, what I was thinking doesn’t matter as much as what others do. At least, if I still want to be accepted in that group. But I agree that that doesn’t really give me an intrinsic incentive to improve — just the socially situated one.

  8. I definitely value diplomacy and making effort to meet others halfway in a conversation. I’ve made a lot of effort to learn those skills myself. I think the hardest part is that, while you’re definitely trying to change your own behavior, you’re doing it in hopes of getting (or avoiding) certain reactions from other people. And you don’t really know how you’re doing until after the fact, when someone says they’re upset.

    It might help to tell some trusted friends to tell you the moment you start going too far for them–it might help you learn to gauge in the moment what effect you’re having. I’ve had friends do that to me a few times and it really made me more aware of what I was saying and how I was saying it.

  9. dustydistaff,

    These are really good points…I’ll probably have to do that.

  10. !

    I think I understand exactly what has happened to me.

    It has started from the time I’ve valued “authenticity.” From the time I felt uncomfortable “play acting” at religion, but realized that I DIDN’T believe. Because I didn’t want to continue acting and lying, I separated from that…and I’ve committed to a life of being “authentic.”

    But authentic people piss others’ off. Really, to survive in a social context, you have to be polite, and discreet, etc., etc., etc., EVERYONE acts; no one is honest in a public context (at least, those who are are extremely obnoxious.)

    …the worst thing is…I can probably go through posts I’ve written about authenticity and point out (from a conceptual basis) how being authentic can put you at odds with society, friends, etc., But I never made the connection between theory and practice until now.

    • I think you’re right about authenticity putting you at odds with social groups etc. I don’t think anyone can “just” be honest, though. There’s always tone to deal with–you can be honest and respectful or honest and rude or honest and whatever, but not just honest without some tone to it. And I absolutely believe people can (and probably should) learn to moderate their tone, because I know I have over time. I’ve definitely lost my balance at times, sometimes toward honest and rude, sometimes toward diplomatic but less honest/authentic, but I get better as I get older.

      • I think tone is an important element as well…I can’t say I’m the most respectful person. I don’t sugarcoat things. Another thing to work on.

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