It has long been thought that personality is part of who we are and doesn’t change. If you are a sociable, extroverted person, the idea is that you will probably be that way for your entire life. On the contrary, people who are introverted and prefer and enjoy time alone will probably always be that way. We can all think of advantages to being either extroverted or introverted, and introverts have received a lot of attention these days in popular media and books, describing the needs, preferences, and strengths of this often neglected and misunderstood group. For those who are more on the neurotic side and experience a lot of negative emotions, however, the idea that Personality is fixed sounds like a pretty bad deal. Well, after decades of research, we know that personality does, indeed, change throughout the lifespan, with a lot of change happening in young adulthood. Even better, evidence also suggests that positive traits, such as confidence, agreeableness, consciousness and emotional stability increase, at least a small degree, with age (Roberts et al., 2006).
If personality can changes simply through the process and experiences of aging, can it also change as a result of treatment? DBT therapists often tell their clients that their problems probably result from a combination of personality or temperament and environment. The idea is that people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to be emotional to begin with, and being emotional does not mean that they will develop a disorder. Being emotional and raised in and invalidating environment, where you don’t learn how to manage your emotions, however, can result in serious problems. If you’re a really emotional person growing up in an invalidating environment, learning to manage your emotions is like learning to fly a fighter jet in the middle of a war, while while the rest of your less emotional friends only have to learn to drive a Ford, and in peaceful times to boot! DBT therapists often try to help their clients learn to understand and manage their emotions and to see the bright side of being really emotional, passionate, sensitive, and empathetic. The idea is that therapy might not change how emotional you are, but it will probably change how you manage your emotions. Even after therapy, clients with BPD might be more emotional or experience more emotional instability than the average person. This may be true, but some research says it’s probably less true than we think. It turns out that therapy actually can change personality. Stay tuned for more details on this in future blog. ~ Dr. Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych