Can personalities change or not?

©2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Question from Reader:

On page 23 of It’s all your Fault at Work you mention that the key difference between high-conflict people and reasonable people is whether or not they look at themselves and make efforts to change. I like the quote, “You can’t change what you can’t see.” We all have things we can work on to be better human beings!

On page 127 of Trump Bubbles: The Dramatic Rise & Fall of High-Conflict Politicians you mention that personality patterns that exist from childhood rarely change as adults and that the adult personality is developed mostly during childhood.

You say change is possible if you are self aware of behaviours that don’t serve you well, and you also say that personality patterns, formed largely in childhood, rarely change. I guess I see a contradiction here?

Our Response:

Personality change is on a continuum. All of us have fairly stable personalities over our lifetimes—they are the foundations of who we are. How we automatically think, feel and act. It’s our fundamental pattern of behavior, beginning in childhood—mostly in early childhood. Changing a specific behavior is easier than changing a personality.

Think of three levels of ability to change.

1)      Behavioral tweaks: Something all of us can do by paying extra attention, like driving on the other side of the road in England or Australia. It’s not central to our personalities.

2)      Personality change: Something that most people can do a little bit, if they put their minds to it. But this usually comes from self-awareness of a self-defeating behavior, and it can take a lot of work and a lot of time. But it’s possible with enough self-awareness, like a gang member who may say “I need to cultivate humility and stop resorting to violence.” With a lot of work and a change of environment, he could do this. Self-awareness was key.

3)      High conflict personality change: This is the hardest and the least likely—but not necessarily impossible. A good example is Donald Trump, whose advisors said he should “pivot” back in April and May, to start acting more “Presidential.” Yet, six months later it has become clear that he is unable to do so, even though it probably cost him the election. I doubt he has self-awareness of how his personality and behavior harm him, despite what his advisers say. He just rejects their advice as incorrect—he knows better. Because he appears to have a personality problem, he is preoccupied with blaming others and cannot look at himself. Thus he doesn’t even try to change. I believe he has had this pattern since childhood.

So some people may call it personality change, but they may not have had a high-conflict personality, such as the gang member described above. It could come from self-awareness and a decision to change, with a lot of practice. Change of environment helps a lot.

Others will never see that it would help them a lot to change. But mostly it’s a question of where one is on the personality continuum.

Read more about what we mean by “high conflict personalities”

High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, 2nd Ed.

It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissist & Other High Conflict People

Trump Bubbles: The Dramatic Rise & Fall of High Conflict Politicians

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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