“Everyone thinks of changing the world,
but no one thinks of changing himself.”
— CAL THOMAS
Although I look much like my mother, and seem to have her healthy genes too, when it comes to personality – especially temperament – I was born on my father’s side of the family: fiery. Alongside many positive traits, the Wilzigs have a temper. So did I. Which leads to my question: can someone change one’s own basic personality and behavior?
Neuroscientific research in the past few decades has come to quite a clear conclusion: we have great brain plasticity i.e., the brain can change in response to external challenges; we can also change our brains by practicing. For instance, the area of the brain connecting the two hemispheres – the corpus callosum – is larger among musicians than the average non-musician. The causation is “practice corpus callosum,” and not that people born with a larger corpus callosum tend to become musicians.
Does this apply to personality and general behavior as well? Not so much regarding the first, but certainly yes for the second. The kind of people we are seems to be relatively “hard-wired”: introvert vs. extrovert, adventurous vs home-body, etc. However, none of this means that with some effort we can’t “overcome” some personal trait that we (or others around us) find unbecoming or problematic. To put it in “philosophical” terms: just because we do not have complete free will does not mean that we are slaves to our essential being.
However, in such cases, precisely because we are attempting to do something that goes against our innate personality, it takes a lot of work to change a habitual behavioral trait or pattern. And motivation.
At the relatively young age of 57 my father suffered a massive heart attack and passed away half a year later. His sister, my aunt Rosa (a warm, wonderful woman, but another “yeller”) also died relatively early – and my father’s brother Freddy (the biggest yeller of all, but with a big heart) also didn’t live past his early 70s. As I approached my 50s, I began to think about the connection. Type A personalities (intensely temperamental) don’t have the longest lifespans. Could I do anything about this?
This was motivation enough, even if it was somewhat selfish, as the other major problem with a temper is that it makes people living around you very uncomfortable – and the bigger/more frequent the temper, the tenser family (and work) life becomes. I did think about this as well, but being brutally honest (in retrospect), it was self-preservation that constituted the main push to change.
In any case, I figuratively “sat down with myself” and made a conscious effort to control my temper whenever something (in the past, LOTS of things) would get my goat. It took a while. In fact, I found this not too much different than “practicing” other more mundane things in life, like shooting a basketball from the foul line, or improving my writing skills. I tried different approaches, keeping those that worked best for me. After a few years (yes, YEARS), I had succeeded in cutting down my temper outbursts by about 80% – to the extent that one day my son Boaz actually asked my wife Tami: “what happened to Abba? He hardly yells anymore…”
Should I have tried to do this earlier in life? Absolutely. Could I have succeeded earlier? I doubt it. Successful self-change can really come about only after a certain amount of “living life” (some call this “maturity” – but that’s not right because maturity is the outcome and not the driver of change; perhaps “aging” is better).
I didn’t intend (or think about) this but there are ancillary benefits to such change. First, success begets success. If we succeed in changing one problematic aspect of our behavior, it then becomes more likely that we will attempt to change another one as well. That doesn’t mean we will always succeed (I have had no success in stopping my finger-picking habit), but even trying to change can be a salutary enterprise. Second, not only will such change improve us personally, but as noted above it will also benefit our loved ones who have had to “put up” with the problem. And if they are happier, then we become even more satisfied with our personal effort.
I’ll conclude with what really is the hardest part of this whole “project”: admitting to ourselves in the first place that we have a serious personality flaw! Looking in the mirror is not for the weak-hearted (or much fun) but it’s crucial for self-growth. Once we get past that emotional obstacle, the rest of the self-change project is almost easy by comparison. In short, the expression “physician, heal thyself” is intended for all of us to rectify our basest behavior.
“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born,
and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”
— JAMES BALDWIN