I really kinda thought I'd be a better person by now :(.
May 16, 2011 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I've spent decades working on the same personal flaws, and despite clear goals and clever attack strategies, nothing ever seems to stick. Is it even possible to permanently "fix" specific aspects of one's character or personality? If so, how? and how long does it take?

This is less a question about specific problems than a meta-query about just what it takes to make a long-term personal improvement in any area of one's character. One of the saddest things about heading into my thirties has been realizing all the annoying personal flaws-- shyness, indolence, anxiety, indecisiveness, disorganization, lack of self-discipline, etc., etc., etc.-- that tripped me up ten years ago are STILL present, more-or-less unchanged, today.

I've got reasonably good self-knowledge, a crystal-clear idea of the sort of person I'd like to become, and am lucky enough not to have any sort of past trauma or present hardship holding me back... and yet, somehow, despite plan after plan, strategy after strategy, nothing about me ever really seems to improve. On the contrary, some things have gotten worse! Clearly, I'm doing something wrong.

So, my question: if, over the course of your life, you've actually succeeded in improving your self (that is, in some fundamental characterological fashion, not just by quitting nail-biting or getting your B. A. or whatever), what sort of experience or training was responsible for making that improvement? I guess I'm looking for something like the 30-days-to-a-habit rule, except for personality: what kind of experience is actually needed to produce real change, and how quickly should one expect to see results?

Oh, and just to clarify, I'm talking about fixing normal levels of flawed-ness here, nothing pathological or requiring professional intervention. Thanks!
posted by gallusgallus to Human Relations (26 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
am lucky enough not to have any sort of past trauma or present hardship holding me back.

I'd review this assumption. It may not be trauma, but we do these things for a reason.

personal flaws-- shyness, indolence, anxiety, indecisiveness, disorganization, lack of self-discipline

I'd also review the assumption that these are "flaws" and that you are possessed by them. They are things you do sometimes. Sometimes you are the opposite of all of those.

What you are doing is what the Buddhists call "self-aggression." It is okay to be shy, indolent, anxious, disorganized and lacking self-discipline. These are installed features, not bugs. Making war on one's self is often the problem.

If I were you, I'd get some cognitive therapy.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2011 [14 favorites]

Recognize that environment plays a larger role in how we act, perhaps even in who we are and how we perceive ourselves, than most of us would like to believe.

One way of changing yourself is to place yourself in environments and among people who elicit the kinds of behaviors in you that make you more like the person you want to be.
posted by itstheclamsname at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

Things may get easier if you stop trying so hard. Maybe you're just as you should be. Maybe there's nothing to fix. Maybe it's ok to be a little shy or anxious or undisciplined or whatever. Think about what would happen if you let go and just lived life as who you are instead of some idealized, unattainable version of yourself. Would you actually get closer to who you want to be?
posted by quadog at 11:19 AM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm talking about fixing normal levels of flawed-ness here, nothing pathological or requiring professional intervention

Frankly if you've been working at it for ten years and it's getting worse, I'd start with a professional assessment.
posted by anti social order at 11:20 AM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

One thing that has helped me out in huge ways is actively forcing myself to be in the right mood to enable me to be the star of my own life.

I assume that there are moments in your life where you feel like you are firing on all cylinders. Just kicking major ass. That is the mood you should be striving to be in at all times. Every other mood you're in is just a step on the way to warming up to your real kickass self. Don't just wait for this mood to come around... you need to develop ways to get yourself from being in an 80% kickass mood to a full on 100% kickass, this is my damn life, hallelujah, lets go hi-five the crap out of people, type of mood.

I do this by keeping things in perspective. It's corny, but we're all just lucky sentient star dust. You're here for a short time, and then it's over. There's a good chance nobody is going to remember any of us. So go nuts.

I also do this by remembering how much more fun life is when I'm in my baseline good mood. Being depressed and mopy isn't fun, and luckily with some work, I am able to think myself into being in a good mood.

Upset that you just started blushing when talking to someone you like? The good news is that it doesn't really fucking matter. Try again next time. Apply wherever necessary.

Don't beat yourself up too much, you're your own best friend. Give in to the chores you've set for yourself knowing that they will make you a better person. Everything is going to be okay.
posted by pwally at 11:33 AM on May 16, 2011 [70 favorites]

My observation is that few people ever make any profound changes in their personalities, however, it is possible to make some changes. Rather than becoming self disciplined about all things, just pick one thing. Set a realistic goal and do it. I believe that you will find that you can be self disciplined through sheer determination, and by not attempting to do too much all at once.
I also agree with above comments that your personality is not necessarily as bad as you think it is. While you may never become one of the proverbial movers and shakers of the world, you probably can still have a productive life, despite you limitations.
posted by grizzled at 11:33 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Like Ironmouth, I question the concept of "flaws," but Lojong training is a centuries-old Buddhist system of mind training that tackles many of the issues you describe. I personally recommend the book The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind. I also recommend mindfulness meditation; it's helped me realize when I'm anxious/impatient/grouchy/whatever and how to let go of it.
posted by desjardins at 11:38 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

So, my question: if, over the course of your life, you've actually succeeded in improving your self

Sort of, yes...or at least I've changed in some ways. But my feeling about this - both from my own expereinces and observing other people - is that those kind of changes aren't forced by training or will, but they happen because they have to. So to use your shyness example, if you were thrown into a series of situations where you simply could not be shy (or at least could not behave in a way that showed you were shy) you'd become somewhat more outgoing because you'd have to. You might not even enjoy the change, because being outgoing has its own set of problems. But you'd do it. Though I don't think there's anything wrong with being shy, or anything you mentioned really, unless it gets extreme.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:44 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing I'm not hearing you mention is breaking out your "fundamental characteristics" into constituent actions that you do. For instance, you mention disorganization: it's a giant problem to attack as is, but what if you broke it out into parts?

I'm disorganized too, and a huge chunk of my disorganization can be broken out into: my cluttered home, my cluttered desk at work, an inefficient system for managing e-mail and not using a planner. Those, of course, can be broken out further.

My suggestion is, attack each one of those things, one at a time. Fix one, then move onto the next. Obviously this advice is less than helpful for mood-related things like anxiety, but it's how I'm taclking disoragnization, at least.
posted by downing street memo at 11:58 AM on May 16, 2011

My personal experience was that I finally went to therapy because I felt like my social anxiety (shyness) was keeping me from dating. Nothing pathological, I just needed to overcome some shyness. Five years later my life is So much better in so many ways - I'm still not perfect and still sometimes get in my own way - but dealing with my self-esteem and low-functioning patterns allowed me to blossom into the person I'd wanted to be.
posted by ldthomps at 12:00 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

To the extent that I've been able to change things about myself (shyness, anxiety, procrastination, lack of discipline), it has mostly happened because I stopped treating the problem as a moral failing and tried to address it as a practical or emotional one.

Sometimes that means doing a bit of life hacking: putting my bills on automatic payment cycles, being willing to hire help when I truly can't get something done myself, making exercise a commitment that someone else will hold me to. Knowing in advance when seasonal depression is likely to set in, and stocking up on necessities ahead of time so that by the time I'm too apathetic to shop, I'll at least have a full pantry. That sounds trivial, but it took me a long time to get to that place mentally where I was willing to accept that I had this problem and that I needed to care for my future depressed self almost as though we were two different people, because round about January my mind was not going to be working the same way it worked in August.

Sometimes it's been harder, like recognizing that a specific relationship was causing me problems and choosing a new set of boundaries to enforce. Or realizing that some of my supposed shyness was actually uncertainty about how to handle specific types of social situation, and that it helped a lot to prepare myself for those situations by talking them over in advance with more experienced friends.

In general, if I'm doing something I don't like, it helps to start by asking myself why I'm doing this thing, and ruling out "because I suck" as a possible answer. It's banal, but for me it's the fastest way of getting to an effective solution.

I'm not sure that's all made me a better person as such. What it has done is reveal how many of the things I considered personal flaws in my early 20s were at least partially circumstantial. My life now runs more smoothly and happily, with less fallout for the people around me, and I spend way less time having angry little chats with myself.
posted by emshort at 12:18 PM on May 16, 2011 [12 favorites]

How interesting that the last sentence of your post rejects the obvious answer to your quest. Getting professional help to sort yourself out in ways that are important to you does not necessarily mean you are being treated for a pathology. On the other hand you might be. You are stuck in a situation that you cannot "will" yourself out of. You are not the best person to determine whether pathology plays a part or not. Either way you can benefit from professional help.
Remember: If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got.
Change is hard. Stop eliminating solutions without trying them.
posted by txmon at 12:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Consider that you can't necessarily overcome something that is biologically ingrained. If you only have one arm, then you aren't suddenly going to grow another. What you can do, though, is compensate in various different ways for things that you perceive as flaws.

I'm not a morning person. I can function enough to make coffee, but things like speech and such aren't an option at that time of the morning. The only reason I take my multivitamin every morning is because it's on my job list. The pot of multivitamins is on top of the coffee, but I've lost count of the times that I've drank my coffee and found the multivitamin by the coaster. So I have "take multivitamin" on my daily job list, because I' not biologically disposed to paying that much attention first thing in the morning.

It's also important to remember that you can't just acquire a habit and then forget about it. You have to practice that habit every day (or other interval). There comes a point where it becomes second nature, but you still have to pay attention. There s no "30 day fix".

I've been working for the past couple of years on overcoming shyness. I'm nearly there. Today, I took my car to a mechanic to be fixed. A year ago, I'd have been up all night worrying and stressing about it, because it's new. What stopped me from doing this was developing the determination to change. I developed that by thinking about how much better life would be if I wasn't stressed out about things like that - if my car broke down, I could take it someplace. I could ask for help from strangers. It would be a useful life skill. Etc. I basically tried to think of as many "hooks" to latch onto to give me the impetus I needed to change. It sounds silly, but I made a list of these reasons, and visualised each of them. And when I was fired up, I took baby steps towards doing the things I knew I had to do to get to where I wanted to be.

It wasn't easy to step outside of my comfort zone, but having that list of reasons to change really helped. Cognitive behavioural therapy helped a great deal, too. And today, I went to visit a new mechanic without a trace of anxiety. I know, though, that I'll constantly have to push my comfort zone outwards, or it's just going to deflate, like a balloon. There are no quick fixes to a happy life, because you have to make those fixes last over a lifetime.

Choose one thing that you want to work on, such as shyness, and then create a list of reasons as to why your life will be better if you're more confident in social situations. Perhaps you'll find it easier to talk to people. Perhaps you'll come across better when talking to that girl/boy you like. Perhaps there are some other reasons. Whatever they are, find out what they are. Then create a plan for getting some experience in being less shy, and work at it every day, for a minimum of 6 months [personally speaking, 21 days to a new habit is complete and utter crap]. Then work on the next thing. And remember that you're going to have to work on honing & using these skills for the rest of your life.
posted by Solomon at 12:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

I started Health Month in February (on the Metafilter team), and it has genuinely sparked successful change in my life. It turns out that looking at my life like a festive community-based game ended up creating a seismic shift in how I viewed my days and my time/choices/capability/productivity generally. It keeps unexpectedly setting off bigger and bigger changes in my life. I know it's only been a few months, but it's still the only thing that has ever lasted a matter of months rather than days! Maybe something like that could shake up your usual way of approaching change.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 1:15 PM on May 16, 2011

I'd suggest you start considering that, in the words of American Zen teacher Cheri Huber, (Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe) There is Nothing Wrong With You. She also has a book on How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be and on Making a Change for Good: A Guide to Compassionate Self-Discipline.

(I recommend Cheri's work rather a lot because it's been so life-changingly helpful for me, especially coming from a family where you can never be good enough or accomplish enough to be OK was a big, big unspoken message.)
posted by Lexica at 2:01 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I haven't read this book, but it has been on my radar because it acknowledges that willpower as a change strategy has serious shortcomings, and it offers powerful alternatives:


I also recommend daily meditation with intermittent therapy (say 3-6 months every year or two). Daily meditation just goes... deeper than any explicit, analytical maneuvering is going to go, building up this latent foundation or restlessness, insight, and possibility, and then therapy helps to translate that into explicit thought, intention, and action.
posted by zeek321 at 2:13 PM on May 16, 2011

Try to work with your tendencies rather than against them - whenever possible, turn into the skid. So, for example, I have found that when I get really stuck on something I'm working on, finding a new productivity strategy helps for about a week, maybe two, but that's it. I used to get upset about this, and lament that I was lazy and scattered and couldn't stick to anything. But then I started to look at it this way: I'm especially susceptible to the novelty effect. What this means is that when I get stuck, I just need to find some new way of working. And, since I know I'm not going to stick to it, any new way will do. I don't need to waste days finding the perfect system, I just need to change something, anything, about the way I'm working, and boom, I'm set for a week.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

I was shy, introverted and didn't like parties.

Over time, I have learned some additional social skills, tips and techniques. I can chat to strangers much better, don't hide in the corner or the kitchen as often, and generally function reasonably well in social situations.

I still don't like parties.

I think you can acquire skills in certain areas, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you will enjoy using them. Or that you'll become the sort of person who does X, if you don't currently.

Definitely, working with the system (and doing what works, not what should work) is the best way to get stuff done. I'm also lazy and disorganised. In an ideal world I'd look at lists and stuff, or properly implement GTD. In the real world, I write down actual next actions in a small number of places, file paperwork in categories like 'received in 2011', and use calendar reminders to get me to the next meeting. It works, who cares if it's not perfect.
posted by plonkee at 3:43 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like Constructive Living, by David Reynolds, because his take, based on Morita philosophy/psychology is that your feelings don't have to hold you back from actions and that you can go forward from your past experiences.

Accept your emotions as they are and do what needs to be done. I'm responsible for what I do, no matter how I'm feeling. This was a big aha! moment for me--previously, I'd excused myself for all sorts of things because I was sad/mad/glad whatever.
I can feel lazy but still do my laundry.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I stopped making excuses then started doing everything that needed to be done.

It was literally that simple.
posted by french films about trains at 5:56 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've had many of the same wishes for myself: that I was less shy and anxious, more vivacious - a people person! - and of course organized in all aspects of my life. I also have a picture of the perfect me, but it's not really me, it's like alter-me. It's taken me thirty-some years and therapy to realize that who I am - quiet, thoughtful, and anxious, is just fine, and actually people may appreciate me more for it. I agree life-hacks can make one more organized and introducing daily habits can make life easier. But I've found, personality-wise, just accepting who I am takes the pressure off and allows me to have more fun, be happier, and yes, more out-going. The mindfulness approach has been great and helping me recognize when I'm having self-defeating thoughts and wishing I was someone else. There are therapists and books that can help with this - check out Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For books I like The Happiness Trap. Go for it!
posted by feidr2 at 8:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is it possible that you have attention deficit disorder? For me, no amount of willpower or determination could overcome the "character flaws" that my brain needed chemicals to fix.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:14 PM on May 16, 2011

Instead of focusing on your "flaws," which you yourself acknowledge are pretty normal, I think you should focus on your strengths. Some aspects of your personality -- indecisiveness, disorganization, etc -- don't need to necessarily be "fixed." You can work around them.

I just posted this in another question thread, but I'll recommend this link again: Authentic Happiness. It's a site developed by Martin Seligman, devoted to positive psychology. Check out the Questionnaires section, especially the Brief Strengths test.

If you're going to note all your flaws, I think it's important that you at least remind yourself of your strengths, too.
posted by hypotheticole at 6:23 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a painfully shy introvert, but no one who knows me knows that except my nearest and dearest. Why? I did the "fake it until you make it" bit. Most people who meet me think I'm a very outgoing and friendly person. I don't sit in a corner alone at parties anymore, okay, I do for a minute until I get the lay of the land, but then I'm all smiles and laughs. But you can bet I still take time to unwind and be alone - it's essential to my well-being. There is nothing wrong with being shy or introverted! However, we live in a social society and that means mingling with the crowd once in a while, so sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and pretend you're smiling.

I am also disorganized, indecisive, and lack self-discipline. I used to stress about these things too, to the point of deep, dark, depression - up until about four years ago when I went through a serious trauma, now my mindset is this - So what? Who says that my life has to be organized? Who says I have to decide anything right here and now? etc, etc, etc... Who set the standard, and why do I have too meet it? I simplified my life so these traits didn't really cause me too much stress in this busy, busy world we live in, and that was that.

I guess what I'm saying is what others have said - your flaws are not flaws. They are features of your personality that don't need to be changed, just worked around if they are causing you trouble.
posted by patheral at 9:03 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Taking the first "flaw" you listed - shyness - that's not necessarily a flaw, but is a characteristic.

I managed to change that one sometime around my 20th birthday, through a *lot* of embarrassment and practice.

Talk to people. Talk more than you're comfortable with. Make a habit of talking to people, including friends, coworkers, and complete strangers. Slowly and steadily push your comfort level, and make it a habit to do things like saying hi to strangers in an elevator.

Have a set of topics you're comfortable talking about (the weather, sports, and primary cultural differences of the maori tribesmen)

Accept that quite often, this might end in embarrassment. If you hit that, explain what you're trying to do to people you know... and accept that it's occasionally going to embarrass you in front of strangers, and That's Okay. Learning how to more easily shrug off social embarrassment is part of being outgoing instead of being shy.
posted by talldean at 11:52 AM on May 20, 2011

Two things:

1. Watch this video. This helped me deal with my flaws.

2. Seconding the young rope-rider. About the same time as I saw that video, I got diagnosed with ADHD and started treatment. All of a sudden, my issues with disorganization, anxiety, and so on, began to ebb or at least become manageable.

Honestly, you will never completely "fix" yourself, and that's ok. In fact, I'd argue that it will be impossible to address things like shyness and indecisiveness if you view yourself as inherently flawed. I found that, once I started learning how to accept myself (with the help of a really good therapist) as I was, a lot of the problems I'd been trying so hard to fix either seemed less like problems (some of my "bugs" actually started feeling like features) or became pretty easy to manage.

Good luck.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 9:49 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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