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|Written by Dave Combden|
|Monday, 13 June 2011 00:00|
"[Kate] had thought that each individual had a complete self, a complete soul, an accomplished I. And now she realized as plainly as if she had turned into a new being, that this was not so. Men and women had incomplete selves, made up of bits assembled together loosely and somewhat haphazard. Man was not created ready-made. Men today were half-made, and women were half-made. Creatures that existed and functioned with certain regularity, but which ran off into a hopeless jumble of inconsequence." -- D.H. Lawrence
Two years ago, I went through a period for about a month where I didn't play guitar, sing, or do anything with music. I've played and sang and written music for about 16 years, and this period was the longest I'd gone without picking up a guitar since before I started playing. During this month, I was embroiled in thesis rewrites, thesis committee shake-ups, financial instability, and starting a new job, making music not a priority. When things got themselves straightened out and I eventually got back to my guitar, I was startled to discover that my voice didn't sound the same, my songs didn't seem familiar, and my usually emotional lyrics stirred nothing within me. Songs that, just 6 weeks before, I could not sing because they would make me too emotional to continue had no effect on me whatsoever. Not only did they not affect me, they did not feel like my words. It seemed as if someone else had written them. When I sang my songs, I felt as if I were an imposter, a fraud. My voice didn't sound the same, didn't even sound like mine. These feelings went away after awhile, after I played a bit more and reacquainted myself with my songs, but I was pretty distressed at what had happened. So I was determined to figure out what had happened to me. This article is a synopsis of my subsequent research.
This is what I've found: we have the ability to change ourselves, and we are in far more control of this process than we had previously thought. We are incomplete, as Lawrence suggests in The Plumed Serpent, and we can choose which one of our incomplete selves we want to access throughout our lives.
We tend to think of ourselves as fairly static. In fact, our whole view of the concept of personality is informed on the notion that it is a stable representation of one's character, comprising traits, habits, and characteristics that set one person apart from another. But what if we are capable of changing our personalities, of changing the very essence that sets us apart from others? Our personalities are seen as stable from a traditional psychological point of view,with the potential to change somewhat throughout life as we learn and grow, but I believe we have the capacity to alter our personality more than we ever thought we could and over a shorter amount of time than we ever thought was possible. Our interests, abilities, knowledge, self-perception, ambitions, habits . . . all those elements that comprise personality can be quite unstable, and each has the capacity to change greatly over time. Sometimes these elements can change greatly over a short period of time. And sometimes, we can essentially change ourselves greatly over short periods of time.
Much evidence exists that suggests that our personalities don't change significantly over time. In fact, most of the research on personality suggests as much. It is because of this personality stability that we possess a coherent sense of self. It is also how we, as social beings, gauge one another. The majority of contemporary research in personality theory focuses on whether people do change over time and not on the theoretical possibilities of whether people could change over time. For example, the latest research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Costa & McCrae (the theorists behind 'The Big Five' factors of personality and leaders in personality research) "strengthen claims of predominant personality stability after age 30." These researchers used what is called a meta-analysis to pore over hundreds of existing personality studies and come up with an overarching picture of personality change across all studies. What they found was that over time, for most people, personality remains constant. What I am proposing in this article is the possibility of personality change through conscious choice and determination.
As noted previously, through a constant and stable personality we are able to develop a sense of self (which is a good thing) and develop deep and meaningful relationships with others as they walk through life with us (which is also a good thing). So why would anybody want to consciously change their personality? Well, for many reasons. I think everyone has thought, at least once in their life, "I wish I could change this one thing about me." Perhaps it is an overbearing sentimentality that is getting in the way of letting go of a lost loved one or failed relationship, or maybe an overly adventurous nature that has gotten in the way of relationships or holding down a job. Perhaps it is a hyperactive attention span that is making it difficult to concentrate in school or at work, or maybe a weak sense of willpower that is making it difficult to quit smoking, adhere to an exercise routine, or stick to a diet. In other words, in some cases it can be adaptive to want to change elements of one's personality. Now, this article is not to advocate for such changes; it is only to be taken as a statement that it can be done, and it is within our reach.
Fields of study as diverse as psychology, philosophy, neurology, sociology, and biology all recognize this ability to change to a certain extent. We see evidence of this idea not only in psychological case studies but also in literature, music, art, self-help movement, intelligence testing, and in the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity. Each field has a unique explanation and/or mechanism for change, but there are more similarities than differences between these sometimes disparate fields. From transcendental spiritual dogmas to AA programs to Bob Dylan referring to himself as a 'multiple,' there are certain overlapping elements to various contrasting theories and ideas. In this article, I go over these theories, outline the mechanisms of change, and demonstrate how we may be able to take hold of the process. I've broken down the areas into three main sections: sudden insight/self-actualization, abnormal psychology/effects of trauma, and physiological effects/neuroplasticity. [Ed. note: the latter two will be discussed in the second part of this article on Wednesday.]
1. Sudden Insight/Self-Actualization
There are types of changes involving a sudden insight, an epiphany if you will, that result in lasting and substantial changes in the core essence of an individual. Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens' A Christmas Carol immediately comes to mind when dealing with an emotional awakening or an epiphany of personality-altering importance. Another classic example is of someone 'finding God' and being reborn as a new person.
In the book Quantum Change, William R. Miller and Janet C'de Baca interviewed dozens of people claiming to have experienced such a change. In their own words they described how this epiphany, what the researchers call a "quantum change," happened and how it affected them, even years later. The authors defined a quantum change as an experience that is at once vivid, surprising, and benevolent, and results in a permanent personality change. People explained how real the experience felt, how undeniable it was that something important was happening. They could generally recall with stunning detail the time, place, and surrounding details of the experience.
What is unusual about the enlightenment gained in a quantum change is the veracity of the insight and the ability of the person to recognize the truth of this knowledge. There is an immediate acceptance of this newfound knowledge as fact that differentiates quantum change from a realization of a smaller magnitude. Experiences such as these were generally also felt as though one had walked through a door through which they could not return. It led to permanent change. Even if one had wanted to return to the way they were before, they would be unable to. "I once was lost but now am found/Was blind, but now I see," as John Newton put it in his hymn "Amazing Grace."
It is this type of experience Miller and C'de Baca were writing about. This type of lasting and extremely emotional personality change cannot be sought after or controlled in any sense of the word, but I think by keeping an open mind and not closing off experiences, one can increase the chances of being struck by something that inexorably alters one's viewpoint of the world, and one's place in the world, forever.
On a more subtle level than an epiphany is the notion of transcendence or self-actualization. A sub-type of quantum change that Miller and C'de Baca call an "insightful quantum change" can be viewed as the sudden consolidation of psychological processes or associations that had been subtly shifting for a long time, even years. An insightful quantum change can be thought of as the very first realization of these associations as a coherent, cogent movement toward an inherent truth. When they wrote about subtle psychological processes happening over time, I believe they were describing the path to self-actualization. As the moment of epiphany, they were describing transcendence.
Dr. Abraham Maslow pioneered the field of humanistic psychology, and the central tenet that he rested his theories on was this path to self-actualization. I have already written an article outlining humanistic psychology, so I won't go into too much detail regarding this process. Essentially, Maslow didn't want to study sick individuals to learn more about our psychology; he wanted to study healthy individuals to discover more about our capacities. By studying and interviewing extremely healthy people, he helped develop the field of humanistic psychology.
Maslow stated that once one's basic needs have been satisfied, one is free to explore the higher needs -- needs related to growth of the individual and for a realization of one's capacities and talents. That is, once one's needs for food, water, shelter and safety have been met, one can progress to attempting to fulfill needs related to love, acceptance, respect, and esteem. Once these needs have been met, one can continue to progress along the road to self-actualization. And this is exactly what he found when he studied healthy people; they all shared this inner striving for growth.
The fundamental change that takes place here shifts from a deficiency perspective to a growth perspective. All this means is that instead of motivation arising from the need to fill a void, motivation arises from the need to learn and grow. From a deficiency perspective, once the desire is fulfilled, the motivation no longer exists (e.g. hunger, thirst, etc.). One feels motivated to eat, then does so and subsequently exterminates the motivation. The shift that occurs is from this orientation of deficiency to a more growth-dominated perspective wherein the motivation is constant. Approaching self-actualization doesn't quench any desire; it reinforces the desire to learn, to grow, to become, to transcend. That is the fundamental change that is required for any type of actualization to occur and to continue to occur. Gratification must be inherent in the pursuit.
This now brings us to the all-important question of how this type of learning, how this type of change is possible. We start by looking at the choices available to every person in everyday life. It is a continuing choice of forward growth and realization that leads one to fulfillment; it is a continuing choice of regression or stasis that leads one no closer to growth. What can we garner about this lack of momentum, this lack of forward movement? It is not a conscious choice to not grow, to not learn; it is more often than not a fear, an unknowing of the future, and an underestimation of one's own abilities. When one is able to conquer this fear, one is freer to transcend society, the environment, even one's self.
Come back on Wednesday to learn more about the roles trauma and the exciting new field of neuroplasicity play in helping us define and change ourselves.