Can people really change?

Tired of feeling like a particular personality trait is holding you back? Good news – you can actually change if you really want to. Learn why and how to make it work.

It turns out that old saying about leopards and unchangeable spots isn’t true, with research now showing it is possible for people to change aspects of their personality.

“We used to think personality traits were quite fixed,” psychologist and therapist Leanne Hall says.

“But we know now they can change, particularly as we grow older.

“Over time, certain pathways become reinforced, often leading to traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness to grow stronger with age.”

But you don’t have to wait for time to work its magic.

In line with recent research, Leanne says it’s also possible to purposefully change something about your personality – if you want to.

“I think it’s important to remember that none of us are perfect, and we’ve all got parts of our personalities that we may not be particularly keen on,” Leanne says.

“It’s great to want to be and do better, but sometimes it’s also helpful to be able to embrace the parts of ourselves that aren’t perfect, as well.

“However, if you do identify something in yourself that you want to change, then with the right support, you can absolutely work on that and change it.”

What is the catalyst for change?

Therapist and host of The Curious Life podcast, Jana Firestone says there are many reasons why a person might choose to work on an aspect of their personality.

“When we have our own behaviour reflected back to us it can be a complete eye opener,” Jana says.

“We may have responded to something in a way that we don’t like or become aware that we’ve fallen into patterns of behaviour or thinking that aren’t good for us.

“This can lead to unhealthy relationships, difficult dynamics and making choices that impact our lives in a negative way.”

Leanne says milestones and life-changing moments can also be the trigger.

“The death of a loved one or reaching a milestone birthday can shift the way you see the world and be the catalyst to work on something you want to change,” she says.

“But the magic ingredient for change is always insight and the ability to self-reflect.”

How can people change their personality?

Once you’ve identified something you want to work on, these tips can help facilitate the change you’re after.

Find a support network

Depending on what you’d like to change, this may – or may not – involve professional support.

“If you’d like to change a pattern of behaviour that’s, for example, leading to unhealthy relationships, then going to therapy to establish the root cause of this behaviour is a good start,” Jana says.

“We might explore some of the reasons behind why this might be occurring, how it has manifested and how to establish new boundaries.”

Leanne adds that while professional help isn’t always necessary, support is.

“It’s like wanting to give up smoking – it can be difficult to do that on your own because your usual lifestyle can snap you back into your old ways.

“So, for example, if you want to become someone who’s less hesitant and more open to embracing new things, you need a friendship network, even if it’s just one or two people in your circle, that can support that.”

Be prepared to persevere

Leanne says it’s important to remember change can’t happen overnight.

“It takes perseverance,” she says.

“It’s about being flexible, understanding that it does take time, and acknowledging that you won’t get it right every time.

“And when you do snap back to old behaviours or patterns, be kind to yourself.

“Acknowledge it’s not how you wanted to approach things, but you’ll do better next time.”

Know that it might be uncomfortable – but you’ll get there

“Like any new skill you want to learn, what you’re doing is forming new neural pathways in your brain,” Leanne says.

“This can be exhausting to begin with, but the more you do it, the more familiar you become with it and the more it becomes second nature – which is why it’s worth persevering.”

Jana agrees, saying the more we practice, the more likely change will stick.

“When we continue to practice a new way of thinking or behaving, then we can change our habitual responses so that we automatically think or behave in a new way.”

Listen to Leanne Hall’s full interview on The House of Wellness radio show (March 19, 2023):

Written by Karen Fittall.