Do you think chickens have personalities? I bet if you ever owned chickens, you think so. Humans are so obsessed with the idea of personality that they project personalities onto animals, pets, and even household objects.
People have been coming up with theories about why people are the way they are since the first humans. Modern personality theories include dispositional (trait) perspective, psychodynamic, humanistic, biological, behaviorist, evolutionary, and social-learning perspective.
But I have my own theory: personality is a heuristic we use to understand other people’s behavior and our own. The brain wants to be energy efficient, so it creates shortcuts. We don’t want to have to consider and analyze every time someone does something, so we decide on a theory about what their personality is like, and then we interpret everything through that lens. We decide other people are nice or mean, supportive or critical, or giving or selfish, and then we filter whatever they say or do accordingly.
If a friend you think is supportive says “I have some ideas for your new business,” you feel warmth because you’re thinking they care about you. But if a relative you think doesn’t believe in you said it, you’d feel angry, because you think they think you’re incompetent. Same person and action, but you filter it through your idea of what their personality is, and you react differently.
You do the same thing with your own personality. Most of us have a litany of things that are wrong with us, and we think they are personality characteristics. We think we’re selfish, lazy, loud, sensitive, critical, too emotional, or unlovable, and somehow we think these are actual aspects of our personalities.
Once we have those beliefs, we comb through our behavior to find evidence of those beliefs. We also scan our past for more evidence of these personality traits, and then, when we find a match, we tell ourselves it’s proof we just are that way. Then we heap guilt, shame, and judgment on ourselves to try to make ourselves act differently, which never works, because those things cause humans to hide, avoid, distract, or lash-out—none of which improve our feelings or actions.
Here’s the mind-blowing concept I want you to consider today: What if you don’t have a personality at all?
Everything you do is just an action that results from a feeling that results from a thought. You have a thought. A thought is a sentence in your mind. You think the thought, then you have a feeling. A feeling is a sensation in your body. So the sentence in your mind creates a physical sensation in your body, and then that feeling drives the action. When you feel angry, you snap. When you feel guilty, you mope. Your actions flow naturally from the feelings you have.
Most humans react to feelings in the same way. When we feel anxious, we avoid or numb-out. When we feel angry, we lash-out. When we feel love, we express warmth. What if your actions are simply driven by your feelings, which are driven by your thoughts? What if anyone in the world who had the thought you had would feel and act the same way when they had it?
Do you see what that would mean? It means you aren’t any particular kind of person. You’re not a selfish, mean, or lazy person. You’re just a person who has certain thoughts, that lead to certain feelings, that lead to certain actions.
Your thoughts come from a million sources—your parents, friends, society, your education, your work, what you read, the random synaptic firings of your brain. Your thoughts are not moral. They are just sentences in your brain. If your thoughts aren’t moral, and they cause your feelings and actions, then you don’t have a personality. You’re just a collection of past thoughts, feelings, and actions. How freeing is that?
It means if you want to act differently, you don’t have to change any deep personality traits, and you don’t have to cure some fundamental flaw or defect. You simply learn how to think differently on purpose. That’s it.
Do you feel how that might take a weight off you?
You can be whatever kind of person you want to be. You can create whatever kind of feelings and actions you want, because your personality is not fixed in stone. It’s just a collection of thoughts, feelings, and actions. No one taught you how to manage them before, so you haven’t, but once you learn how to manage your mind, you can change those whenever you want.
The next time you find yourself thinking you or someone else just has a certain kind of personality, I want you to pause and ask yourself how you feel when you think that. Does it feel empowering? I bet it doesn’t.
How would your approach to the situation change if you believed that all you were experiencing were thoughts, feelings, and actions that you could change whenever you wanted to? It’s a beautiful thought experiment. Give it a try.