Those of us open to change, learning what it is to present the best version of ourselves in situations that require our response, can miss the point. “If only I could change this about me, I would be a better person, or if only I was more like _______, I would get better results.” We cannot change our personalities as they are hard wired in us and aren’t the problem in the first place. The problem is the quality of relationship we have to our personality.
Inside our minds are many characters or parts. Personality is not one thing. Our mind, and its reflected personality, is more like a stage with a bunch of characters that have their own particular purpose in mind and therefore a rehearsed story to tell. These characters are well trained, highly skilled, well rehearsed, and have been very useful in keeping us safe. Some characters are pushers (get on with it, Brian!) some are pleasers (her needs always come before mine), some playful and disorganized, others responsible and disciplined.
These characters have been acting out their scripts since childhood, with some of them being featured in our minds and others remaining in the shadows, backstage. When we talk of our personality, we are generally referring to the mix of the leading characters in our personal story, and their collective presentation to the world. I tend to be impulsive, decisive, dominating, driven, disorganized. You may have primary characters who are introverted, cautious, slow to decide, highly structured, and deeply empathetic.
These characters honed their skills in early childhood, as a way of coping in environments where they had limited power. Mom and Dad, our teachers, and other grown ups had the power. We learned how to protect ourselves, stay safe, through the development and the use of these evolving characters. We learned behavioural strategies to help us belong and improve our status in our communities, in order to keep us safe. Some of our characters, when under real or perceived threat, learned to fight; others to take flight; and yet others who learned to comply and be the fixer.
We owe a lot to these characters. However, they can become unconscious habits, as we grow older, and are no longer powerless in a system of power. When stressed out or triggered by an occurrence in our environment, these habitual parts of us drive automatic behaviour that might have kept us safe in the past, but today may no longer be necessary or useful to us. Their current uselessness often plays out when our reactive behaviour in the present, is triggered by a memory of what was once a real threat in our past, rather than by the current perceived threat, which reminds us of it. I once apologized to a teacher of mine for overreacting with my anger at his comment, and his response was, “You didn’t overreact. You reacted to something in your history”.
The more work we do on self-awareness and self-knowledge, the more we see that there is a Director deep within us, who can witness and direct these actors, or characters, on the stage of our mind. This development work we do to create this awareness of the director and its separation from the characters, can come in many forms. Some practice mindfulness meditation, or engage in psychotherapy or a variety of courses designed to help us get better at knowing ourselves more holistically and begin to create separation between our characters and a deeper sense of ourselves. At this deeper level we can experience a quiet still part of ourselves that can develop more control over our characters. Depending on what is happening, that director can dial those characters down or up to consciously respond to what is required for the common good in the circumstances we find ourselves in.
So, back to my title, “You are not the problem”. We think we are our personalities, but we are not those characters telling their stories in our busy chaotic minds. Those various parts are tools we have acquired in our family of origin to help us survive and thrive in that world. Some may still be useful, others may not, or be useful less often, in smaller doses in specific times and places, as determined by our inner leader or quiet witness. Who you are is the Director of the play that those characters are acting in. That quiet witness who can create some space from those characters, while consciously leading them to useful outcomes. Chaos and conflict can reign without a quiet leader or a director of the play. Without our director we are locked into a default habitual mode of reaction.
I said the problem is the relationship you have to your characters or your personality, not the characters themselves. When you are not aware of that part of you that is separate from and prior to the characters, the characters run the play out of their historical and conditioned fears and needs for safety. When you have an internal leader of those characters, who is quiet, open, and wise, that leader/witness can “direct” the characters in wise and thoughtful ways to help you show up as the best version of yourself.
So, the goal of personal development is not to change your personality but to discover that deeper sense of who you are, the witness or inside leader of your characters and therefore change the relationship to those characters or your personality. As part of this shift in our relationship, we become less judgemental and more accepting of the character, who has served a helpful role. The more accepting and appreciative we are of the role these characters have played in our life, the less a hold that character has on our current behaviour.
To paraphrase a Zen roshi, when asked by a student how to get to the next level of consciousness, he responded, “John, you are perfect just the way you are and at the same time could do with a little improving”.
You are not the problem. The problem is not knowing who you are.