Changing Toxic Personality Traits

How We Perceive Our Selves

Most people tend to think of personalities as static, core selves, tiny beings sitting at the control centers of our brains and bodies: the “I” is what controls the it, fundamentally and unalterably, constituting who we are. Thus, when we’re judged, people tend to view our traits as indicators of our present and future selves. So, if we happen to have a bad first date for example, chances are that we’ll never hear from our prospective partner ever again. But all of this begs the question: Is this a healthy, and as importantly, accurate, way of viewing ourselves and each other?

Often, clients come to see me in order to resolve an important interpersonal dilemma: they want help with deciding on whether or not to remain in a relationship with a toxic partner. Essentially, the want to know if their partner can change, and if so, then how? The first question I pose to them is: Does she/he want to change? As, the answer to it is the foundation of our exploration of the relationship’s future potential.

If the answer is yes, then it implies that the partner views his/her behaviors as toxic and sees the need to alter them. If the answer is no, then the partner likely blames others for their own undesirable traits or doesn’t view them as such. But either answer affords us with a clearer image of what to expect and which route to take.

The Path to Personality Change

Is it that simple? Does all someone have to do is want to change in order to do so? No. But, it’s a necessary beginning, without which anything of significance can’t occur. But, the important takeaway is that people, personalities, can change! Characters are simply long-term composites of behaviors that people tend to perform. Some behaviors are healthy (they help people survive, thrive, and form and maintain positive relationships), while others are counterproductive, in that they preclude various forms of success, or contribute to the formation of unhealthy (and uneven) relationships. Whichever ones you engage in depend on your beliefs. So, erroneous beliefs tend to cause toxic behaviors, and healthy reality-testing (the ability to accept facts) tend to engender adaptive, healthy ones. You are what you think!

When it relates to mental illness, toxic behaviors are poor coping strategies, utilized to prevent suffering. At one point or another, these methods may have been effective. If, as a child, I constantly seek out attention by crying or yelling, my mom will arrive and soothe me. If I do that as an adult, rejection will likely follow. If I constantly check on my parents to make sure they don’t abandon me, I’ll alleviate my worry. If I constantly check on my girlfriend to make sure she isn’t cheating on me, she’ll eventually abandon me, which is what I initially fear occurring.

For reasons we may be oblivious to, we use behaviors as coping mechanisms to help ourselves feel better. And these behaviors, these habits and ways of being, are what comprise our identities; they’re how we respond to the world, and they can be changed, and adapted, for us to better fit our new environments. But, we have to first see the errors of our ways, which is often challenging.

Thus, when a client realizes that their partner has no desire to change, let alone seek counseling, I work with them on accepting reality as it is, improving their own reality-testing. Maybe unsurprisingly, the hardest aspect of treatment isn’t changing someone’s behaviors; it’s helping an individual feel less hopeful about an unlikely future event, making it easier to move on. Through that realization, and only through it, they can then begin to grieve the loss of their relationship and what could have been.

In conclusion, our personalities are our selves, and our selves change, or at least can, over our lifetimes. Our jealousy, rage, aggression, manipulation, exploitation, and carelessness in speech aren’t intractable traits, but they aren’t easily altered, either. A deep exploration of their effects and/or present uselessness will go a long way in helping us become better people, to change our personalities, basically altering who we are.

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