You’ve changed!

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Changing one’s personality is something I would have thought as likely as a leopard changing its spots. However, after listening to a piece on the radio this morning I am beginning to reconsider the proposition. The doctor who posited the statement mentioned neurosis in the same breath. In a nutshell I gather that neurosis is quite simply a feeling of negativity which is about all I need to know on the subject. From time to time I find myself agitated and fed up with myself. That qualifies as negativity, don’t you agree? Certainly the disorder can manifest itself through emotional distress, anxiety, anger and irritability, even obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but because the condition is known as causing "invisible injury" (there are no associated delusions or hallucinations) it is essentially a poor ability to adapt, a poor ability to change one’s life patterns and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality. Although neurosis was coined by the Scottish doctor William Cullen in 1769, the term was most influentially defined by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud over a century later when it came to be used in contemporary theoretical writing in psychology and philosophy. Jung reportedly said:

[Contemporary man] is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by "powers" that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food – and, above all, a large array of neuroses. (Jung, 1964:82).

I am banking on Jung’s use of the collective noun "contemporary man" as tranquillizing at least some of my personal dismay. Assuming what Jung says to be true, it leaves one to examine the medicine to be taken or the course of action to be followed to cure the puzzle. Increasingly I am hearing of more and more of my friends who take anti-depressants but with conflicting results. The concoction appears to be more of a cocktail than anything else and there is invariably a trial period to determine the right mix. Sadly there is at the other end of the spectrum the ultimate decision to end it all. Most of us would prefer something more in the middle.

If you are not inclined to load up on drugs or to get both feet into a bottle of gin, the quandary is first to resolve that one indeed has dominion over one’s mind. This is not the nice question of whether we have free will or other debates about metaphysical libertarianism; it is rather whether there is anything we can possibly do to alter what we so often feel is our DNA, the nucleic acid containing the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms. Our so-called "make-up" or "personality" has some fairly fundamental elements as its backbone, and I confess to some reluctance in admitting to its malleability. What makes the effort easier, however, is nothing more than a consideration of the alternative. In this sense there is no question that we have incredible control of ourselves; it is I submit as rudimentary as "putting on a happy face". That of course trivializes the undertaking, but my meaning is that more often than not we are capable of making choices, and one choice is always better than another (think of those eye exams where the optometrist asks you to compare the almost incomparable alternative lenses).

Swinging one’s mind from the contemplation of our woes may be a mere matter of focus; or, if one prefers something more elevated, the adoption of a new philosophy of life. To assist in the building of the superstructure it is first wise to remind oneself that no one is spared the sting of life from time to time. Too often we allow ourselves to become so overheated by our own lot in life that we ignore the convincing randomness and universality of deprivation and pain.

While regarding life as indiscriminately rotten is hardly the panacea, it nonetheless begins the journey of thoughtfulness in the exploration of meaning. It is easy to weigh in upon oneself, to bring down a ton of bricks upon one’s head. But it would probably lighten the load to recall that our many failings are undoubtedly shared by others more or less. Even if one is irrevocably persuaded that it is impossible to change one’s personality, there is – through understanding – the capacity to measure the strengths and weaknesses of our personality and to learn to adapt to those constraints. Inevitably the governance of the mechanism will allow for less stressful experiences and maybe even open the door to happier realizations.

It is only natural that we should, after many years of rehearsal, find ourselves returning again and again to our old habits, those feelings of negativity. It takes time not only to break old habits but also to learn new ones. For example, in my advancing years I have come to rely increasingly upon instinct rather than rationality. Yet even in these visceral matters one is, through force of inexperience and lack of practice, tempted to resile from the obvious in favour of former customs. Yet it is imperative to take a broader view of life – always keep in mind the alternative. If indeed we are so convinced of our deplorable state there is all the more reason to change, at least to try to change.