Saturday, March 3, 2007

An Obsession with Personality Change?

My thesis is that Americans of the present time – and the past 100 years or so – have been more preoccupied with “self-improvement” in the sense of personality change than the people of any other time in history. I refer to Americans because I live among them, but I suspect the same phenomena are seen elsewhere. I think that, on the other hand, during most of history it has been assumed that people were born as they were meant to be and were supposed to make the most of it.

It’s as if life begins in the 20th and 21st centuries with the proposition: “There’s something wrong with me, and I’ve got to get better.” Many individuals do not start with the assumption, “This is the way I am, and so be it”, but rather “How can I change myself to be what I should be?” I’m thinking primarily of personality, but also of the obsession with cosmetic physical improvements. Has there ever been such a time in history before?

In Shakespeare’s time it was basically assumed that you were what you were – period. Shakespeare could, without a suggestion that Cassius improve himself, have Caesar say:

‘Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

. . . he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.’

I doubt that it would have occurred to anyone to recommend that Cassius read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” even if the book had existed. I also doubt that Cassius' friends suggested that he see if a counselor could help him laugh more. Can you imagine his wife saying, “If you want to get ahead with Caesar, you’ve going to have to eat these sweetcakes.”

At the other extreme, Shakespeare’s Falstaff was an alcoholic, hedonistic mountain of flesh who often attracted affection despite his disreputable behavior. I would be willing to bet that if Weight Watchers or the South Beach Diet had been available, Sir John Falstaff would have paid no attention to them. I doubt that he ever sat at the groaning board, lifting a flagon with his friends, talking about how little he’d managed to eat for several days and yet how little weight he’d lost. “Well, John, look at the lard on that beef.” “It’s not the fat, it’s the bread and pies.” “Well, don’t be too sure, I just read that they’re saying. . .” “Anyway, there’s good lard and there’s bad lard. . .”

What I’m writing about really should be the subject of a research study. I’m basing the post mainly on my knowledge of the literature of all the ages; a more learned person might be able to correct me. But for now I’ll say that in most times and places throughout history, it was believed that there were certain personality types (often identified with physical characteristics), and it simply didn't occur to people that an invididual born as one type should spend time trying to change to another. The motto may have been “Know thyself,” but not “Change thyself.”

The zodiac comes to mind as the most ancient and enduring categorization of personality types, and it seems to me that the western zodiac (the one I’m most familiar with) did a good job of identifying the various characteristics that would most often be found within each type. The zodiac as a study of human psychology has considerable merit, but it is an indicator rather than a takeoff point for dissatisfaction. I doubt that any astrologer has ever advised a client to quit being a Pisces personality and start trying very hard to become a Sagittarius type. Instead, the time-honored advice will generally run: “These are the aspects of your personality that can have positive effects; try to emphasize those and avoid the negative aspects.”

When I wonder where the 20th-21st century craze with self-improvement began, Freud comes to mind. I think he was wrong about almost everything, but psychoanalysis and Freudian dream interpretation became a tremendous fad for awhile. It was not just for sick people trying to get well. EVERYBODY was mentally sick in one way or another, and the Freudian hocus pocus would make them better.

Here again we see the supposition of the time: There is something wrong with my personality, and it needs to be fixed.

My mother told me about Emile Coue, of the 1920’s, who had millions of people repeating, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” That verbal baton was taken up by Silva Mind Control. Dale Carnegie fits into this picture, as do a thundering herd of “self-improvement” authors and teachers which include Maxwell Maltz, “Psycho-Cybernetics” (self-image improvement), L. Ron Hubbard (creator of “Dianetics” and an entire religion), Norman Vincent Peale (“The Power of Positive Thinking”), Dr. Phil McGraw (self-styled television psychotherapist), and most recently, the super-hyped DVD and book, “The Secret” (a rehash of advice from other self-help books, whose unmerited success irks me; if you’re going to make a ton of money, do it with something original).

Before I conclude, I want to distinguish what I’m talking about from two other kinds of "improvement":

1) Improvements of one’s physical skills – whether spear throwing or archery or fencing or golfing or karate.

2) Religious and spiritual self-improvement. While religious and spiritual quests may seek personality change (Buddhism has been called a system of psychology), it is for a higher purpose than merely “having a better personality” or “being liked” or “becoming successful” or “feeling better about yourself.” For thousands of years men and women have been isolating themselves as hermits or joining religious orders for purposes of closeness to God/gods/goddesses and finding “salvation” or enlightenment. Some of the worst effects of the Christian protestant movements came from their founders’ fears that they could never be sure that they had improved themselves enough for salvation from hell, or even that any amount of self-improvement would do any good. Those are not the kinds of self-improvement I’m talking about here.

Perhaps the ultimate wish in self-improvement heard today:

“If I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
Everyone would be in love with me.”


  1. spiritual self-improvement is something that I working on it everyday.

    In my opinion, self-improvement must came from actions and experiences, just by reading a book itself may not be sufficient.

  2. There are some people, like myself, that can read their horrible scope and see themselves almost to the letter. Amazing. I read in one persons interpretation that my Zodiac sign is such that I would never get along or do well with a boss who was dumber than me. I paid a huge price to stay working with that company. But happy that I chose to start my own company. Zodiacs are truly strong indicators on personality traits. Very strong.

  3. I immediately thought of Freud too. It's been said that his innate pessimism was out of tune with the American culture which wanted to put a positive spin on psychotherapy, in line with its national philosophy, clearly traceable to successive waves of hope-inspired immigrants: "You can succeed!"

    The slogan is not so much a truth but a sales slogan and America has laboured to produce psychoanalytic philosophies which offer happy endings.

  4. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    It may be that a lot of people look to the U.S. as the land of happy endings, but I don't know how much longer that can continue.

  5. the land of happy endings.

    america has been burdened to produce that before.

    as a facilitator in people`s quest for what they believe is happiness, i sit like the spider in a web, waiting for them to tangle themselves in thier ego-driven syntax until they tire.

    only then do we begin to speak of love.


    we learn that at an early age.

    to lay blame is redundant.

    re-programming is the key.

    the stimulus-response cycle lies deep in the synaptic process.

    thankfully there are systems in the brain that can accomodate new tasking even at an advanced age.

    mirror neurons are capable of learning new tasks at the unconscious level, as emile coue discovered.

    as pink ginger says....

    we must work on it every day.

  6. You are absolutely correct, Fleming. 'Know thyself' is NOT the same as 'Change thyself' and somehow, people have confused the two.

    I believe, however, that much of this media and marketing propaganda is based on the simple need to make a profit. 'Know thyself' requires no consumer goods... 'Change thyself' is a treasure trove in terms of consumerism.

  7. well, we are asked to go to work each and every day.

    why not become as productive as you can?

    you are going to have to do something anyway.

    that seems pretty basic to me.