Our personality is often much more flexible than we think, especially depending on the circumstances.
We often change our speech, body posture, facial expressions, and behaviors depending on the context of a situation and the people we are interacting with.
In this way, one could say we put on different “selves” or “personas” depending on who it is we are interacting with and where we are.
How you interact with a friend from college is going to be very different than how you interact with your boss. And how you interact in a classroom is going to be very different than how you interact at a party or bar.
In Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, it describes how our personalities are influenced by 3 main factors: biogenic (genes and biology), sociogenic (environment and culture), and ideogenic (personal constructs and goals).
According to renowned psychologist and professor Brian R. Little, the ideogenic factors are what create the “degrees of freedom” we have over our personalities.
A mother may be very introverted (biological) and have been raised in a quiet household (social), but when she throws a party for her daughter she becomes active and out-going for her guests, because being a “good mother” is a personal goal that means a lot to her (ideogenic).
We all “act out of character” every now and then. And sometimes it’s necessary for being a happier, healthier, and more dynamic human being.
Here are great principles to keep in mind while building a more dynamic self.
Identify with multiple identities
When we put all of ourselves into one singular identity, that can make things difficult when we experience turbulence in that area of our lives.
For example, say you’re an accountant and you identify a lot with your job.
But then something unexpected happens and you lose your job. That can create a lot of pain in anyone’s life, but the pain will be even more for someone who completely identifies with their profession.
It often helps to remind ourselves that we play multiple identities and multiple selves throughout our lives, even on a day-to-day basis.
You’re not just an accountant. You’re also a husband, a father, a son, a painter, a friend, a volunteer, and an avid comic book reader.
The more identities you align with, the more “degrees of freedom” you have over your personality because you don’t just see yourself in one way and one way only.
You are a person of many different multitudes and dynamics – and there is a lot of freedom and flexibility to be found there.
When it’s good to act out of character
To achieve certain goals in life, we sometimes have to act in ways that go beyond our typical personality and comfort zone.
In the book, Little reflects on his own introverted tendencies and how he often prefers to spend time by himself. However, when he gives lectures or public speeches he puts on an “extravert act.”
It’s not his typical personality from a biogenic standpoint, but from an ideogenic standpoint Little identifies himself as a “teacher” – he has a passion for what he does and he enjoys teaching psychology to his students – thus it brings out a different side of him.
It’s easier to act out of character if it serves a bigger purpose in our lives, and we can relate it back to one of our “core values.”
For example you may not see yourself as a health-oriented person who eats right and goes to the gym. But if you reframe your “health goal” in terms of one of your core goals (like “being healthier so I can be there for my family”), then it’ll be easier for you to expand yourself and try new things.
Also, by going out of our comfort zone – and “acting out of character” – we can even surprise ourselves and learn something that we didn’t know about ourselves before. As we try new things, our identity expands.
Make use of “restorative niches”
Whenever we act out of character it can often become stressful and overwhelming.
It takes physical and mental effort to pretend to be something you’re not. This is especially true if we are going against our biogenic and sociogenic tendencies.
Because of this it’s very important that we have “restorative niches” to go back to when we want to rest up and feel like our “normal self” again.
Maybe you’re a very competitive and argumentative person by nature. But you recently had to go to a family reunion, so you put your best face on.
You had to smile more, be friendly toward everyone, and – perhaps most difficult for you – bite your tongue when someone was talking about their political beliefs.
All of this “acting out of character” takes energy out of you. But when you get home, you go right to your video games to tap into your competitive nature – or you go to that new forum to go on a political rant about how “stupid” your uncle’s beliefs are.
We all need restorative niches to go back to. After a long night of partying, an introvert may like to spend the next day just sitting at home and reading books.
It’s good to be flexible and go against your natural tendencies, but you can’t forget that those natural tendencies exist and you need to have ways to go back to them when you just want to “be yourself” again.
Me, Myself, and Us is an insightful book on the different aspects of our personalities and how we can expand ourselves while still being true to ourselves.
New places and new people
One major theme in the book is how new places and new people can shape our personalities in different ways.
Often by throwing yourself in a new environment you discover new things about yourself – whether it’s going on a hiking trip for the first time, or traveling to a new country, or just going to a new restaurant you would’ve never thought about trying.
This plays off of the sociogenic factors behind who we are. Our childhood is shaped by the society and culture we are surrounded in. By exploring new cultures, we are also exploring more about ourselves.
We all prefer some places over others. Some people’s personalities work best in fast-paced, stimulating cities while other people’s personalities work best in slow-paced, relaxing, small towns.
While it’s important to take these personality factors into consideration when moving someplace new, this doesn’t discount the importance of traveling and going beyond our “typical self” (just don’t forget your restorative niche afterwards!)
This diversity in what we expose ourselves to in our environment also applies to people.
This is one big reason why I recommend we build a diverse group of friends, because different people bring out different sides of us. The more diverse the people you surround yourself with, the more balanced and well-rounded you become as a person.
If you only hang out with people who bring out a certain side of you, or you only hang out in places you are already comfortable with, then you limit yourself and your potential to expand and grow in new ways.
Think about the “opposite version” of yourself
According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, I’m an INTJ (which means I’m “introverted,” “intuitive,” “thinking,” and “judgmental”). It’s not the best personality test, but it does give a rough outline of the type of person I am.
However, I sometimes like to joke that I’m an INTJ working to become an ESFP.
- I’m introverted (I), but there are situations I’d like to be more extraverted (E).
- I’m intuitive (N), but there are situations I’d like to be more sensing (S).
- I’m thinking-oriented (T), but there are situations I’d like to be more feeling-oriented (F).
- I’m judgmental (J), but there are situations I’d like to be more perceptive (P).
According to trait theory, none of these personality traits are “on” or “off,” but instead they are on a sliding scale. Very few people are 100% introverted or 100% extraverted, most of us are somewhere on a spectrum.
Thinking about the “opposite version” of yourself can be strange but insightful. Sometimes I like to close my eyes and imagine how differently I would respond to a situation if I was an ESFP.
Will I ever be an ESFP? Probably not. And I don’t want to be. But thinking about different versions of myself helps expand those “degrees of freedom” I have over my actions and responses in life.
Do we all have multiple selves? In a way, yes.
And it’s not always about “being fake” or “pretending to be someone else” – even the healthiest people are constantly changing and transforming into slightly new and different things.
This is true for the many roles we play in our day-to-day lives (“mom, daughter, waitress, student, knitter”). And it’s also true for our lifetime as a whole.
Think about this: Who you were 10 years in the past is different than who you are today. And who you will be 10 years in the future is going to be different than who you are now. We are dynamic and changing.
If you want to learn about the science behind our personalities, or just how to improve your happiness and well-being in general, Me, Myself, and Us is a great book to add to your collection.
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