Since I was a teenager, I've battled a neurotic personality trait: being irritated by other people's dumb actions.
An action is dumb depending on the perpetrator's age, their stage of life (i.e., college vs. work), and whether the action affected others. So, for example, while I'd expect babies to spill drinks, I'd consider the act dumb if a drunk 35-year-old spilled one on a stranger's couch.
I hated this neurotic personality tendency, as it didn't suit my image of a rational person. So every time my neurotic trait started to leak, I would remind myself of how much I despised it.
I initially thought I would suppress the tendency in months.
But it took me seven years as I was fighting genetic tendencies.
Humans, says clinical psychologist Meg Jay, inherit roughly 50% of their personality traits—like self-discipline, social engagement, tendency to care about others. From there, the experiences we live, like growing up as with impatient parents (like mine), shape how you interact with the world.
Fortunately, humans can modify behaviors not in alignment with their ideal selves. It's not an easy task, but you can use two principles to help others change despite their genes.
#1: You cannot force people to change
People, says Jordan Peterson, cannot order themselves or others into action. You can't take the ideal image of yourself or another person lying on your brain and apply it to either of you like a filter.
For example, preparing a forty-slide deck for a friend on the employment and social repercussions of a face tattoo—association with criminality or chaos—is unlikely to change his mind about facial ink.
If they are indeed lovers of turmoil, a face tattoo is a potent way to prove it.
Evolution may also influence your friend's decision. According to evolutionary psychologist Dr. Gad Saad, humans have an innate Darwinian need to belong to a group. So your friend may overlook the possible long-term repercussions of facial ink and solely focus on how his social circle will react to his decision.
In short, you can't change people, but you can help them battle the tendencies that they know are negative.
In the past, I experimented with this idea by asking my last partner how aligned certain unideal habits were with what she wanted in the future.
I didn't question or scold her every week. I wasn't her dad, nor was my point of view superior to hers. But I knew she didn't like the version of herself that performed these bad habits. So, I periodically asked, "How's the progress on (habit towards change she wanted to implement) going?"
Sometimes, the question would frustrate her.
Other times, it would cause her to reduce the frequency of the unideal habit in the short term.
But one year later, she quit the practice to focus on her path towards what she wants.
#2: Show people there's a better path after they experience the unideal one
Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, says Jordan Peterson, thought it was impossible to convince someone to improve their lives unless they desired to change.
For example, my last partner often reflected on what she'd done throughout the day, and felt stressed for not doing more self-improvement tasks: building a personal brand or refining her skills. Therefore, she changed because she felt her actions didn't benefit her future self.
But not everyone sees their unideal habits as problematic.
In situations where a person you value doesn't want to change, act as a video game narrator.
Video game narrators teach the main character how to jump, level up, and interact with their environment. Then, they abstain from lending a hand unless they are 100% needed.
When you act like a video game narrator, you let other people face the non-life-threatening consequences of their bad habits but often step in right when the level (i.e. life because of their habits) is becoming too hard to handle.
Here, you lend a hand and show them an alternative path that makes their current obstacles simpler.
By now, they have experienced the consequences of the unideal path: a failed relationship because of cheating or unemployment because of not refining their skills.
So they might at least consider small changes in their lives.
Celebrate minor improvements in yourself and others
Today, through seen my neurotic traits as problematic, meditation, and stoicism, I can say other people's actions rarely affect my stillness. And, by helping others see their unideal traits, I've seen them change the course of their lives.
The earlier you support (problem-aware) or show (problem-unaware) others a better path, the more time they'll have to fight their tendencies.
So start early and take pride in any improvement—you are fighting your genes after all.
I plan to add more evolutionary challenges towards change and more solutions to those challenges.
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