Understanding Where Your Personality Comes From

What is your personality?

Who are you, really?

These questions are infinitely interesting and of the sort that meditators, philosophers, and intellectuals will never cease to explore. They are the questions that each of us should constantly explore in our own personal practice.

I offer that while they are of the utmost relevance, they are also, in a way, meaningless.

Seeking to understand yourself is a noble pursuit. Yet, what are you trying to accomplish? Most of us want to know ourselves better so that we can grow and progress.

We can begin that process immediately, with no prerequisite lifelong pursuit.

You are Your Actions

Regardless of who you believe you are, the only expression of your true self to the world comes through your actions. We might seek to understand ourselves on some deep introspective level but the only interpretation and changes that matter are to your actions.

We are who we are in relation to others. Our actions define us.

How Actions Become Habit

Habit defines almost every action that we take. Our brains constantly seek to conserve energy and increase efficiency and thus relegates as many actions as possible to the domain of subconscious automation.

Habits are formed (and broken, replaced, and re-formed) through a progress of: cue, routine, and reward.

Cue - A regular and recognizable pattern. You walk in the door after arriving home from work.

Routine - The habitual actions triggered by the cue. You head straight to the refrigerator to crack open a beer.

Reward - The feelings that follow the routine action. Rewards can range from benignly pleasurable to destructively addictive and are typically sought subconsciously. You are rewarded with that amazingly enjoyable first sip and the buzz that follows.

Both Shane and I have written elsewhere about habit formation and how to intentionally eliminate “bad” habits and replace them with “good,” productive habits. I re-define the cue-routine-reward progression here because it informs our lives far beyond our ingrained patterns for fitness, teeth-brushing, and driving to the office.

Everything is Habit

Habits define nearly all of our actions. Our personality is encoded within our actions, especially our regular and automated ones. It is productive, and highly accurate to seek understanding of the elements of yourself that you deem your personality through the cue-routine-reward structure.

I will expand. Most of us consider ourselves conscious actors in our daily lives. We feel we deserve credit for our moments of positivity, generosity, cleverness, and competency. Yet, when apologizing for a harsh comment or a moment of absentmindedness, we say things like, “Sorry, I’m not myself.” This is a failure to own your actions, and justifies them as separate from who you believe your true self to be, maintaining a moral and emotional superiority that you neither earned nor deserve. Further, you learn nothing of yourself in those moments and choose impotence to prevent such actions from arising in the future.

You are precisely yourself in every moment. You will do or say things that you are not proud of. These are not deviations from your “true self.” Rather, these are perfect reflections of it. These moments are windows into the realm of your subconscious and provide the greatest opportunity for introspection and growth that you will ever find.

Own your capacity for cruelty and other pieces of your nature that you hope to limit. Learn to view your actions and personality through the cue-routine-reward framework.

Applying the Structure

If you are prone to anger, or judgement, or any other unproductive trait, know that it is not a fixed piece of your nature. Addiction specialists search for the positive benefits that a substance brings an addict. These are the reasons that led to habitual use long before addiction took hold. Similarly, if you did not receive some type of positive benefit from an otherwise unproductive or destructive habit, you would not continue it.

For example, anger seems to have no adaptive advantage. It is far more destructive than productive. Why then are so many people prone to leap into anger when it is completely unjustified? They receive a reward for doing so. The specifics vary from person to person but could range from feelings of personal power, respect from others, or leadership over the group.

Outgrowing Your Tendencies

We tend to think of our personality traits as, more or less, innate. We think of actions as responsive to the world the around us. Both of these interpretations are false and worse, completely eliminate our power to change.

In the anger example above, the angry person might simply believe themselves to be more prone towards anger than average. They feel that when they become angry, while it might be a bit exaggerated by their personal tendency, the circumstances justify their anger response.

Applying the cue-routine-reward structure shows this example in a completely different light. It might seem that our above person was driven to anger by circumstance, a natural and justified response to whatever happened to them. This seems like cue leading to routine. However, this definition eliminates personal agency in their actions. It says that anger was their only possible response.

Rather than thinking of your actions as driven by cue, see of them as pulled by reward.

Pulled By Reward

Cues and triggers will never cease to arise. Anger is never justified and never the only option. Any angry person is always pulled to anger from the reward that it brings them. They might point toward the cue as the reason for their anger, but like all us, they are not privy to the source of their emotions. Anger was one of a nearly infinite set of responses to the given situation. They subconsciously chose it, pulled by the reward.

We can think of every element of our personalities in this way. This structures provides framework to both understand our least favorite facets and find the power to change them.

I will share a personal example as a case study in how to apply this structure.

I have a tendency to interrupt and speak over people, my least favorite element of my personality. As with many negative traits, there are well-intentioned elements. I am an incessant learner and a teacher by nature. I love to learn new things and share what I have learned. Typically, I interrupt in the spirit of excitement to share something that just popped into my head, usually triggered by what the other person is saying. I could view this routine as simply cued by the triggering thought, justifying my interjection through my excitement to share. Why then do I almost always feel guilty after such an interruption, many times detecting frustration and dejection from my interlocutor?

While I can seek positive justification for my actions by seeing them as driven by circumstance this offers me no opportunity to own my actions nor prevent this pattern from arising in the future.

I am not driven by cue, but pulled by reward. In these moments, I can point to an earnest desire to share and connect, but our connection would be even deeper if I simply waited for my turn to speak. I am pulled to interrupt and butt-in by the rewards that it brings me: feelings of superiority, knowledge of a particular field, wisdom, intelligence, and competency.

I am not proud to admit this trait, yet owning it and exposing the true source are the only way for me to grow beyond it. Justifying my action through in any other way is choosing powerlessness to change.

Examining Your Own Actions

You can use this process to grow, to understand yourself better, and to improve your actions and who you are in relation to the world.

Pull out a journal or simply ponder the following questions as a mental exercise (though putting it to paper will be much insightful and humbling).

  • Think of a personality trait that you are not proud of.

  • List the ways in which you have justified your actions. Perhaps these are similar our angry person justifying through external circumstances. Perhaps your justifications are more similar to mine - pointing instead to positive interpretation.

  • Now, list possible subconscious rewards that your actions bring you. Do you feel smart, powerful, generous, forgiving? Perhaps you have many rewards that pull you into this routine.

Listing everything out and deeply considering the subconscious rewards that drive you to unproductive or destructive action is the best chance you have to limit and eventually eliminate these processes. You can examine how nearly every action that you take is pulled by reward. Lift the veil, to the extent that it is possible, from your subconscious processes. View every trait as habit and know that you have the power to change it.

I encourage you to complete the above exercise for as many traits as possible to continually expose new pieces of your nature. This is always a vulnerable and humbling process. I would love to learn about your personal examples in the comments below. If you are comfortable, please share in the spirit of humility and growth.