Could My Friend’s Personality Really Change That Much?

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Reader’s Question

My friend used to march to the beat of her own drum — she didn’t care what anyone else thought. She was also very studious and seemed to have a good head on her shoulders. After a series of negative events (e.g., not getting accepted into a graduate program, the death of a pet), she met a new group of friends and seemed to really change. She started to push me away and became obsessed with her appearance and with boys, leading to promiscuity. She started to really care what people think of her, and now does everything to fit in. She claims that she’s just “changed”. Can people really change this much, or are there other factors (like depression) involved?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your question strikes at the heart of the branch of psychology having to do with personality. By definition, personality includes those aspects of ourselves that are fairly stable. Of course, behavior is another thing entirely, and someone’s behavior can vary drastically, as seen with your friend. Because we can’t see someone’s personality directly, we infer it from patterns in their behavior. Logically, then, you assumed that her past behavior was an expression of her underlying personality, which should be fairly stable. To see such a drastic turn-about in behavior calls into question which set of actions is the more accurate reflection of her personality (or, who she “is”).

One important factor is age, or developmental stage. It sounds as though your friend may be in her early 20s, and research bears out that personality is most in flux under the age of 30. In Western cultures, the early 20s also represents a period of dramatic role transition, as individuals transition from adolescence into full adulthood (complete with higher education, careers, serious romantic relationships, and expectations of being self-supporting). As young adults move away from dependence on their parents, the influence of the parents’ values and expectations lessen. Individuals who tended to follow those parental influences without much question may experience a need to “find themselves” during this period.

We also need to consider the importance of self-esteem. We all need to feel good about at least some aspects of ourselves. It may be that your formerly studious friend used to derive important self-esteem from her academic achievements. By not gaining acceptance into graduate school, that source of self-esteem was not only discontinued, but perhaps called into question (“How smart am I if I was rejected for graduate school?”). Recent efforts to increase attractiveness and male attention may be an attempt to find a new source of self-esteem.

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It’s unfortunate that your friend has been pushing you away. It may feel to her, though, that you represent a developmental period from which she is now attempting to break free. Also, if you are successful in the arenas the two of you shared or both valued, your success may be a painful reminder of her shortcomings. Similarly, starting fresh with new friends, who value her for other aspects of herself, may be an attempt to find approval, and ultimately self-acceptance. Only time will tell how much of the “old” friend re-emerges, as she feels that she has found her niche in the world. The pattern of behavior that reveals our personality is best viewed over the long haul, above the static from the effects of stressors and life transitions on our outward behavior.

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