What You Can Change and What You Can’t by Martin E.P. Seligman

Learning to accept who you are. The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement

Martin Seligman is one of my favourite personal development authors. Not only are his books easy to read, but as the founder of the Positive Psychology movement he's got the academic credentials and professional experience to know what the research says, and what he's talking about.

I was drawn to this book while contemplating the question: “Just how much can a person change?”. I was particularly interested in whether it's possible to make major changes in how we relate to other people, and whether introversion vs extroversion is changable. I've done the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator a couple of times, and I've never really been certain whether I'm a shy extrovert, or a lonely introvert. I love hanging around people; but it doesn't always go as well as I'd like. It turns out that this book doesn't even address the question of introversion and extroversion, but it was an interesting read anyway.

I wonder whether Dr Seligman's views have changed since the 1993 edition I read; I notice there is now a 2005 edition. His comments on dieting seem rather extreme, essentially saying that it's a complete waste of time and that our bodies naturally fight to maintain their natural weight; which may be quite different from our socialised idea of an ideal weight. It's probably not suprising that as a past president of the American Psychological Association, he also has a pretty hefty go at attempts outside the psychology and psychiatry profession to address various life issues, like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Inner Child movement.

I found the section that addresses the question Do Childhood Events Influence Adult Personality? perhaps the most interesting. Referencing studies of identical twins raised apart, Seligman promotes the idea that adult personality is almost entirely genetic in origin, heavily discounting environmental factors. When commenting on studies of the impacts of childhood trauma, he says:

“The major traumas of childhood, it was shown, may have some influence on adult personality, but the influence is barely detectable. ... There is no justification, according to these studies, for blaming your adult depression, anxiety, bad marriage, drug use, sexual problems, unemployment, beating up your children, alcoholism, or anger on what happened to you as a child.”

I was quite surprised at how extreme his view of this appeared. Surely the role models that we have in our early childhood, like our parents, siblings, wider family and friends must have a massive influence on the development of our sponge-like brains and our resulting personalities? The traumas he refers are events such as parental death, divorce, physical illness, beatings, neglect and sexual abuse; they don't include things like parents incapable of expressing emotion constructively, or parents with such low self-esteem that they argue frequently but don't actually divorce. Much earlier in the book when commenting on the children of parents who fight, he says:

“Once their parents start fighting, these children become unbridled pessimists. They see bad events as permanent and pervasive, and they see themselves as responsible. Years later this pessimism persists, even after they tell us their parents are no longer fighting. Their worldview has changed from the rosy optimism of childhood to the grim pessimism of a depressed adult. I believe that many children react to their parents' fighting by developing a loss of security so shattering that it marks the beginning of a lifetime of dysphoria.”

Perhaps this distinction comes down to how “trauma” is defined. The book also talks quite a bit about Post Traumatic Stress, which may not affect a person's personality per-se, but can sure impact the way they feel about themselves and how they relate to the world around them.

All in all, not a bad read, but I think I got more out of Seligman's other books, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. If you're particularly interested in the boundaries of psychotherapy and its mainstream alternatives when it comes to tackling common psychological problems though, this is the book to cover that territory.

About Graham

I combine trauma awareness, emotional healing and comedy to heal painful events from your past, so you can live a future life you love; and have fun doing it.
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