It used to surprise me when someone described my personality. How do they know that about me? I wondered, when I don’t really know how I would describe myself?
“You’re just so strong,” a friend said once. And I was flattered – because she thought I was strong, but also because she’d taken the time to notice what I was like. Another friend, some other time, told me I wasn’t nice. “Not in a bad way,” he said. “I really like you, you’re funny and loyal and even kind, but ‘niceness’ isn’t your thing. It wouldn’t be in the top 10 or even 20 adjectives I’d use to describe you.”
It came as a shock that one, even when he told me that he thought “nice” had connotations of insipidness. “Nice isn’t a compliment,” he asserted, but it seemed to me that being “not nice” was hardly a compliment, either.
“Maybe I’m just not nice to you,” I said, scrambling through my memory for examples of my niceness towards other people. “I was once nice to a sad man in a pub who had no relatives. I sat with him and listened to him for a whole afternoon. Is that not nice? What even is nice?” My friend changed the subject.
I was reminded of my precarious understanding of my own personality this week when I read a newspaper report on a study that seems to prove our personality changes as we get older. Academics revealed that according to the longest-running ever study conducted on the subject, the human personality transforms completely between adolescence and old age. What you are like, the study said, is not a constant throughout life.
Well, obviously, I thought when I read that. And I turned the page.
Suddenly everything was in focus, it was clear to me. He couldn’t know me entirely. I couldn’t even know me entirely
I was very shy as a young child, almost mute when in public or at school. I suppose I had that haughtiness shy people often have because I was slow to make friends. Then, when I was around seven or eight, I made a friend and then another one, and my shyness disappeared. It seemed to recur in my early twenties, largely I think because I was pursuing a career that didn't suit me. But now, as a woman in her thirties, I am not shy. My partner, who I met around four years ago, has never known me to be shy. It’s something abstract I can tell him about my personality. It’s as though I am telling him: long before I knew you, I broke my leg but then it healed.
In romantic relationships, there is, it often seems, an opportunity for your personality to thrillingly change. There can be a sense of I was a sad person but now I am happy. And if the relationship ends, and if we have not been careful or wise about protecting ourselves, it can feel as though our whole selves are smashed and destroyed in the process of the break-up. Once, after a protracted break-up – which was dogged by very careless and very unwise behaviour – I couldn’t sleep, and I went to see a cognitive behavioural therapist so that she could help me. As part of her treatment, she instructed me to do an exercise in which I wrote down positive aspects of my personality and how capable I was at coping with challenges. I rated myself perfectly capable but there was a niggle of doubt.
“I write that stuff down,” I explained, “and I believe it but there’s a voice that contradicts me and says I shouldn’t believe it.”
“And who does that voice belong to?”
I thought about it for a moment. Then I answered: “My ex-boyfriend.”
“And why would you believe him?”
“Because he knows me better than I know myself.”
“And why do you think that?”
“Because he told me.”
“That’s the oldest trick in the book,” she said then.
She explained the manipulation (even if it wasn’t malicious) behind a statement like that, and it was as though someone had just presented me with a pair of spectacles I hadn’t known I’d needed. Suddenly everything was in focus, it was clear to me. He couldn’t know me entirely. I couldn’t even know me entirely. Sometimes I’m nice, sometimes I’m strong, sometimes I’m so sad I can’t sleep for months and months.
So whoever I am, whatever my personality may be, I now know not to believe someone when he says he knows me better than I know myself.