Dr. Benjamin Hardy used to be a video game junkie who almost didn’t graduate from high school. He shares how he was able to completely change his life and personality.
Dr. Benjamin Hardy: Want to Change? You Can! Personality Isn’t Permanent
Dr. Benjamin Hardy is an organizational psychologist and best selling author of the book “Willpower Doesn’t Work.” From 2015 to 2018, he was the number one writer in the world on Medium.com. During that time, he grew his email list from zero to 400,000 without having paid advertising. He and his wife Lauren adopted three children from the foster care system in February of 2018. One month later, Lauren got pregnant with twins who were born in December of 2018. They live in Orlando, Florida. His blogs are read by millions every month. His next book, “Personality isn’t Permanent,” will be released next week.
Divorce and Addiction
One of the first big challenges in Ben’s life came when he was very young. His parents divorced when he was 11 years old. Prior to the divorce they had been a very religious family, but afterward, they stopped going to church. Religion and faith were no longer part of their lives.
Observing his parents was very interesting to Ben as they developed radically different habits. The whole process was not what Ben’s father had expected and Ben watched as him sink into a depression that ultimately led to the path of addiction. Their home became a very dangerous place, with lots of strange people coming and going.
Looking back, Ben has no idea how he graduated from high school. He rarely went, and he never did homework. After high school he moved to his cousin’s home. He enrolled in community college but dropped out quickly because he had no work ethic nor purpose. He was living at his cousin’s home playing video games all day.
Decision to Change
So his life was basically very sad, purposeless, and confusing. Finally, Ben looked around and realized that he needed something new. He needed to find direction. He decided to serve a church mission for two years. Ben says it was the church mission that led him to pursue psychology, not the trauma of his formative years.
Despite the trauma that he experienced, Ben was able to reconnect with his father just before his church mission. His father was able to overcome his addictions and they have become good friends. Ben says that he doesn’t have any negative feelings toward his father. He has asked him about the past and has been able to learn many things about his dad. Ben explains that having more information and context is important to being able to have more empathy for someone. In fact, Ben is grateful for the experiences he had because if he hadn’t gone through what he did, he wouldn’t have had resilience or faith in the same way.
When Ben got out on his mission, he had a new role and a new purpose. It was a fresh start. He had great leaders, new experiences and a fresh perspective. Ben was connected with God. He felt free: Free from his past, free from constraints, free to grow and free to evolve. From that experience he realized that he wanted to be a writer.
But when he got home, his friends didn’t see the amazing changes that Ben had undergone. They assumed he was the same person that he was when he left. They continued to use vulgar language around him and got on with life as it was before.
But Ben was now sensitive to those things and he knew his purpose. He knew if he hung around those friends too much, he would revert to his old self. He decided to attend a different college than his friends and started studying psychology.
That was ten years ago. Now Ben is married, has five kids, and is continuing to learn and grow and be blown away by life.
Step #1: Involve God
Ben says that God was crucial in his transformation during his mission. His experiences with God refocused his path towards growth and development instead of just sitting and staring. Ben says that you can make changes without God, but when you include God, you make the right changes. “Why wouldn’t you include God in your goals?”
God can give you different views to allow you to be grateful, forgiving, and create a new heart. Ben says that God helped him to develop skills too. He was not a great learner or teacher before, but God enabled him to develop those skills. Ben says that God has been involved in all of his writing.
Step #2: Desire & Preferences
Sometimes you may know that you need to make a specific change in your life. You may have even received a nudge from God to indicate that He wants you to do something. But you might not have the desire to do it.
Ben explains that desire is key to really changing. Sometimes you have to ask God to give you a desire to change, before you even get started on the change.
Ben says that many people conceptualize personality as what your preference is. If you are introverted, you prefer to be by yourself.
But Ben goes on to expound that we have preferences, but just because you prefer something doesn’t mean that you should do it (like eat a whole plate of cookies). There also might be things that you used to enjoy or prefer, but you no longer do.
Your current self prefers different things and has different priorities. The same is true for your future self. Your future self has preferences, and the only thing stopping you from becoming your future self is your current preferences. If you don’t have a clear vision of your future self then you can’t even desire to be that person and you certainly can’t choose to be that person. You have to want to get it. You can’t make quality decision today if you don’t know who your future self is. If you don’t who know who you want to be then then it doesn’t matter who you are today.
Step #3: Hope & Healing
In Ben’s book, there is a quote that reads, “Research shows you cannot have hope without a goal.” You can’t be motivated to do something without hope that it actually might work out. Ben explains that any type of trauma can have an impact on hope. It’s not just the big traumas, like abuse or war. Trauma is anything that creates a negative impact on how you see yourself in the world. It could be a teacher or a parent telling you that you aren’t good at something that you really care about. You have an emotional reaction.
Primary and Secondary Emotions
There are primary and secondary emotions. Primary is your initial reaction. There’s no judgment in your primary emotion. You have a right to be hurt or scared. Secondary emotions then come in and you think about your feelings, you start to choose how you feel about them, and you experience emotional regulation.
Journaling is one way to dig into your secondary emotions and help you to sort through experiences. But with trauma, reframing doesn’t happen. You have a negative experience and you shove it down and don’t think about it.
Math Trauma Example
Let’s say you were studying for a math test. You worked really hard and learned a lot, but you took the test and you failed. Because you had a negative experience, nothing was resolved and you form a narrative called a cognitive commitment. This means you decide that you aren’t good at math, you can’t do it anymore. Because of this, you then lose hope, flexibility, and imagination surrounding math. Those attributes are all requirements for learning. Because you’ve made the commitment in your mind that math is too painful and you’re not going to do, you’re no longer willing to learn it.
Gabor Ma Tei, an expert in trauma, says that personality is a coping mechanism to our unresolved trauma. A lot of our limiting perspectives of ourselves have been shaped by negative experiences that we haven’t even thought about.
Open Up and Heal
Ben says that the most important thing you can do with trauma is open up about it. There is a quote from Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “You’re as sick as your secrets.” If you are burying horrible events that happened to you or something that you’re struggling with, like addiction, then you’re probably not going to change it. That is the whole idea behind Ben’s book, “Willpower Doesn’t Work.”
You can’t just overcome trauma or an addiction without opening up about it. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection. Obviously, not all trauma leads to addiction, but it often does. Trauma causes a loss of hope for the future, and everything is then defined by the past. You get stuck there in what is often called a frozen personality. Trauma is extremely debilitating in that sense. The only way out is to face it, deal with it, and reframe it.
Reframing and the Refractory Period
Whenever you experience something emotional, there is a refractory period that immediately follows. A refractory period is the amount of time it takes to emotionally recover from your experience. If you get cut off while driving, the refractory period is maybe three or four minutes.
But with other traumas, the refractory period can be weeks, months, years, even decades. At some point, you have to decide that viewing the experience in this particular way is keeping you from changing. Instead of continuing to look at the experience through your lens of the past, you have to start making decisions about moving forward with your life. You have to be honest about what you want.
The #1 Deathbed Regret
It’s often said that the number one deathbed regret is people not having the courage to be who they were, but instead living up to the expectations of those around them. We live in repetitive cycles where we show up a certain way, even if it’s not the way we wanted, but we just keep living up to that expectation because we’re in a rhythm.
Our personality is predicted by the role we are playing. We have desires to be different, so the first step is to define your future self and using that to guide you in reframing your past experiences.
There are 150 journal prompts in Ben’s book that can help you do journal and decide who you want to become.
Steps to Move Past Trauma
Step #1 Reframe Your Trauma
Ben says that the ultimate hope is to look at the past as something that is serving you. It’s something that you are grateful for. Eventually, even the worst things may turn out to be something that enabled you to have a higher purpose for your life. Ben shares the example that if he hadn’t experienced what he did, he wouldn’t be able to handle his five kids, three of them being foster kids. It’s a process to be able to see those hard times as lessons or opportunities, but you have to go through the reframing process in order to move forward with your future.
Step #2 Define Your Future Self
You have to open up to let go, and you have to define your future self. As yourself, “What changes do you want to make and what do you want to be working towards?” Once you figure out that answer, start there.
“All progress starts by telling the truth,” is a quote that inspires Ben, and reminds us all to be honest as we define our future selves.
Step #3 Tell Others
Then you have to start telling people who that person is. You aren’t there yet, and you need to openly acknowledge that, but you need to tell people that this is where you want to go and what you want to accomplish. Once you start telling people about your goals, it makes your current identity very clear.
Your identity is shaped by the stories you tell, so now you see who you want to be, and you’re telling people who you want to become. This establishes an environment and a motivation to start acting based on your future rather than your past.
Using Uncertainty to Fuel Growth
One of the things that keeps people stuck where they are is that they want things to be certain, stable, and predictable. They stop doing things that are outside of their comfort zone. Ben explains, “Your personality is very much your comfort zone.” If you do something different than what you typically do, you’re stepping into a bit of uncertainty and unpredictability. That can create some anxiety or fear. It takes courage and intention. If you have a future self that you’re seeking and striving for, you’re taking courageous and intentional steps in the direction of your future.
If you’re not working towards a future self, you’re on autopilot. You’re just being the same person you were yesterday, you’re staying in a role, and life isn’t evolving.
When you step out of your comfort zone and learn new things, develop new skills, and do so in a way that is targeted towards your goals, you’re living consciously. It’s more of an emotional roller coaster at times, but change helps you become psychologically and emotionally flexible.
When you are stuck in trauma and unwilling to deal with uncertainty, you’re being very emotionally rigid. When you step away from that, you being to enjoy the learning process. That’s a big aspect of growing up.
Ben shares the example that his 15 month old twins who can’t even talk are learning to swim. They hate it. They cry and fight it, but they are learning to deal with complexity and challenges and uncertainty. That’s really how you build flexibility as a person. When you stop putting yourself through big challenges and you stop trying new things, you stop learning and evolving. Your personality stops growing.
Benefit #1 Train Your Thoughts
Ben shares the tip that journaling can help you to train your thoughts. Your thoughts shape your life and how you see things. If you have negative thoughts a lot, journaling can help change them to be positive.
Benefit #2 Live Intentionally
Ben uses his journaling to be intentional in his behavior. He will bullet point ideas about how to be intentional and present with his kids. For example he will write that he wants to go swimming with them, he wants to play with them, he doesn’t want to sit on the couch staring at his phone.
Benefit #3 Describe the Future
He writes down where he wants his family to be a year from now. Ben also writes down trips he wants to take.
Benefit #4 Reflect on What Happened
But he also uses his journal to reflect on what happened. Maybe he fell into his old habits of binging on chips and sitting on the couch. Journaling allows you to think about what happened and stay aware of how you’re feeling and what you’re focused on, instead of just ignoring it.
What you focus on grows, so you want to use whatever you can to help focus your attention on what matters to you. It’s easy to go through life just waiting for the next fire. A journal is a great tool to keep you clear.
Tips for Good Journaling
- Set Location & Time. Ben explains where and when you do your journaling matters. If you have your phone nearby with notifications going off, you’re probably not going to get the insights you’re looking for. Set aside time and space for your journaling.
- Pray beforehand. God will then guide you as your journal.
- Be consistent. Journal every day for at least five minutes.
- Write down Goals. Ben also recommends writing down your goals at the front of your journal to look at often. Ben has five questions in the first few pages of his journal that he likes to reflect on and write about from time to time:
- Where am I right now?
- What are my wins from the last 90 days?
- What are the wins I want for the next 90 days?
- Where do I want to be at the end of this year?
- Where do I want to be in 2-3 years from now?
Ben puts those questions at the front of all of his journals. That way when he opens up old journals and it’s like a snapshot of a previous version of himself. He says it’s fun to watch his goals and vision evolve. It’s nice to have your goals right in front of you so that they’re always at the top of your mind and you don’t get lost. Ben calls it strategic remembering. You want to set up your environment so that it reminds you of your goals and helps you become your future self.
In his home, Ben has a culture wall. It is filled with sayings like, “Embrace your future to change your past,” “Be, do, have,” “Never be the former anything,” on and on. They are values or beliefs that are right in front of you that help you to remember where you’re going. It doesn’t have to be a whole wall. You can just print off quotes and put them on your bathroom mirror. A sticky note will even work or a reminder on your phone. Use your environment to support your goals.
Photos of Ben’s Culture Wall
Ben’s Books & Free Bonus Offer
You can buy Ben’s books on Amazon, Audible, and Kindle, or wherever you prefer to buy books. You can even see a few previewed pages and hear a sample audio link here. After purchasing your copy of “Personality isn’t Permanent,” you can go to Ben’s website, BenjaminHardy.com, and receive three, free online course. These courses dive deeper into the science, methods, and prompts in the book and show you how to apply the concepts. Ben is also giving away his courses on journal mastery and blogging.
Ben’s Favorite Bible Verse
Ben loves 1 Corinthians 13:12, which says,
“For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part but then, shall I know even as I am known.”
Ben says to him, this scripture means that your future self is going to see the world very differently than you see it today. We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. You can’t be too firm, not even in your views of yourself. Right now, your perspective is flawed. Who you are today is not the finished product. You don’t have to hold on too tightly to your current self because you’re seeking something better. When you are caught in a status or identity then you’re going to try to defend it. You whole focus is on your current self. That stops you from growing. It’s better to focus on the future self and make the glass a little less dark.
Another meaning for this verse comes when Ben thinks about his daughters learning to swim often. They are not enjoying it at the moment, but in the future they will be glad that they know how to swim.
When you don’t deal with trauma or uncertainty, you eliminate the possibility of enjoying swimming because you’re not even willing to touch the water. You end up limiting your future. We don’t see our traumas the way God sees them.
Maybe we could ask ourselves how God would see a situation. That’s a great way to reframe your past. Right now you see it darkly, but there’s a better view. Your past is just a story, and eventually that story will change. Eventually, it’ll be a redemption story. It’ll be a story about how God took something horrible and transformed it into something better.