One thing that makes me an absolute delight to hang with is my paralyzing fear of change. I panic when a meeting gets pushed back. I mourn when one of my go-to local bars gets abducted by a Starbucks. The other day I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding for the millionth time and and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 for the first time. Still love the original, will never not hate the sequel. (Granted, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is a huge mess with an unclear protagonist; like, for the love of film, pick a plot line and stick to it.) Clearly, I’m set in my ways to an extent and take comfort in sameness, but why is it that some people harbor this resistance to change while others thrive in newness?
“Tolerance for risk and change are personality traits that are partially genetic,” says therapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “The five-factor model of personality…tells us that openness to new experience is a genetic trait. Everybody inherits a tendency to be more open or to prefer more stability. Life experience shapes how extreme that trait becomes.”
Waitaminute, so genetics is a big reason some of us cling to our resistance to change like nobody’s business? Wild. Still, Dr. Daramus says it’s important to note that how, exactly, being open to new experiences guides us. The Openess trait is in charge of factors like creativity, learning, innovation, and (wait for it) your grace in riding out change and turmoil. If there’s any Openess in me, I think it gets burnt out quickly on the first three things. Because regarding my ability to “roll with the punches,” I can maybe do it…but for sure while flailing about and screaming in terror.
“Everybody inherits a tendency to be more open or to prefer more stability. Life experience shapes how extreme that trait becomes.” —therapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD
Let’s talk, then, about the adventurous spirit who yawns at the idea of tradition and has a “go-to” nothing and nowhere. Those who embrace waves of change probably skew higher when it comes to being open. But of course, that sense can slide down a scale with time as well.
“If I inherit a strong degree of openness, that will give me a tendency to take more risks and cope well with change,” Dr. Daramus explains. “If that turns out well in real life, then my natural openness will play a strong role in how I cope with life. If my genetic openness usually turns out badly, that trait won’t be as strong. Of course, too much openness can make someone reckless.”
Perhaps that explains why there’s sometimes a big bounce-back rate on people who were really wild in high school. Because if your openness ever led you to some pretty risky behavior with not-super-pretty results, you might be more likely to dial it down and start to crave stability. Think of how your old friend, let’s call her Fun Times Heather, had one very bad night in college while experimenting with psychedelics, and now she and her husband are raising three cats in a quaint little house in Maine. A bad experience holds the power to nudge you back on the spectrum of how open you are.
But that’s not all, folks! Another piece of the puzzle is your level of neuroticism, the personality trait has to do with how naturally anxious you are. And, spoiler alert: Someone with a strong neuroticism trait also likely has a strong resistance to change.
“Neuroticism includes how sensitive to your environment you are,” Dr. Daramus says. “Someone very sensitive to details might be very anxious about any change and tend to overanalyze possible risks, which could lead to decision paralysis or a strong resistance to change or risk.”
Cut to me having a meltdown because a friend asked if we can meet for happy hour at 6:30 instead of 6.
In short, inheriting traits of strong openness and low neuroticism gives someone a tendency to thrive on change and risk. And on the flip side, if you are highly neurotic and not very open [gestures broadly at self], you’re going to find comfort in ritual, terror in upheaval, and a resistance to taking risks. But remember, it’s not always set in stone. “Your genetic inheritance on these traits isn’t destiny; it will always be shaped by your life experience,” Dr. Daramus says. So, in the words of a tried-and-true neurotic, risk carefully.