The Structure of Personality

The question of personality has been central to the field of psychology since its birth only a couple hundred years ago. Even before, people tried to answer fundamental questions about who we are:

• Why do we do what we do?
• Why are we the way we are?
• Can we change our personality?

Countless theories have been proposed to answer these questions and the public consensus today seems to be that:

• Much of our personality is inherited – who we are is a result of genes and brain chemistry.
• Our personality is fixed when we are young – now it is just the way we are.
• Some personality traits are normal and others are pathological.

But what if there is more to personality? What if our most common conceptions about personality are incorrect?

Denominalizing Personality

When we speak about personality we refer to it as if it were a thing: “She’s got a great personality,” or “His personality is lacking.”

In linguistic terminology, this type of word is known as a “nominalization.” By a trick of language we turn something dynamic into something fixed and static. But personality is not a thing. Personality is a fluid process of habituated ways of thinking, feeling, acting and relating; it is more something we do than something have or are.

What are the building blocks of personality?

As we unfreeze and denominalize “personality,” we break something down into it’s components. So what are the pieces that make up human experience and the building blocks of personality?

Human experience can be divided into a number of categories. They are:

• Beliefs
• Values
• Needs
• Memories
• Language
• Time-Encoding
• Meta-Programs
• States
• Strategies
• Modalities and Submodalities
• Self-talk
• Physiology
• Parts


As we go through life, we form beliefs about what is true. Based on our experiences we form generalizations about relatinships, life, the world, others, the future etc. We make decisions about who we are, our worth, our capabilities, our place in the world. Many of these we’ll form at a very young age and these will be our core beliefs- those most central to our experiences and most resistant to change. We’ll also take on beliefs from our parents, teachers and other role models, from society, culture, religion and education.

Some examples of beliefs are:

Others are out to get me vs. People are kind and loving.
The world is dangerous vs. The world is full of good things.
I am not good enough vs. I am a unique individual with much to offer.

Beliefs act as signals to the nervous system telling us how to think, feel and behave. Most of our beliefs are unconscious, acting as invisible forces that shape personality. Since beliefs tend to stay the same, so do our habitual ways of thinking, feeling and responding.


As we go through life, we also take on values. We make decisions about what is important. We decide which areas of our life are most important (friends, relationships, career, achievement etc.) and we decide what is most important in each of these areas.

Examples of values:

Safety and security
Being right

Our values act as a compass helping us to make decisions, driving our motivation and helping us to evaluate our life conditions. If we succeed at actualizing our values, we tend to be happy. If we do not, we find ourselves unfulfilled or even depressed.

Our values are organized in a hierarchy and it is our top values that most drive and shape our experience. Consider what a person is like when their top value is love vs. what someone is like whose top value is achievement.


Each of us has basic psychological needs we must meet. According to Human Needs Psychology, those needs are:


Each of us emphasizes certain of these needs more than others and we each find different ways to meet them (based on our beliefs).

What is someone like whose top need is certainty? They want things to stay the same, they value routine and they don’t want to rock the boat. They want to know what’s coming and they like their comfort.

What about someone whose top need is significance? They likely value achievement, will likely want to stand out or surpass others. If someone tells you they want to make a billion dollars, they’re probably going for significance.

Which needs we value most and how we go about meeting those needs shapes our personality.


Everyone has had different experiences and those experiences shape us. This is so party because we form beliefs and values based on our experiences, but also because we carry those memories around inside of us.

Our most powerful memories act as templates telling us how to think, act and feel. They inform our expectations giving us an idea of what is to come (that’s often false) so we know how to behave. You may have long since forgotten, but your mind remembers… and many people have repressed memories that are informing their personality in the present. Also, the way we remember things shapes our everyday experience (see submodalities).


We perceive the world with our senses and then we translate what we see, hear and feel into words. Using we language, we label, classify and categorize, and then mistake the words for the experience they represent.

We forget, for example, that anxiety is not a thing, it is just a label denoting a certain experience. We use metaphors such as “I am hanging by a thread” or “The future is bleak” without realizing that these are not realities, they are merely descriptions.

The importance of language when it comes to personality is that the language we use habitually shapes our experience. What happens when someone consistently uses extreme language such as “I hit rock bottom” or “This is totally ruined.” What about awfulizing language; “This is awful,” “This is horrible.”

Using words like “enraged” or “anxious” actually impacts our emotional state, even though we think the emotion really is anxiety or rage.


Meta-Programs are thinking, communication and behavioural styles. They are collections of beliefs and values that lead to a certain habitual way of thinking, perceiving and communicating. The meta-program categories help to organize beliefs and values and leave us with a useful tool for understanding ourselves and communicating with others.

Examples of meta-programs:

Toward vs. Away from

Away from: Someone using an away from meta-program tends to focus on what they want to move away from or avoid. They’re attention is usually on what they don’t want and they are motivated to act by deadlines, crises or other undesireable consequences. They can be good problem solvers but at the extreme fall into a pattern of avoidance.

Toward: People using a toward meta-program are focused on what they want. Their attention is on goals and objectives. They are usually achievement oriented and tend not to consider problems and obstacles that can come up on the way to achieving goals. At the extreme may bulldoze toward objectives.

There are a total of 60 meta-programs that each exist along a spectrum and change from context to context. Different Meta-programs lead to very different personality styles.


A state is the sum total of all of our mental and emotional processing at any moment (think “state of mind.”) Over the course of the day, we go in and out of various states but we each have habitual states we spend most of our time in.

Examples of states:


What states are most characteristic of you?

Some people have habituated states of fear, worry, anxiety and stress, whereas others have habituated joy, peace, happiness. We all know people who consistently find themselves in crisis mode (states of urgency and demandingness), others who we feel we need to walk on eggshells around and still others who we equate with Zen and serenity.

The states that we have practices and habituated come to characterize us; others identify us with our most common states.

All thinking is state dependent; how you think is determined by the state you’re in. As a result, our states can serve to keep our other personality patterns in place. Change our habitual states and we change our personality.


Our relationship with time is fundamental to our experience as human beings.

Some people spend most of their time in the past. Their focus is mostly on past memories, on what’s happened, either good or bad. Someone who is depressed for example is usually focused on the past.

Others live in the future. They’re focused on where they want to get to, as in goals and objectives, or on what catastrophes might occur. To experience anxiety, you must be future-focused.

Some are more fundamentally in the present. They are observant and aware of what us going on around them and often able to let go of everything and enjoy the now. Some are stuck in the now and psychologically disconnected from the past or the future. It is in such an “everlasting now” that an addiction will result, as there is little awareness of past troubles or future consequences.

In NLP, one’s relationship with time is described as their timeline. The way one’s timeline is structured will shape the way they think, plan and feel. Changes in the timeline lead to major and rapid changes in emotional state.


Just as we perceive the world through our senses, we think with our senses. We process information mentally through pictures and sounds. Each of us has characteristic ways of using “the cinema of our mind.”


All visual information will have certain characteristics. When you watch a movie, the picture can be described in terms of the visual effects:

Angle: Downward, upward, from the left or the right?
Size: large or small?
Distance: Close up or far away?
Colour: Is it in colour or black and white
Brightness: Is it bright or dim?

According to the NLP submodalities model, all of our internal pictures can be described in the same terms and it is these qualities that we use to give our thoughts meaning. To add to the list above, our internal pictures will have:

Location: Is it in front of you, behind, to the left or right?
Movement: Is it moving or still?
Number: Multiple images or just one?
Association: Are you inside the picture as if you are living it, or outside as if you’re an observer?

Our habitual submodality patterns will lead to habitual ways of thinking, relating and feeling. If problems are encoded as large, bright and close, this will lead to states of urgency and difficulties solving problems. If pictures tend to be still and colourless, this will lead to neutral states and a lack of motivation.

Different submodality patterns create different types of people.


Internal dialogue is an aspect of human experience that has been recognized by almost every psychological approach. The extent to which we use our internal dialogue to navigate the world and make decisions will have an impact on our experience as will what we say to ourselves.

Do we constantly narrate our experience with words, describing what is happening around us or do we tend to be inwardly silent and focused outward?

Do we speak to ourselves with words of encouragement and support or do we fall into self-blame and self-punishment? Do we have other voices in our minds, such as that of a mother, father or mentor?

But it is not just what we hear in our minds, it is also how we hear it. Just as there are visual submodalities, there are auditory submodalities.

Is the internal dialogue or voice:

Coming from inside your head or outside?
On the left or the right?
Loud or soft?
Fast or slow?
And what is the tone? Is it worried, condemning, happy, excited?

These different auditory submodalities are often decisive for people in shaping their habitual states and responses to a variety of events.


According the the NLP model, strategies are the sequences of mental events that enable us to accomplish certain tasks. Strategies are the way we structure and organize our modalities and submodalities for specific purposes.

In a way, they are like recipes. If you combine the right ingredients in the right amount and in the right order, you get a certain result. Change the order, quantity or quality of the ingredients and you get a different results.

Each of us has our own unique strategy for:

• Motivation
• Decision making
• Making sense of reality (reality strategy)
• Coping (stress response – to cope with difficulties)
• Achievement
• Change

If our strategies are effective, we get great results. Any high performer will have highly effective mental strategies that enable them to outdo others in their field. Someone who tends to struggle in a certain area (weight, achievement, relationships) likely has an ineffective strategy that needs to be updated.


Every human experience has a physiological component. The way we use our physiology is directly linked to our emotional states and thus our thinking and reasoning. The habitual use of physiology in certain ways leads to personality traits and communicates information about us to others, often without us knowing it (non-verbal communication).

For example, to be depressed, you need to look down, breath shallow and alter your facial expression. Can you smile and do jumping jacks and get depressed?

Aspects of physiology:

Breathing: shallow or deep, high in the chest or low in the abdomen, fast or slow
Posture: Shoulders back and head up, head down and shoulders forward etc.
Facial expression
Eye accessing cues – tendency to look up left, up right, down left, down right, etc.
Gestures: Tendency to gesture a lot, or little, small gestures or not, symmetrical gesturing or not

One of the fastest ways to change your state of mind is to alter your physiology.


Countless psychological approaches have recognized the idea that people have different “parts” of them. Freud proposed we have an ego, Id and superego, Transactional Analysis put forth the parent, the adult and the child, and the more recent Internal Family Systems accounts for all manner of interacting parts within. Ego-State therapy calls these parts “ego-states” and describes them as aspects of personalities with their own emotional states, intentions, perceptions and behaivours.

In the original NLP literature, the idea of parts was recognized as the structure of an internal conflict; Parts of me wants one thing and part of me wants another. But in reality, there may be one, two or many more parts shaping one’s experience.

Often, when one is unable to control their behaviour or have drastic changes in their experience that are not conscious choices, a part of is involved. In more extreme cases, one internal parts will leads to cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID – formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) or Borderline Personality Disorder.

I have put parts last in the list because a part of us can have its own personality – It may have its own beliefs, values, metaprograms, physiology, time-encoding etc. that differs from that of the person or of other parts.

How one is as a person is shaped by parts. We can ask:

• Is there wholeness, or parts in conflict?
• What parts are involved?
• How many parts are there?
• Where did they come from?
• What are they trying to do?

There are numerous NLP techniques to work with parts for change – Parts integration, parts negations, six-step reframing and core transformation. In addition, IFS offers an even more complete methodology for working with parts of us.

Can we change personality?

Having explored each of these elements of personality, the question is no longer, “Can we change personality?” but rather, can we make changes at each of these levels of experience.

Both NLP and Neuro-Semantics provide numerous ways to make changes at each of these levels of experience.

David Kynan

David Kynan will get you there with practical cutting-edge methods for change and performance. President of Personis Coaching and Training ( and Former Vice President of the Canadian Association of NLP, David coaches, teaches and consults on how to make change happen when change is hard. He also lends his skills to individuals, professionals and businesses on topics related to strategic intervention, problem solving, marketing and sales. His expertise has landed him training and consulting contracts with companies such as Sun Life Financial, Medisca Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Pure Water Technologies. He has been featured in the Montreal Mirror, interviewed on CTV and presented on his work at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.

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One Response to The Structure of Personality

  1. Pingback: Bipolar Personality Traits | Is Bipolar Hereditary

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