Personality: Changeable or Static? with guest Shannon Sauer Zavala

This week the Mental Health Mamas dive into an in depth conversation about personality and our personalities are more malleable than we think. Our guest is clinical psychologist Shannon Sauer Zavala founder of Compass, Intentional Personality Change. Listen in.

Notes and Mentions

Visit Shannon's website at :

Like us on Facebook!
Find us on Instagram @noneedtoexplainpodcast
Follow us on Twitter @mhmamas
We love to hear from you! Email us:


Serena: Hey everyone, I'm Serena,

Tina: and I'm Tina

Serena: and we are the Mental Health Mamas


Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain. We are so glad you're here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you not as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis,

please seek professional support. You will find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, no need to explain

Tina: If we have learned nothing else over the many years we have been mental health mamas, it's that mental health is super complicated, right Serena?

Serena: Right, yes, so symptoms, diagnoses, therapy, school interventions, home interventions, medications, it's not a, you can't just Google it, right?

It's all super complicated.

Tina: Yes, and we as families deal with it within a very structured system intended to be super helpful and kind of bring order and support to all of us and our loved ones, right?

Serena: Right, and sometimes thought partners come along who might want to shake things up a bit and think differently about things.

Tina: Yes, and we have one of those people here today with us and we have a lot of questions for her. So Dr. Shannon Sauer Zabala, a clinical psychologist and academic researcher has dedicated her career to developing psychological treatments to help people recover from mental health difficulties. She's focused on proven strategies to shift the personality traits that put people at risk for anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and other things, but you don't need to be struggling

with your mental health to take advantage of what the science of personality change has to offer. Interesting, Shannon, welcome to the podcast.

Shannon: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

Serena: So, Shannon, let's just start with you telling us a bit about how you got into the field of personality and mental health and maybe a little bit of your personal story as well.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. So, I have always been kind of an empathetic person

and knew that I wanted to go into a career, that that would allow me to do good in the world. But, funny story, when I was in high school, we had a clinical psychologist come to give a career talk and I was like, nah, too much school.

And I think that that, in some ways, like looking back at that, it sort of solidifies

for me how personality can change because I kind of went from a very sort of scattered and disorganized and not particularly motivated person

to kind of finding my path and developing skills to become a lot more conscientious.

And so, basically, that started when I went to college, I took an introduction to psychology class and really liked it. Despite being at 8 a.m. somehow, even though I was skipping all of my other classes, I could get up and go to that class. And the TA was like, you should consider majoring in psychology. And I started to see myself as a budding psychologist and that's what really got me kind of set on that path in terms of the research that I do now. So, I'm a treatment development researcher

and I'm really interested in what's called implementation science. And basically, that's like, how do we get proven strategies into the hands of the mental health providers that are in the trenches, working with families? You know, I'm sure your listeners can relate to this. When people seek mental health treatment, it can be really hard confusing and you don't know if the provider that you're working with is providing strategies that have been kind of proven in scientific studies. That can be really tough. And you probably sat on a wait list for a while. And especially if,

I mean, this is like much more pronounced for kids or families than it is for adults.

And, you know, for a long time, I worked at a clinic where we charged $250, $300 a session. And that just like didn't sit right with me. I'm from a low SES background.

And I just remember thinking I'm providing this therapy that I wouldn't even feel comfortable paying myself. And that kind of set me on a path to want to think about like, how can we make changes to the system so that everybody can access care?

Tina: Yeah, so that's a whole, that you've just said a lot of things that I have a lot of comments about. Yeah, so the system itself, which is interesting. And I actually was just looking into therapy and so many different, it's so confusing, right?

Like, what exactly do you need? And who do you look to? And how do you find the right thing? So let's set that aside for a minute, because I want to focus a little bit

about the beginning of how we started this conversation, which is about your research about personality, right? I want to dive into that because, I guess I really want to think about personality in the sense that, I guess I didn't, yeah, define personality for us, define that in the kind of the psychological sense.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. So the, I guess like, definition of personality is your characteristic way of thinking, feeling, and behaving, right? So are you likely to approach situations in your life pessimistically, glass half full kind of person?

Do you give people the benefit of the doubt when they cut you off in traffic,

or are you more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt? Do you plan ahead or do you fly by the seat of your pants, right? Like, depending on your answers to questions like these, you might be labeled as, you know, reliable or optimistic or empathetic, right? So personality is kind of the summary label for how we think, feel, and behave kind of systematically or characteristically.

Tina: So I'm gonna just use some Winnie the Pooh references here and say, if you are Eyore orif you are Tigger, these are not static ways of being is what you're saying. You're saying that Eyore or is not a state of being, Eyore is a, it's not static that you can change from being Eyore, and your brain is not always going to be

or that you can change from Eyore to Tigger.

Shannon: Yeah, yeah. So I wouldn't say you could change from Eyore to Tigger,

but I think you could maybe change from Eyore to Pooh. So we're not talking about necessarily like a really extreme, but when you think about like, you know, personality tests and the question is like, do you approach the world pessimistically and you say strongly agree? Well, maybe we could move that to agree. Well, maybe we could move that to agree or to neutral. And I think that that can be, that can be really important, right? And when we think about personality as static, right?

Like people can be really precious about their personality, right? So, you know, they think of it as like their tastes, who they are. And that's not how I'm defining personality or how like the field of psychology defines personality. It's your characteristic way of thinking, feeling and behaving. And we change our perspective on things all the time. We change our, how we feel about things all the time with new information. And we change how we behave. We develop new habits, right? And if you maintain that change over time, then, you know, voila, you've shifted your personality a little bit.

Serena: Yeah, and so I guess coming from the perspective of a parenting educator,

and one of the things we talk about often is this idea that we cannot change our children, I feel like maybe, so part of that is sort of accepting the child you've been given, right? And figuring out how to support them and raise them in a way that's good for them. I feel like maybe what you're saying is a personal drive to shift something, is that, am I accurate there?

Shannon: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so I wanna make it really clear that I don't think that there's like an optimal level of any of our personality traits, that there are pros and cons to like, all of the traits that we could talk about, right? So like, I would describe myself as pretty neurotic, like I am high on the tendency to experience negative emotions. And I see that as a strength as a therapist, right?

I think it helps me to be more empathetic, right? And when we think about like the other side of that continuum, so people that are like, don't really get their feathers

ruffled very often. I mean, I can think about like some of my friends, mostly men who are frequently talking about how their wives are mad at them because, you know, their wives come home and they're like, this thing happened to me at work.

And their husbands are not like, mustering enough of emotional reaction to be validating. So I wanna make it really clear that like, it's not like being emotional is bad thing and being less emotional is like the thing that we're trying to strive towards. I think, you know, where I come at personality change is that I get the sense that people take personality tests or, you know, they get into these sort of like identity ruts where they are like, well, this is just the way I am. And if you're telling yourself, this is just the way that I am. It limits your, it limits your scope of possibility. And since personality is malleable, I think it's important for people to think about whether or not they might wanna change that. I'll often use like,

introversion versus extroversion as an example, right? So if you're introverted and that is not getting in the way of your goals or your ambitions and you're not like avoiding social situations because you're anxious. It's just that they don't really do anything for you. Then you maybe are motivated to change that. And like cool, I would never, I'm not coming from a place of like, oh, it's better to be more extroverted, right? It's only if you are in a situation where, you know, you have a particular aspiration, right? And being more shy, more quiet is kind of getting

in the way of moving towards a particular goal. Then I think we can consider it

that personality is valuable, right? That you don't have to be like, well, I'm introverted so I couldn't possibly, you know, speak up in this meeting

or it couldn't possibly be a successful public speaker.

Tina: Okay, so we're talking about, and Serena and I talk about this a lot, right?

About like, we do not believe that mental health is something that can never go away, right? Like when one struggles with their mental health, it is about coping skills. It's about building those skills that help you cope, right? Coping skills, so we fill our toolboxes with things that help us cope every day. And so part of what I think I hear you saying is, if I'm anxious, if I struggle with depression, if I struggle with, I don't know whether being introverted is a mental health struggle necessarily, but then I'm gonna fill my toolbox with things that help me overcome these struggles. Am I reading that, right?

Shannon: Yeah, yeah, so I'm a cognitive behavioral therapist, and so that's definitely speaking my language, right? So, you know, when you're having anxious thoughts

like this bad thing is gonna happen, like what is the tool that you pull from, right?

So you can use your cognitive skills, so you can tell yourself, well, what's the likelihood of that happening and if it does happen, how bad is it? And you can use your behavioral skills, right? So like, the best way, you know, in my work is if you're scared of something and the likelihood is low, but you just don't wanna do it, right?

Let's just do it anyway and see what happens.

Serena: Hmm, okay. So let's get practical, and of course, we're gonna keep HIIPA in mind, take us into your clinic and maybe give us an example of your work. So what does this look like on a practical level? And what have you seen in terms of changes

in quality of people's mental health?

Shannon: Yeah, yeah, well, so I think a little bit about some of the more recent work that I've been doing with folks with borderline personality disorder. And so when we think about like personality, you know, sort of like risk factors, people with PPD are often described as having really strong negative emotions, having sort of interpersonal difficulties and being impulsive, right? So those are kind of what we're working with in terms of some of the difficulties. One of the things that is also really true about PPD is that the presentations are really varied. And so some people might come in just struggling with negative emotions. Some people might come in struggling with all three of those risk factors. And so we've been putting together kind of a personalized treatment where people kind of take an assessment

at the beginning of therapy to kind of see where they're struggling. And then, you know, giving them these personality-focused modules based on what's going on with a particular person. And so I'll talk a little bit about like the interpersonal difficulties one, because we haven't really talked about that one very much, right?

So people with PPD often struggle with trusting other people, right? And that makes perfect perfect sense because, you know, 60% of people with PPD

have experienced abuse in their past. And so it makes really good sense that folks would be perhaps a little bit more seriously be putting up walls to protect themselves, engaging in behaviors like reassurance, seeking like you still love me, right? Or like, you know, I'm gonna leave you before you leave me type of situation, right? So I like to think about things really functionally and like what is the function of those behaviors or those like interpersonal symptoms of PPD? And it really is fulfilling this function of protecting yourself. And so lack of trust, right?

Like mistrust, that's like a personality facet. It's like how you characteristically think about the world and behave in the world, right? So like people can't be trusted.

That's a systematic thought, right? And then behaving in ways that like kind of demonstrate your lack of trust in people. That's a behavior, right? And that's a consistent pattern for some of these folks. And so one of the things we do is

we kind of get at that belief about people can't be trusted by doing this exercise called dimensions of trust. And so we ask them to identify folks in their lives

and basically like, you know, okay, I'm gonna do my mom and they look at different ways that you could trust somebody and give the person a rating, right? So like, okay, I can trust my mom to pick me up from the airport. I can trust my mom to lend me money. I can trust my mom to help me move. I can't trust my mom to validate me when I call with like some kind of like emotional problem that I'm experiencing. And so they do this for multiple people in their lives. And usually what they find is that, oh, interesting. When I actually systematically think about this, I can trust people in my life more than I thought I could. Or that people are, you know, that i's not all or nothing, right? That like some people can be trusted for some things and not so much for other things. And so that's kind of like the start of changing or thinking. And then we have people engage in like what we call

behavioral exposures. And that's changing your behavior around trust, right?

Because unfortunately, the only way to change your perspective on trust

is to collect some evidence. And so we ask people, like one example is helping a patient kind of come up with how they might share with a new partner a past history of sexual abuse when like in the past, they have like kind of split or,

or you know, kind of put up some barrier broken up with people before they had an opportunity to get intimate, right? And so by changing your behavior

and then seeing how the other person acts, you collect new evidence around how like people's capacity for, you know, behaving in a trustworthy way.

And if you maintain these changes over time, like they snowball over time,

you maintain these changes over time, and again, like think about those personality questionnaires, like I feel like you can't trust other people, right? You're going to rate those questions different if you maintain those changes over time.

Tina: You are giving us a lot to think about. So you're writing a self-help book.

I'm curious about, so this seems intensely complicated and I imagine a self-help

book has to be pretty accessible for people to being married to a researcher.

I understand that things need to be very accessible for people on a practical level.

So I'm curious if you can give us some very kind of proven strategy examples

that would be very practical to help someone's mental health kind of top three tips

to help someone's mental health. And I know that's very broad. So maybe that's hard.

Shannon: Yeah. When, yeah, so let me think of what I want to answer that.

When you're thinking about making changes to your life, potentially to improve your mental health or to, you know, I mean, I think mental health goes both ways, right, it can go to, you know, sort of struggling and it can go to flourishing, right?

So when you're making changes to your mental health to either, you know, improve your mental health or to sort of increase your level of flourishing, there's a couple things you want to keep in mind. And so first off is kind of motivation

to make those changes. So I always encourage people to start by identifying

their values. What do you want to be like as a worker? What do you want to be like as an intimate partner? What do you want to be like as a parent? How do you see yourself in the world as approaching your health and well-being? And if you find that you're sort of current, your current behaviors, your current patterns of thinking are not really in line with your ideal values, that's the motivation to make changes. If everything is kind of going okay or you just aren't motivated, you know,

you don't see a need to make those changes. It doesn't really make a ton of sense to like, do the really hard work that it takes to shift traits. So once you've identified those values, right, look to people in your life that are, you know, moving towards those values or, you know, achieving some of the goals that you want to achieve

and kind of think about like what are the traits that they're embodying, right?

Are they confident? Are they, you know, are they resilient or like do they exhibit

persevere ends, right? They keep trying even in the face of failure. Are they open to trying new behaviors? And then once you sort of identified the trait that you would like to enhance in your own life, then you want to see if you have any sort of self-illiminating beliefs, right? So a lot of times when we're working towards goals,

we're thinking about the trait of conscientiousness versus dis-inhibition.

And so I can't tell you how many times I hear people say, I couldn't possibly start this task until the night before because I need the adrenaline of the last minute

to get it done.

Tina: Haahahahhaha

Shannon: Are you guys laughing because that feels so hard.

Tina: I don't think that's Serena, but that is so me!

Serena: And not so much me.

Shannon: That's a belief, you know? So like you literally need a adrenaline to do something a couple of days and that's a week and a half in advance. But that's something that we tell ourselves. And if we do tell ourselves that, then we're probably going to behave in accordance with that because we've kind of given ourselves permission to start the night before. And so identifying those self-illumiting beliefs. And then identifying behaviors, but take us away from the person that we want to be and pushing ourselves to try something different

and see what happens. And that's kind of been a nutshell personality change, right?

So it's kind of taking, changing your thinking and changing your behavior principles

of cognitive behavioral therapy, but applying it to other characteristics beyond,

you know, tendency to experience negative emotions, which is like kind of more where we're focusing for mental health.

Serena: All right, so I think there's so much more we could talk about but I don't want them to have such rent too long. However, I can imagine that people might be intrigued. I want to connect with you. So how might they do that?

Shannon: Yeah, so probably the best place to find me is at my website and that's I'm also on all the socials. You can buy me on Instagram, you can buy me on LinkedIn if that's your persuasion.

Tina: Great. So we really appreciate you joining us today and sharing your super interesting research. Thank you for being one of those people in the world

that are trying to help us with all of our stuff.

Shannon: Yeah, that's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Tina: And so podcast brands, we are as always grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple Podcasts. We'll leave us a review while you're there. We have a bunch of reviews, but we would love some more. Please subscribe and share the podcast with others. You will find more content on our website, You will also find us on all the socials and we would love to hear from you.

Serena: And it's just a gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you're also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks so much for listening.

Serena: Bye.