6 Steps to Change Negative Character Traits: What Character Growth Looks Like

by | Jan 21, 2020 | Faith | 17 comments

Is it fair to say to your spouse, “This is just the way I am” when it comes to a negative character trait?

Is there a way to change negative character traits in ourselves–and even in those around us? I’m not talking about personality differences, where we may clash on different things. I’m talking about negative character traits where we tend to show selfishness, immaturity, or something else that makes life difficult for those around us.

As we’re talking about growth in marriage this month, and specifically this week about how to talk to your spouse if something is bugging you, I thought we’d continue with this theme with an extra post looking at how to change negative character traits. Really, that’s just a fancy way of talking about another concept: GROWTH. Changing a negative character trait is simply growing as a Christian and a human being.

Life is supposed to be characterized by growth–not stagnation with our bad character traits.

We’re supposed to get increasing victory over sin. We’re supposed to get more mature. We’re supposed to gain greater insight, greater patience, greater wisdom.

Unfortunately, often we use the language of love in marriage to make it sound like wanting your spouse to grow, or wanting you to grow, means that you don’t really love them. “If you loved me, you’d accept me, and this is part of who I am!”

But I think of it in a different way. If I love Keith, I want him to be the best that he can be. I want him to live out God’s purpose for his life. I want him to thrive, to excel, to do the things that God has planned for him. And that means that I want him to grow!

And I also know that part of loving Keith means that I need to grow as well. I need to become more loving, more patient, more kind. I need to be the best that I can be, and run after Jesus as much as possible, because that’s part of my wedding vow. I promised that I would love and cherish and honour him, and the way that I do that is by treating him as well as I can. And the only way to treat him well is to deal with my own negative character traits.

Saying “this is just who I am” is a cop out, pure and simple.

Being a person means that you are someone dynamic. The mark of our lives is that we change. And so let’s take care that we change in the right direction.

1. Know who you’re supposed to be.

What is it that God wants from us?

First, He wants us to look more and more like Christ:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” 

Romans 8:29

He wants us to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… 

Galatians 5:22-23a

That’s the point. So learn to recognize those things. Hang out with people who can spur you on to love and good deeds–who really do demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Pray together for these things in your lives. Be part of a community where you see Jesus and you start to want more of Him. You can’t change a negative character trait until you learn to recognize the good.

Okay, sounds good so far. But how do we make growth into those good character traits happen? Let’s look at a few strategies.

2. Call out the opposite–The flipside of a negative character trait is often a personality strength

Let me tell you a story about my daughters when they were younger. They were truly wonderful as kids. I know every mother says that, but they were. They were kind, they were loving, they were helpful, they had an extremely high moral framework for themselves, and they were a joy to parent. They still are, even as adults!

But they each also had their own areas of weakness–their own negative character traits. I’ve always felt that your greatest weaknesses are tied to your strengths. Rebecca, for instance, had a high demand of holiness in herself, which is great. She would never lie. She would never be mean to anyone. She wanted to be GOOD.

Rebecca Katie children

The three of us at my first Publisher, Kregel, with copies of Bare Marriage in the background!

That’s the good part. But then she would often flip that onto others. She would demand the same of them, and she would be hurt and angry if they didn’t follow through. And as a firstborn child, she was often very bossy of her younger sister. But her bossiness, her demands that Katie listen to me, do her chores, do the right thing, were the flipside of the high standards she set for herself.

The good–she wants to do the right thing. The bad–she demands it in others.

I pride myself on being a strong worker, being able to get a lot of things done. The flipside of that, however, is that I can be so focused that I can’t relax, and I can be very grumpy with others when I’m in the middle of a project. It’s hard to turn it off.

The good–I work hard. The bad–I make others suffer for it.

One of the long-standing discussions that Katie and I would have is that she can be a real people pleaser. She wants others to like her, and she really values her friendships. The flipside of that, though, is that she doesn’t know how to say no, and often finds herself far too busy and overburdened with other people’s problems.

The good–she honestly cares. The bad–she exhausts herself for it.

Do you see what I mean? The character traits that tend to be our strengths often also become our weaknesses. 

Are you GOOD or are you NICE?

Because the difference matters!

God calls us to be GOOD, yet too often we’re busy being nice. And sometimes, in marriage, that can actually cause problems to be even more entrenched.

What if there’s a better way?

Sensitive people who care deeply about others tend to also not be able handle criticism or difficult conversations. People who can respond well under a crisis and who are highly responsible can sometimes come off as uncaring because they’re so logical.

So what do you do? Call out the good first, and validate the good, before trying to address the bad.

“Katie–you care so much for people, and that’s wonderful. But sometimes you don’t care enough for yourself. And you can’t help others if you’re always exhausted. It’s wonderful that you have such a big heart; let’s talk about how to protect you and draw boundaries.”

Or Keith has had to say to me:

“Sheila, I’m in awe at how much you can get done. But you also need some time to rejuvenate and relax. Let’s start planning more of that into your schedule.”

When you notice your spouse doing something good that is the flipside of the negative character trait, call it out. Reinforce it. But then bring it back to the right balance.

3. Remind yourself and your spouse who you are and what your aiming for

Every couple should have a vision for where they’re going–what you want your life and your marriage and your parenting to look like in the future. What is God doing in your life right now? Where are you going? When we have a vision, and a direction, then you have something to measure against when you fall.

Let me give a super practical example. A woman wrote was commenting on the blog a while ago that her husband played video games non-stop after coming home from work. She was scared, because she was pregnant, and she didn’t know what this would look like once the baby came. So they talked about how much was reasonable for him to play video games, and they decided that they should each have an hour a night to do with as they want, and two hours on weekend days. But other than that, they’d spend time together.

Now, when he’s on video games for longer, she can go to him and say, “remember? You said this isn’t what you wanted for yourself. You said that you wanted to do more with your evenings than play video games.” Because they’ve already had that talk and decided what they want life to look like, she can go and remind him.

Other posts that may help:

4. Praise the things that are good, both in yourself and in your spouse

This general rule is a good one as well: If you’re trying to change negative character traits, always call out the good, too, even the ones unrelated to the bad. One of my friends had a husband who was fighting a porn addiction, which hurt her heart so much. But in those months as they were going through counseling and trying to put it behind them, she made it a point of thanking him for two things a day. The fact that she had to look for two things to thank him for meant that she was training herself to notice the good. That’s a key point in my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, which can change the dynamic when we’re going through rough patches.

When the good is reinforced, people tend to want to repeat it. So praise helps everyone!

Character traits that tend to be our strengths often also become our weaknesses. 

5. Have grace for slipups when negative character traits come to the forefront

Growth is very rarely a straight, upwards progression. It usually has times of tremendous progress, and then a few steps back, and then some slow progress before sliding back down again. Over the course of a year or two you may notice real change, but over a week, or a day, not so much. People slip up.

Take a spouse who is trying to get help for anxiety and depression. Maybe they’ve made some progress, and they’re eating better, taking medication, going for therapy, and sleeping better. But then, maybe over a weekend, they stay in bed and everything seems to go to pot. The temptation in that moment is to assume that you’re back at square one, and that they’ll never be better again. But none of us can be perfect. It’s better, again, to remind them of where they are, where they’ve come, and the goal:


You’ve had a really good two months. You’ve done really well. This is a set back. But don’t let it hamper you from moving forward. I’m proud of you for where you’ve come. You’ll get there again. What can I do to help?

6. Get help for the big problems

And then, if it’s something that just isn’t getting better, get some help.

For instance, I have people asking me, “shouldn’t he get better from his porn addiction? It’s been two years since I discovered it, and he keeps being fine for a month, but then sliding back into it. How long do I have to put up with this for?”

Yes, he should be getting better. It’s one thing to have occasional slip ups; it’s quite another to have those repeatedly, without showing commitment to get better. So if something big keeps happening, then seek out some licensed counseling for him, and also for you as you learn how to draw good boundaries (again, my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage deals with this in detail).

What are some of your own negative character traits and how did you learn to turn them into positive growth? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Arwen

    I often find a jewel of wisdom in your articles whenever i read them, like this one, “People who can respond well under a crisis and who are highly responsible can sometimes come off as uncaring because they’re so logical.” You just described me to a T.
    My character trait is that i’m an EXCELLENT problem solver by nature. Since i was a young girl i have had tons of people come to me to give them advice on what they should do in all types of circumstances. Whatever a problem is, give me a moment, and i’ll solve it in no time! But as a result like i quoted above i have also been accused of being uncaring, judgmental, hard headed, etc. I don’t like misery or the company of it, i often assume others don’t like it either so i try to help them. But as i grow older i have come to realize that most people thrive in dysfunction and love the company of misery. So what i do now is i simply listen to their whining and only offer help when they ask.
    Which is very frustrating for me because i so desperately want to fix it for them. Because i demand the same trait in them that i have in myself, my problem solving skills, i can see where one can misinterpret me as being judgmental. I guess the opposite of this character trait will be patience. I defiantly struggle with patience. Sometimes i try to remove myself from pain so quickly i have made some errors that wouldn’t have existed had i just be a bit more patient. I have gotten better at balancing the two together though. Patience + Problem solving skill = less stress and strife in life.

  2. Angela Laverdi

    #5— dealing with someone fighting anxiety, mental/emotional difficulties. Unfortunately this is a daily battle for those of us with these issues and as annoying as it is to the rest of you, the daily battle we fight exhausts us to the point of not wanting to even wake up. Even when on meds. Even when we know we are loved.

    • Nathan

      Angela, that’s very true. There are people in my life with these issues, and sometimes I’m not as patient and as understanding as I could be with them, even though I like and love them. I will admit that this is a struggle for me.

    • lizanne

      I can relate to this. Luckily my husband is very supportive. I just don’t know how to get over my inner issues…
      I tried everything.
      My husband really loves me.but I have a really hard time with accepting the fact that he notice ans see other beautiful woman. I always struggles with that thought, but lately it’s been crippling me with fear and anxiety.
      He doesn’t lust and I know my husband, but I get so jealous around other woman.

  3. Hope is dying

    What if after 18 months of very strict boundaries, the spouse still isn’t changing emotionally abusive behaviors. Yes there’s a counselor. Yes there’s a support group for addiction. Still- the self-centeredness hasn’t changed. I’m thinking the boundaries would need to be more strict.
    What if there could be a diagnosis that has never happened? What if it appears that the spouse might be on the spectrum but doesn’t want to be tested? What if it is actually the best that is possible? What if there is no hope of change happening?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, our post next week will have more examples of stricter boundaries when your spouse won’t change.
      If emotional abuse is occurring, I strongly recommend seeing a licensed counselor, and, if necessary, a separation. Some couples have found that separation is what jolts an abusive spouse into realizing that change is necessary. But a counselor who is knowledgeable about abuse dynamics can help see you through that. I’m so sorry you’re walking through this! I really am.

    • Angela Laverdi

      You have boundaries but no consequences. You’ll keep drawing a line in the sand over and over until you back yourself off of a cliff.

    • Faith

      Are you talking about the autistic spectrum? this is the first time I have seen anyone mention this. My son was diagnosed as being high functioning autistic, which used to be called Aspergers. I noticed over the years that my husband shows some of these traits as well. I never brought it up because I knew he would fight with me on it. One day out of the blue he told me he thought he might be autistic like our son. He said he would get evaluated, and then turned around and refused to make an appointment or get tested. I feel that has really affected our marriage. I carry most of the workload and mental load. I am the bread winner and have been most of our marriage. He would always get fired, or get anxiety and depression, self medicate with alcohol and walk off of jobs. I also handle paying all the bills and managing the money. We had a period of time that was good in the middle of our almost 15 year marriage, where it seemed like he was really trying. He had a job and made it to manager and we were getting along well. He ended up leaving that job because he couldn’t handle the stress. He got another job doing mechanic work and service call and lasted almost two years and then it’s like he had a breakdown and left. He returned for 5 more months because they needed him and then quit again.
      Sometimes I just don’t know what to do. I feel like if he can’t manage normally it’s at least his responsibility to be seen by a professional and learn how to manage better.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Faith, I think you’re right. If he’s not able to cope at normal life, then he does need to see a professional. And it is okay to insist on that and to say that things can’t continue like this.

      • nessie

        Replying to Faith, My son was also diagnosed with Aspergers (now called high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder). After years of issues with my husband (though not the same as what you described), I got a book called, “Is It You, Me, or ADD?” It helped me quite a bit, and talks about how to work with a spouse to convince them to get the help they need.
        Of course your husband may not have ADD/ADHD, but there is a lot of overlap of the two, and I think much of the advice in this book would hold true to encourage your husband to seek help. I feel many of your struggles come up in this book as well, so even if he doesn’t have ADD, you can read and realize you are not alone in your frustrations!
        Hang in there. You are doing amazing things because it can be so difficult, infuriating, frustrating, etc., living with someone who won’t acknowledge his/her issues, refuses to get help, and ignores your pain. It took me 15+ years of painful marriage, feeling unloved, unseen, and worthless before I moved to a different bedroom and he finally took me seriously and sought the help he needed. I sincerely hope you have had improved results since you wrote this. If you can find a counselor that specializes in ASD or ADHD, that may really help, too. The first counselor was not a good fit, so it may take a few tries, but the right counselor is worth the effort.
        Know that you are doing hard things: shouldering more than your share, trying to get him help, AND parenting a kid on the spectrum. All stressful. You are amazing. I hope this encourages you.

  4. Tory

    My negative character trait is when I get upset, I can say things I don’t mean, and then I have to go and apologize to my husband. I decided that I would work very hard to change this in myself, but so far it’s harder than I expected and I find myself falling back into my old patterns. It’s one thing to sincerely want to change, and it’s another to put it into practice every time. Old habits die hard. I’m not sure there is a corresponding positive to this negative character trait.

    • Maria

      Not meant as a comment on you, specifically, Tory, since I don’t know you. The desire to speak up is a positive character trait in the right context.

  5. Nathan

    It really is hard, Tory,and you aren’t the only one. A lot of people struggle with that. I have the opposite problem, of not saying things that SHOULD be said.
    But, like you said, we all need to keep working on things.

  6. Becky Miller

    This is so helpful and practical. I love that you include parenting exchanges as well as marriage examples. This advice could work for colleagues as well.
    One thing I am uncomfortable with – mentioning anxiety and depression under a heading labeled “negative character traits” (5). The actual dialogue example is good, but I don’t think we should ever see our or our spouse’s mental health struggles as negative character traits.

  7. Ashley

    You described me word-for-word when you described Rebecca! 😂

  8. Sam

    I like this. I am working on changing terrible reactions, panic attacks, and anxiety in my life. Shelia pointed me (through one of her articles) to a certified counselor. This has been huge in my life. One thing I want to add to the fruit of the Spirit: I have have found to produce fruit, that I need to nurture, feed, water, and give myself (the tree if you will) time. Time to take in the good (bible, counseling, prayer), time to take in water (support groups, friends, etc), and time to heal from awful habits, that have been there for decades. Fruit will come, but don’t expect it quickly. Like actual fruit growing, it takes time.

  9. Faith

    I was actually thinking this today……. That one of my greatest strengths can also be my weakness. I have a tendency to see the good in people despite other flaws, but sometimes that can be a weakness. I like to give people chances and the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes that can be bad when dealing with someone that has major character issues. I like to get along, work together, and am a people pleaser type person. But it’s bad because sometimes I just want to keep the peace so bad I let people get away with things without accountability.
    People being very negative, harsh, arguing ect. gives me high anxiety.


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