Can People Change?

11 June 2024 | General

Can people change? I am frequently asked this question, despite my therapy practice having the tag line create meaningful change. I usually answer with a simple “yes, of course I believe people can change, that’s why I do what I do”. It seems however that scepticism remains, so, it’s time to approach this question with some extra scrutiny. There is no use continuing to harp on about how to change, if you are still questioning if it can be done. You need to know change is possible before you can commit to action. So, here is my long answer. It is still yes, but…

You must genuinely want to.

Are you asking for a friend? The most common reason I’m asked this question is when it’s directed at someone else. Can they really change? My answer to this is yes, but you can’t change them, they need to want to change for themselves, not just for you. And the same works in reverse. If you’re questioning your own ability to change, you need to want it for you, not because someone else says you should. Change requires motivation and motivation requires an authentic WHY. You need to know something is valuable to you before you make an investment. The more closely the change aligns with your priorities, needs and values, the better chance it will stick.  

Take it from seven-year-old me. My Mum and first grade teacher hatched a plan to improve on my tidiness. I received a sticker on a calendar for every day I maintained a general level of tidiness. At the end of the month, when my chart was full of stickers, I was rewarded with a Madonna tape. I achieved my goal and got my reward and then went straight back to being messy again. My change attempt failed because my motivation was the Madonna tape, not the tidiness. My Mum valued tidiness but I valued fun. This doesn’t mean I didn’t love my Mum enough to change, we just had very different values and priorities at the time. I would have needed an ongoing fun motivation to keep the progress going.  

Change requires work

I do want it, so why can’t I change?” The second most common reason I’m asked this question is because previous attempts to change have failed. There seems to be the misconception that change should be easy, just stop doing what you do. The problem is up to 97% of what you do is automatic. You’ve done it, without even thinking. If you had to think before every action you made in a day, you’d be exhausted and incredibly unproductive. To change, you need to reprogram what comes automatically. That takes time, consistency and effort. Keep this in mind when wanting others to change. You are usually wanting them to change something that comes naturally to you, but not to them.

You are also automatically programmed to steer yourself away from pain and towards pleasure. When doing so, you respond to what is in your immediate path, not what is up ahead. Change requires delaying this response. You need to absorb the uncomfortable bumps in the road and forgo the comfort break. In other words, you must sit in some discomfort. Little seven-year-old me had to resist the urge to scoff down my lunch quickly, so I could run and play. Instead, I needed to sit and concentrate on my hand to mouth coordination to avoid unwanted spillages. I endured a month of having ten minutes less play a day, to get the big reward. This is why the why is so important. If change requires work and discomfort, you need a desirable reward. There is no way seven-year-old me was giving up ten minutes play a day, to lighten Mum’s washing load.
Manage your expectations

What would change look like? Are you using someone else as a benchmark? Perhaps you have already changed more than you think? When assessing progress, the only person you should be comparing yourself to is your current to your past self. You can also utilise a future self but only if it is realistic. How do you do that? It can be useful to score yourself out of 10. If you score yourself low 1-3 for an area you want to improve, then a realistic goal may be to aim for a score of 4-5. Then ask, what would a 5 look like? Is that sustainable?  Remember our strengths are skills and attributes that come naturally to us, our weaknesses don’t. Aim to improve your weakness enough to reduce the negative impact they are having on your life. Don’t waste valuable energy try to turn a weakness into a strength.  

So, let’s put current me to the test. On the day my Mum decided an intervention was necessary, I arrived home from school with a missing shoe and multiple lunch items decorating my uniform. I will give past me, a 2 for tidiness. These days I consistently arrive home with both shoes on and remain relatively stain free. That is significant progress. Unfortunately, needing to circle my house three times to locate my shoes each morning when they are not in the shoe rack probably limits my score to average. I’ll give myself a 6. I’ll never match my Mum in tidiness and I’m happy not to. It’s her strength, not mine. I’m content with knowing I just need to find my shoes each day rather than replace them.
So, there you have it. My past and current self say you can change but you need to want it, work for it and be realistic about what you want to achieve. Now do a stocktake of the changes you are wanting to make. Do they meet these criteria? If yes, let’s get started.

Book an appointment, and we’ll prove people can really change.