Are People Really Capable of Change?
Can people really change? There are a LOT of articles about this topic out there in Internet land. I hadn’t realized it before, but it’s sort of in the free will vs. determinism, is there a god, liberal vs. conservative camp of topics. I don’t know if I have anything relevant to add, but I had some thoughts about it, so I’m going give it a try.
I’ve been working on personal change for my whole adult life, so I know that change is absolutely possible. And yet, I think that change often isn’t quite what people think it is. Because while we can change our behaviors and our reactions and even our thoughts, and while we can work to maximize our greatest attributes and minimize our greatest shortcomings, our essence–who we are at a basic level–doesn’t really change.
Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is an example of someone who went through a profound change experience. He had been a hopeless alcoholic; he was addicted, having delirium tremens (“the DTs”) and other physical consequences, was unable to work and was supported by his wife, and was in complete despair and contemplating suicide. He had been in this state for a number of years, when a visit from a friend who’d “found religion” (and through it, sobriety) prompted him to have a powerful spiritual experience. In an instant, all compulsion to drink was “lifted” and he never took another drink of alcohol again. He devoted his life to helping other alcoholics and became a model of good citizenship and healthy altruism.
And yet, although Bill went through this massive and permanent life change, he pretty much remained the same person at his core. He still had the same talents, the same good-natured affability, the same intelligence, the same insecurities, and the same, somewhat cynical, outlook on life. The only difference was that, because of his “lightning bolt” experience, he was able to view his addiction differently and channel his inherent abilities (and maybe even his shortcomings) in a new, positive direction.
So I suppose much of the answer to “Can people really change?” depends on how you define “change.” The psychiatrists tell us that much of who we are is determined by the time we’re six years old–our patterns of thought and emotion, our sense of self, how we go about forming relationships, and our general outlook on life. I think this is largely true. I’m not sure if this is our “essence” or if that essence occurs at an even deeper, perhaps genetic, level (or some of both), but I do think it impossible to change one’s essence. Much of who we are, we are stuck with. Changing our essence is not possible.
This is neither good nor bad news. It’s just the way it is. Since we are all complex, messy mixes of virtue and vice, confidence and insecurity, joy and grief, rational thought and emotion, our unchanging essence should not be viewed as fate etched in stone, but rather, as clay waiting to be molded. What we make of ourselves is up to us.
Change is really about learning, or its less distinguished cousin, training. It is about taking stock of what we have to work with and using it to our own best advantage. If we can learn to walk, run, speak, read, write, and throw a ball, then we can also learn to think more critically, control our emotions, emphasize our attributes, and de-emphasize our shortcomings. There is nothing magical about the change process. It just takes willingness and effort.
You may say but wait a minute–I know a person who went through a horribly traumatic experience, and it changed her. She became withdrawn, shut down, bitter. She had not been like that before. Isn’t this change that’s not about learning?
I don’t think so. People whose personalities seem to change because of circumstances are still at their roots the same people. Circumstances have merely “trained” them to identify strongly with different aspects of themselves. People who were once happy that become withdrawn (or vice versa) still have the capacity to return to their old selves; they just can’t find a reason to do so.
Well, what about brain chemistry, you might ask. Some people’s brain chemistry changes, and they go from happy and well-adjusted to depressed, or worse. This change isn’t about learning!
This is an extremely complex issue that may or may not be about learning. Often people are depressed because they feel powerless and stuck and don’t know what to do about it. The altered brain chemistry is not a cause, but rather a result, of these feelings (and yes, the medical establishment has that exactly backwards in many cases). But if people’s personalities truly do change because their brain chemistry changes (as with Alzheimer’s, for example), then this can be considered a physical disease, akin to how diabetes changes a person’s blood sugar levels, and in a realm outside that of choice and personal change.
So physical issues aside, I believe that change occurs overwhelmingly because of learning and/or training. We change by molding and manipulating our essence. And this molding and manipulating is always occurring: so long as we are vertical and drawing breath, it can’t not occur. The only option is whether we undertake this process consciously and deliberately, or unconsciously let it happen to us.
This is why the key to change is, I believe, self-knowledge. And I am not alone in this belief. Scientific determinism–the belief that we are victims of our past conditioning and that all real power to change is an illusion–has taken a disturbing foothold in our culture, evident in the growing beliefs that we are not responsible for our actions. It is quite fashionable today to exonerate people’s bad behavior because they have “diseases” like addiction or obsessive compulsive disorder or because they come from a dysfunctional family. But the people who make something of their lives never limit themselves with this kind of thinking. Successful people take responsibility for themselves, for their actions, for their futures–and for their pasts. The self-improvement world is full of messages of personal agency, from Dale Carnegie to Anthony Robbins. Successful people make change happen, they don’t make excuses. These are the people I side with, even if I don’t always agree with their often oversimplified messages of how to attain personal change and personal power.
And underlying all of the most positive and profound kinds of personal change seems to be one primary factor: self-knowledge. Just as we need a map to discover our way through unknown territory, we need a map to discover our inner unknown territory. And the clearer and more detailed the map, the better able we are to find our way. So the better we know ourselves, and the better we get at at reading maps, the more successful we’ll become at personal change.
So are people really capable of change? Yes. Absolutely. And all positive change might best be described as ever deeper levels of self-awareness. We will never be able to transform into another person, but if we come to know ourselves on deep and intimate levels, we will also understand that we never really wanted to do that, anyway.