Can People Really Change?

burningquestioncropA question I hear all the time is: 

Can people change?” 

Theoretically, the asker is appealing to my professional wisdom for the answer to the burning question they cannot answer for themselves. 

In reality, something quite different is going on, and they are asking The Hopium Addiction Question. 

Needless to say, the Hopium Addiction Question has a whole back story, which goes like this: “I've been hurt and disappointed by someone in my life. I feel badly let down, and part of me is telling me that I need to let go. But I really don't want to do that. See, I'm still hoping that if I hold on long enough, they will change, and behave towards me the way I want them to the way I need them to. Is there hope of that happening?” 

Years and years ago, when I was caught up in a cycle of neediness and emotional dependence, I ploughed through most of Doris Lessing's output. One observation still sticks with me. She wrote, approximately:

“People do things, in their own good time, for their own good reasons.” 

At the time, I was struggling with a tough emotional scenario, and that was the most useful piece of wisdom that was on offer. I took it to mean that, when it comes to the important things 

a) people don't do what you want them to do for your reasons

b) getting on with their own lives, and focusing on their own needs and wants tends to be their priority – even though it may not be yours. 

Which brings us back to the question, can people change? 

My guess is that most people are capable of change, provided the concept of change does not strike them as unduly dangerous. If, for whatever reason, they believe that change will herald the end of their life as they know it then, of course, they will resist change tooth and nail. 

But, even if they are capable of change, that doesn't mean they are going to get on and do it. 

You have to ask yourself: “What's in it for them?” From their point of view. Sure, from your point of view, their change would Improve suis-jebovveredsmallThings so that they, too, would reap benefits. But to quote the inimitable Catherine Tate: “Are they bovvered?” Are they really losing out with the way things are now? Or are things working perfectly well for them, thank you very much. 

Besides, chances are, if they've been causing you a bit of emotional grief, they have a marked talent for digging their heels in. People who have a habit of digging their heels in tend to resent you making what they perceive as 'demands'. So, of course, when you persist, they resist – and keep on resisting. 

By now, “Can people change?” should be beginning to look like a Wrong Question. Wrong Questions are nasty little critters because they tend to lead you – by the road more travelled – straight up the nearest blind alley. 

The worst thing about The Hopium Addiction Question is that it leaves you disempowered. It means that the thing you want lies beyond your control. Your only hope of getting it is by getting control of another person, who has no intention of changing the existing balance of power between the two of you. (Why would they? It works to their advantage, doesn't it?) 

In other words, it's a hiding to nothing. 

So, if what is key is NOT the other's person's ability to change, what's left? 

What's left is your ability to switch your focus back to you, so you can say to yourself: “Yes, that other person is important to me. But my long-term happiness and well-being are even more important to me. After all, I'm the one person who is going to be my constant companion from now until I shuffle off this mortal coil. That being the case, where and how do I need to change, so I can enjoy the lasting feelings of belonging, self-worth, and happiness that I deserve?”

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