Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Can People Change?

Can people really change? Can they? I have heard and read so many times that the answer to this question is NO. No, people cannot change. They are who they are. They may change their behaviors, they may fool us, but inside they are really always the same. Sounds pretty dismal, eh?

However, hopeless optimist that I am, I refuse to accept that answer. I believe that YES, people can and do change. I believe in epiphanies and wake up calls and continuing self-growth and cognitive maturation, which happens far later in life for some than others. I believe that people can stop being awful and start being wonderful, or, unfortunately, vice versa. I believe that changes can be more than just surface, more than just for show. I believe they can be deep and true.

I suppose it matters what kind of change we're talking about. Something fundamental, like sexual orientation? No, I don't think someone can truly change their sexual orientation.

But what about something like introversion versus extroversion? I am undoubtedly an introvert. I have always been an introvert. I do not think I could fully convert to extroversion. There is something in me that craves quiet solitude. I can adapt behaviors more characteristic of extroverts: I can spend more time with friends, train myself to be more talkative, and force myself to be more friendly and outgoing. But at the end of the day, I'm still an introvert. I need to sit quietly with my book or my internet, without interacting with anyone, and just stew in my own thoughts. I don't think this is a bad thing because I can have the best of both worlds. And while I don't think I could change into an extrovert, I do think that changing my behaviors in this example would still change who I am in some way. Is it really just a masquerade, changing my behavior, or is it more when I find that I'm actually now a more outgoing person? I'm still an introvert, but I have changed because now I am more outgoing and I enjoy being around other people more than I used to. This counts as true change in my book.

I believe, fully and completely, that every single person has the capacity to improve themselves. Maybe this means becoming a better listener, or more self-confident, or more empathetic, or more generous...the possibilities are endless. Everyone has room to grow. And growth means change. We are not meant to be stagnant beings. We have brains so we can learn, and the the opportunities for learning are endless. Learning means growth. Growth means change.

Some things probably can't be changed without a lot of intervention, like therapy and medication. But while someone might be saddled with an addictive personality, for example, for life; that doesn't mean they can't change. They can go to rehab, they can detox, they can change. Even though there might be that part of them that knows it is capable of addiction, and that part isn't going anywhere, going from a place of drug or alcohol abuse and crossing over to a place of no longer using - that's change. Many relapse, but many don't. They change, for good.

Things like extroversion/introversion or addictive personality...well they might be as fundamental to our beings and our personalities as sexual orientation. So maybe you can never really be freed of having a predisposition toward addiction, but you can change by not acting on it. Maybe you can never convert from introvert to extrovert, or the other way around, but you can develop and nurture behaviors from the opposite side, in effect making changes to your personality.

How about something like being selfish or mean-spirited? I believe those are more surface traits, and not fundamental to who we really are. I believe people can soften. I believe it's possible to wake up one day and suddenly realize, "hey, I'm an a-hole, and I don't want to be that anymore." Sometimes it takes a tragedy or a major life event to instigate change. Losing someone you love, having a baby, retiring. Sometimes it simply requires listening or noticing at just the right time.

Yes, I will always believe that people can and do change. I concede that there are certain aspects of ourselves that we probably cannot change, but I don't think "mere" behavioral changes should be discounted. I believe I can choose the kind of person I want to be, and I can be that person. I can decide not to be miserable and become happy. I can decide not to be stingy and instead be generous. I can decide to be optimistic instead of pessimistic. I believe we have much more control over ourselves: our thoughts, our behaviors, our moods, our essence - than most of us realize. And that if we want to, we can harness that control and change.

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