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Can People Really Change?
Lynn’s hope was dwindling as she turned to me and asked, “They say a leopard doesn’t change his spots; do you think that people ever really change the way they are?”
I responded, “Certainly, I do.” “As a psychologist, that’s what I do - help people change.”
Lynn was not the first person to wonder whether people are truly capable of changing. Such a question usually pops up when one is frustrated with another’s behavior and has “tried everything” to get that person to change his ways. When nothing makes an impact, the pessimistic conclusion is that change is not possible.
So though it’s true that people can change, you do need to keep in mind a few basic caveats to help ensure that your expectations are realistic.
Change is much easier if one is motivated to change. If one is unmotivated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to force a change just because you want it to happen.
Some people find it easier to change than others. The more rigid and fixed a person’s personality is, the more difficult it is to embrace change.
Change doesn’t take place magically like it does in fairy tales. Sure, you can fantasize that people can change their habits the way they change their clothes. Just do it! Snap out of it! Out with the old, in with the new. Kiss a frog and find a prince. Sorry, this is not the way change works in the real world. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
Change takes time. When change happens quickly and dramatically, it rarely lasts. Stimulated by a motivational seminar? Enthralled with an Oprah show? Electrified by a guru? Great! These are good ways to jumpstart change. But keep in mind that meaningful change, like love, must survive the test of time.
Meaningful change usually needs to go through these predictable stages:
Lack of Motivation: In this stage, a person is not interested in changing. If change takes place at all, it’s only because of external pressure (“You’re making me do this.”) -- not internal motivation (“I want to change.”)
Getting Ready to Get Ready Stage: In this stage, the desire to change is on the back burner. Though you may be aware that it would be good to change, you’re not ready to do so. However, you’re taking action that will get you ready. You may seek out information on the Internet, read an article or converse with others on the topic. These actions are getting you ready for the next stage.
Ambivalence: In this stage, you definitely want to stage, but you still find yourself seesawing back and forth between wanting to and resisting the change. You often gravitate to the easier path. Instead of curbing your spending, you buy more lottery tickets. Instead of losing weight, you purchase a new wardrobe. Instead of getting organized, you write a list about what you should do to get organized, telling yourself you’d do it if only you had the time. You are knee deep in “yes, but” and “if only” excuses.
Commitment to Change: Enough with the talking the talk. You’re now ready to walk the walk. You’ve made the decision. You’ve found the way. You take whatever action is necessary. You know how easy it is to slip back to your old ways but you’re determined not to let that happen. Hence, if you do slip you quickly get back on track and renew your commitment once again.
Appreciating That You Really Have Changed: You've done it! You're proud of yourself. You look at things differently now. You wonder what took you so long.
Copyright 2006: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice who specializes in helping individuals, families and couples overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior.
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