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Can you change? Maybe. Maybe Not. Probably.

Posted Feb 16 2010 3:20pm

lightbulb

Have you heard this psychologist joke?

Question: How many psychologists does it take to change a light-bulb?

Answer: Only one – but the light-bulb has to really want to change.

In my experience as a psychologist and marriage therapist, I have often see people struggle with the question of how much they are capable of actually changing. At social events, when people discover my profession, they will sometimes ask, Can people really change, even if they want to?

Can it change its spots?

Can it change its spots?

Some folks believe in the philosophy that “A leopard cannot change its spots” while others believe  “anything is possible”  in terms of ability to change. As is often the case in psychology, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Obviously, certain habits and some personality traits are changeable, many psychiatric conditions (such as phobias, depression, sexual dysfunction and anxiety) are now very treatable,  but certain core character traits, attitudes toward life, core personality traits, and personal beliefs are not.

A question that often comes up in therapy (or socially) is: “Can an unfaithful partner change or is cheater  always a cheater? Too bad questions about human behavior are not more easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”‘  Truth is, some unfaithful partners can and do change and others don’t. Depends on the circumstances (the type of affair) and the character structure of the offender.

The reason the “change” issue  is an important question is that it lies at  the core of setting expectations about people. It is our expectations that determine to a large extent what we will feel toward others or certain situations. If we have in our minds that someone could change if they really wanted to, but, in fact, they cannot, we may unjustifiably  get upset with them.  We may also get unduly upset with ourselves for not changing something about ourselves when, in fact, we need to accept  limitations in that particular area of our lives. People often have unrealistic expectations about themselves and then either unduly berate themselves (expectations too high) if life turns out differently than they anticipated or, give up too easily(expectations too low)  when they could have done more!

What does change require?

Can You Change? It Requires Ability To Do So

The philosophy that “anything is possible” does not square with life experience,  although this notion is popular in our society. For example, for ten years my first wife was convinced she could teach me how to sing. Being a music teacher, she saw me as a real professional challenge the first time she heard me, even though I told her that I couldn’t even carry a tune in a box. Poor woman really tried..and tried. We both eventually gave up, bowing to the harsh reality that one has to have the proper brain structures to be able to sing, no matter how hard one tries, desires it, or commits to it.

Is It Worth It? Change Requires Motivation

On the other hand, we can we learn to change how we communicate, how we handle anger, how we function or show love as a wife, husband, partner, or parent! Many times it is not innate limitations holding us back, but simple lack of skills. If you didn’t get the skills earlier in your life,   you can still acquire them, but this will involve motivation to do so, assuming the thing is changeable in the first place.  Take the young women who comes to our anger management classes because she has just lost her third boyfriend in a row because they could not deal with her anger. Is she motivated to change? You bet! Was she motivated during her first conflictual relationship? No, because at that point she did not see herself as the problem. But, now she does!

Should You Change? It  Requires Trait of Flexibility in Your Personality

Some people do not believe in change. My late mother was one of those people. She did not believe in personal change and could not successfully deal with change in others or change in circumstances. At age 63 she was proud of the fact that “I am the same person today as I was at age 19.”

When I went away to college  and then returned home with fresh ideas and life views, she was very upset because she did not see me as the same boy that had left home (”College has changed you” ). Change requires the flexibility to accept it rather than being scared of it or threatened by it. It requires the ability to be adaptable (instead of rigid) in a changing world and to see the necessity of changing in order to be a more effective person. It is the attitude: “Well, if that doesn’t work for me, I better try something else.” Unfortunately, many people are the opposite: they hold onto what obviously doesn’t work any longer in the hopes that somehow it will work again for them.

Are You Ready To Change?

Are You Ready To Change?

When Should You Change?  Often it  is required to Deal with Life  Stages. Most people realize that children go through  developmental stages, but fail  to recognize that adults do too. What you need and how you see the world is often quit different at age 60 than at age 20. People sometimes naturally change at different life stages. The man who was a terrible father because he was always gone to support the family when younger,  may be an excellent grandfather at age 60. The 19 year old girl who was attracted to the “hot” young men , at age 40 may value stability more than muscles in a man now. To some extent, nature forces us to change as we age, but some people fight it more than others or become frightened because different survival skills are now needed.

Some people mellow as they get older while others sour. Perhaps one reason for the difference is that of adaptability – or change.  It seems to me that happier people are better at accepting change as natural and as part of the universe while sour people are often bitter, disillusioned, disenchanted or unfulfilled with their life or life situation.

Believe it or not, old dogs CAN learn new tricks. Life is change and the wise person asks themselves what they need in THIS life stage to be happier, to be more effective, and to deal with the current as well as future personal challenges.

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