Can People Really Change?

By Jennifer Olson

As so often happens during the holiday season, a family member and I got into a heated discussion.

“People aren’t capable of change”

 “WHAT? That’s not true! That’s what I help people do. CHANGE. I know they have the ability to change and have seen it happen.” 

 “No, they only think they can change. They can improve their skills and their knowledge, but they can’t fundamentally change who they are.”

“People can’t change.”

That is a argument I hear regularly – people can evolve and adjust to a degree; they can improve skills and knowledge through training or experience. And, people are who they are. “A leopard can’t change his spots.” Is this really true? People can’t change?

NO – The truth is that people CAN and DO change.

It is difficult. It takes time. It can be a slow process AND people can change. Of course, that’s not what everyone wants to believe or to hear. It’s easier to believe that it can’t be done or that a magic pill (or diet, strategy or process) will get them what they want fast. Of course, if that were true, everyone could and would do it.

That being said, I have seen many people change – actually truly transform – into a better version of themselves. It didn’t happen overnight, yet the changes were big and remarkable.

So how can you change?

1. Be aware. “Each moment describes who you are, and gives you the opportunity to decide if that’s who you want to be” ~ Bruce Schneider. How are you moving through the world? What is your daily story? What works for you and what do you like about that story? What no longer works or serves you? Awareness gets tossed around a lot these days as “the answer”, yet few really use it as a tool for change. IF you want to change, you must first understand who you are – what are your core thoughts and beliefs? How are those driving your emotions and your actions each day? If you go through life blaming others, blaming outside circumstances and being at the effect of certain events, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, perceptions and people, then you are holding yourself back from the change and success you seek. Start paying attention to the patterns in your life and your story.

2. Own what needs to change. “If you own your story, the story can change. If you don’t own it, the story owns you” ~ Brené Brown. Once you know who you are and what is no longer working for you, decide on what you specifically want to change. People change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. Choose something that is causing you so much pain that you can no longer tolerate being that way anymore. THEN OWN IT. Own how your thinking and behavior is helping to create your current reality. Look at it without judgement – it’s just a part of you – a bad habit, a safety system, or a loop – that is no longer serving you and therefore needs to change.

3. Commit to the change. “We either grow or die – death is not what happens to us at the end of our physical expression, it occurs anytime in our life when we choose stagnation” ~ Bruce Schneider. This is where many go wrong. We have short attention spans, so we commit for short periods of time expecting to see big changes. Yet, for most of us, our behaviors and thinking may have been developed over a long period of time – even throughout our entire lifetime! To change those behaviors, you will need to fully commit to the change. No time constraints or deadlines. If it took you 10 years to get to the place you are now, certainly you can commit 1-3 years to reverse it? What are the alternatives? Give up and live with it? Or find new freedom, courage and strength in making the change over time. Write down why it is so important to make this change then fully commit.

4. Allow a part of you to die so a new part can emerge. “Grief is not our enemy, it is our rebirth” ~ Jennifer Olson. To make space for a new part of ourselves to bloom, we need to allow the old piece that is no longer serving us to die – the old mindset, belief or thought. You’ve explored what is no longer working; you’ve owned how it’s influenced your life; you’ve committed to change it. So, what now? You need to write your old story. Describe in detail how your old thoughts and behaviors have been working against you and those around you. Leave ALL your sadness, fear, doubt, guilt, frustration, resistance, defiance and anger unedited on the page. Then leave it. When you’re calm, clear and centered, take a moment to reread it. What did you learn? What do you want to change? What do you want to leave behind? For the part that you choose to leave behind, allow it to die inside of you and grieve it. It was once part of the fabric of who you were. Feel the loss. Brené Brown defines grief as feelings of longing, loss or things we’ve lost. She believes that we must acknowledge the grief, feel it instead of numbing to it. We must go through a death in order for rebirth to happen which allows us to move past the grief to forgiveness of ourselves and those around us.

5. Integrate. In the depth of winter, I finally learned within myself there lay an invincible summer” ~ Albert Camus. Rewrite your new story incorporating the changes you wish to make. Reread this version often and start living your new story. Own that this is a new version of you. Change comes through perseverance, continued awareness, hard work and self-discipline. Reading your story often and renewing your commitment to this change will keep you motivated and your vision alive.

Each step towards the change you seek will bring you greater confidence, strength and grit. Reaching your goal reinforces that you can change anything you commit to changing. So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and start reaching for that next best version of you. What a gift to give yourself this new year!