Can And Do People Ever Really Change? (+ What Stops Them?)

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Can people change?

Yes, they can.

Will people change?

Well, that’s an entirely different question altogether.

The need for change often comes from some personal revelation that the way a person is conducting their life no longer serves them.

The catalyst for change is often something deeply emotional. It’s something that needs to be strong enough to jar the way they perceive their reality, cause self-reflection, and inspire action toward making a meaningful change.

The ability to accept that one needs to change is a massive step in the journey of recovery. And we’re not talking about just acknowledging that a change needs to be made. It’s easy to acknowledge a problem and then do nothing at all about it.

What we’re talking about is acceptance. Accepting that this behavior is making my life worse, negatively affecting other people, and causing problems.

What causes a person to accept that they need to change?

There isn’t any single answer that really fits, because human beings are messy, emotional creatures.

One of the most significant catalysts for change is feeling the repercussions of one’s unhealthy, self-destructive, or toxic behavior. That usually happens when the surrounding people have healthy boundaries.

The person will typically find themselves experiencing some kind of negative result or repercussions because of their behavior.

Consider the following example.

Sarah self-medicates her mental health issues with alcohol because she doesn’t believe she needs help. At first, she only needed a little bit here and there to help get her through the rough times.

What Sarah knows, but ignores, is that alcohol is a depressant and can make mental illness worse.

What she doesn’t really accept is that substance abuse disorder and alcoholism are mental illnesses of their own. And she is creating that in herself by using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

After a while, it starts to show. Sarah needs alcohol to function. She has alcohol hidden around the house. She has a bottle tucked away in her desk drawer at work, you know, for when she needs to take the edge off.

It bleeds into her personal relationships. She can’t be relied on to pick up the kids because she started drinking when she got off work and can’t drive. She spends money their family really doesn’t have on drinking because it lets her escape the problems in her mind and the stresses of life. Sarah is unpredictable and unpleasant while she is drinking.

None of this is a problem for a long time. Sarah’s partner loves her and doesn’t want to see her miserable, unstable, or upset, so doesn’t speak up about it. Sarah’s partner is an enabler, right up until they’re not.

The partner eventually gets tired of Sarah being unreliable, volatile, and drunk. So, they start drawing boundaries and fighting with Sarah about her drinking.

Maybe Sarah finally realizes there is a problem and seeks help. Or maybe Sarah rejects it and thinks that the partner is the problem.

Maybe Sarah doesn’t accept it until thirty years down the road when she looks back on her life of broken relationships, lost opportunities, and missed happiness because she couldn’t accept that she needed to change.

Why don’t people change when there is so clearly a real problem?

There are many reasons that people don’t change.

You have people, narcissists and sociopaths, who are incapable of self-reflection or taking responsibility for their actions. They don’t change because they don’t feel they need to change.

It’s everyone else that is the problem. It’s your fault for being hurt, or not liking their action, or not doing what they said to do, or not agreeing with the way they are living their life.

They refuse to stop and take a moment to think about it because they already know they’re right. So why should they bother?

Then you have people who don’t want to change because change is scary. Change is an unknown that you are walking into with no idea of how things will go.

Maybe you put in all the work to make the change, and the outcome isn’t what you were expecting. Maybe you expected more; maybe you expected nothing at all. Either way, it’s hard to envision how your life will be different once you set out on a path for change.

Complacency also stifles change. Perhaps the person is entirely satisfied with their life. Maybe they don’t see a need to change because they’re already doing everything they want to do and their needs are met.

That gives them the freedom to rationalize away any need for change. Thinking back to the previous example, Sarah could easily rationalize away her alcoholism and problems if she is holding down a regular job. “I never miss work. I’m fulfilling most of my responsibilities. So what’s the problem?”

And some people don’t change because they don’t feel they have the power or ability to change. This is the kind of reasoning you see in people who are survivors of domestic or child abuse who have had their self-esteem torn down.

A person who thinks they are incapable or unworthy may not try to change because they’ve been led to believe that they just aren’t competent enough. This is a lie that abusers want their victims to believe so they can control them.

The reality is that anyone can accomplish a lot if they are willing to work at it, accept failures as part of the learning process, and try again with what they’ve learned.

How can I encourage and inspire change?

The act of encouraging and inspiring change is sticky. People hate being told what to do and how to do it.

Barreling into the business of someone else and telling them how to live their life is usually going to be met with conflict and hostility. That usually puts the other person on the defensive, and they will not be listening because they’ll be more focused on defending themselves.

What tends to work better is to have healthy, solid boundaries of your own and enforce them. Inspire through encouragement. A lot of people need to be reminded that they are capable and worthy, and that they have more power than they may realize.

Unfortunately, drawing and enforcing boundaries may very well cause conflict. It might also mean the end of a relationship or friendship if the person’s actions are causing harm to you and your life. That’s just an unfortunate reality that we all need to accept.

And for the person who needs to change, that unfortunate reality may be the catalyst they require to finally accept their problems and act. It may be the greatest act of kindness you can give them.

How do I know if someone has changed?

You draw your boundaries, you drift away from your destructive loved one, and eventually, they come back and tell you they’ve changed.

How do you know if they’ve actually changed or they’re just trying to get back into your good graces? This question has a surprisingly easy answer.

Just ask them what they did to change. If they answer something like, “Oh, I just made a choice and did it,” they probably aren’t being honest. It’s possible, but it’s improbable.

Changing unhealthy and destructive habits is hard and challenging. It requires a lot of work, self-examination, changing old habits, developing new habits.

People rarely figure out how to do all of this on their own. They will usually require additional support, a counselor, a mentor, books, whatever means to unlearn their old habits and replace them with new ones.

And it takes time. It may take months or years to unmake years of toxic and destructive habits. It’s not something that can be solved in the snap of the fingers.

You really want to hear any kind of in-depth or complex answer. That’s usually a good sign that they’re telling the truth.

Personal growth and change are often long, painful processes. The good news is that change is very possible for people who are committed to change, willing to put in the work, and face the unknown.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspectives from the side of the mental health consumer. Jack has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.