Written by therapist Crystal Choi
A question I’ve been asked a lot is, “Can people really change?” Sometimes this question is asked with someone else in mind: The critical mom that hurts with her words, the boyfriend that says he cares but doesn’t show it, the child that is difficult to love. And sometimes, people wonder this about ourselves; “I hold grudges and have a hard time forgiving others”, “I want to lose weight”, “I’m addicted to porn”.
The short answer is: yes, people can change, but there are three critical and necessary components in the work of change: 1. Self-motivation 2. The ability to be self-reflective 3. Openness to feedback from others.
For any work of true change to take place, the person doing the change must want it for themselves. It’s not enough for a parent to want their child to change, or a wife to want her husband to be different. The child herself or the husband himself must be aware of the need for change and desire things to be different. A person may be motivated to change for the sake of a relationship or often due to painful consequences, but ultimately, that motivation for change must be internal vs. external. Unfortunately (or fortunately), pain is a great motivator for change. When things are so painful and the reality of a situation is unbearable, the probability of change is more likely.
The ability to be self-reflective
The next component that’s needed in the work of change is the ability for a person to take a look at themselves and reflect on their own actions and thoughts. This is counter to a shame based culture where people blame, deflect, defend, and justify their actions. The act of looking at yourself takes courage and the recognition that we are all vulnerable. This characteristic is so important because we are only able to change what we are willing to see and take responsibility for. It’s like traveling to a foreign destination. If we don’t know where we are, it’s hard to know what direction to take to get to a new destination. The ability to be self-reflective can help you map out where you are and where you want to go. In counseling terms, we call this, “goal setting”.
Openness to feedback from others
This piece is important because we all have blind spots and struggle to see ourselves and our situations objectively. Inviting trusted people to give you feedback on their experience of you helps to shed light on the parts of you that are hard for you to see. And let’s be honest: If there are parts of us that we don’t want or like to see, we may initially feel defensive when we are confronted with them.
Be cautious about who you extend this invitation to, and don’t extend it to those who have a history of trying to control or manipulate you for their own benefit. Invite people you trust who have your best interest in mind, to give you this feedback. Additionally, use wisdom and self-reflection as you receive feedback from others, to discern the pieces of feedback that will help you reach your goals and feel free to leave behind the stuff that doesn’t align with your goals.
As I was writing this piece, I ended up writing in the second person (addressing the work of changes as something “you” do). I think this is because we can really only change ourselves and not others. if you’re wondering about change from the perspective of another person (My spouse says she’s changing, but is the change real?), consider these characteristics and if they are present in the life of that person.
Remember that change takes time. Short term changes are just that, short lived. True change is marked by evidence over time. Most real and lasting change takes time, practice, and patience as you (or your partner) learn and adapt to a new way of thinking and doing.
If you have been thinking about a part of your life that you’d like to change, but not sure where to start or how to make a change, a counselor could be a great resource. A good counselor will help bring perspective and empower you to make the desired changes in your life. Call our office to book an appointment today.