At the end of a frustrating therapy session, Emma turned to her husband and said, “you’ll never change.” Feeling defeated, she then turned to me and said, “My mother always said, ‘a leopard doesn’t change its spots.’ Now I see what she means. Do you think that people ever really change the way they are? ”
“Of course I do!” I responded. “That’s why I’m a psychologist. That’s why I love my work. People can and do change — when they’re open to it.”
Now it is true, that a total personality change is not in the cards for most people — nor should it be. We are who we are. But changing aspects of one’s behavior (how we think, what we do, how we speak) is definitely possible and happens all the time as people adjust to new circumstances.
However, when you’re trying to change someone else’s behavior — or even your own — here’s why you must temper your expectations about change.
- It’s practically impossible to get someone else to change when he doesn’t want to. Think about it. It’s tough enough for you to change when you know what’s good for you, (i.e. exercise, eat right, temper your anger). So how can you expect an unmotivated person to change just because you want him to?
- Some people, more than others, find it easier to change. The more rigid a person’s personality, the more sure they are “right”, the more anxious they are about change, the harder it will be for them to modify their behavior.
- Meaningful change is a process that takes time. One does not listen to a guru, read a self-help book, or get hyped up by an Oprah show, and presto, a new person! These experiences, however, can, and frequently do, jump-start change. Still, such change may not survive the test of time. For better or for worse, we still carry our psychological baggage with us wherever we go.
Now, with tempered expectations, let’s take a look at how meaningful change might occur between Emma and her husband, Doug, without Emma having to struggle so hard to make her husband change.
Emma desperately wanted Doug to take her seriously, particularly when they were discussing finances. But once they started talking, it didn’t take long before Emma felt shut out. Everything needed to be Doug’s way. He dismissed her ideas, viewing them as stupid or wrong. She had no idea how to change him, despite telling him over and over again that she wanted to be heard. And treated with respect.
As Emma became more aware of her husband’s put-downs, she stopped complaining about what he was doing. Instead, she learned how to respond with increased strength and self-assuredness. When she felt that he was baiting her, she didn’t allow herself to get hooked, nor feel intimidated. She simply agreed to disagree.
As time went on, not only did Emma become more knowledgeable about finances but she also became more self-assured in what she said and how she said it. With her new approach, Doug became less insistent that his way was the only way, the “right” way. He was changing too. Not because Emma demanded it, but because her change created a different situation for him that he, in turn, needed to respond to.
There are limits to what you can change about another person, particularly when you keep behaving the same way. So, think about what you can do that will create a different scenario for the other person. Not because you are the one to blame. Or you are the one that’s wrong. But because you are the one that desires the change.
As you create a different dynamic between the two of you, be aware of how things are changing. Not dramatic change. Not magical change. But small change that’s moving in the right direction. Day by day; week by week; month by month. Until one day you suddenly notice, things really are different between the two of you. Then it’s time to rejoice!