Most people don’t change; they just become more the way they already are.
I must have said these words hundreds of times in my life — to clients, family and friends. While there are exceptions, most people find change difficult for several reasons. They don’t know themselves very well, to begin with. Few people have an accurate view of who they are and therefore don’t recognize the aspects of themselves that could use improvement. Most people want to believe they’re well-balanced and even exceptional in many ways: how many of your friends would describe themselves as creative, talented or intelligent? Do you know anyone who would say to you, I’m just average? We all want to think of ourselves as special and gifted.
Then there is the human propensity to explain one’s difficulties, short-comings and failures by blaming somebody else. Look around you at the people you know. The co-worker who’s careless and lazy but blames her poor evaluations on an exacting boss, or colleagues who have it out for her. The cousin who gets under your skin because in every story he tells, he paints himself as a victim. Have you ever known anyone who told you, “I got fired because I was doing a lousy job,” or “A lot of bad things have happened in my life because I make so many impulsive bad choices?” Few people are willing to accept that their own character traits and choices are the main determinants of the kind of life they lead.
And finally, effecting change involves hard work and difficult choices. Even when you gain insight about your true nature, you then need to do something about it, over and over again. This is one of the most misunderstood issues for patients entering psychotherapy. I sometimes refer to it as the Alfred Hitchcock theory of psychotherapy, as in the film Marnie where as soon as she recovers her repressed childhood memory, she seems to shed a deeply ingrained disgust and distrust of men. Insight doesn’t work that way. Gaining insight into who you are means understanding traits and tendencies that will remain with you for life; with time, you can see them at work and try very hard to do something a little different, again and again. Maybe you have a deeply critical side to you and a propensity to judge people harshly. Knowing that about yourself will allow you to see it at work, and with great effort, stop the usual harsh words from passing your lips. You will never become the sort of person whose initial reaction is to feel tolerant and accepting, but maybe with time and hard work, you can bite your tongue long enough for your other, more generous feelings to mitigate the initial harshness of your judgment. Maybe all that will be possible is for you to keep your reaction to yourself and regret that you can’t feel differently, but at least you won’t be hurting those you care about.
That’s the reality of possible change: it requires a lot of hard work and the results are never the sort of ideal transformation we’re looking for.
Finding Your Own Way
Review the past and make a list of the ways in which you haven’t changed. Maybe you’ve made lots of resolutions to do better, only to find yourself slipping back into familiar ruts. What mistakes do you keep repeating? Do your relationships follow a self-defeating pattern where you keep choosing a person who seems so different in the beginning but turns out to be the same as all the others? Real change begins with the recognition of the ways in which you have remained the same, made the same unfortunate choices, followed the same destructive pattern your entire life.