Why Most People Don’t Really Change

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.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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43 Responses to Why Most People Don’t Really Change

  1. Marla Estes says:

    I’ve used what Karen Horney suggested: to learn to feel special in my own ordinariness. Also helpful is the idea that one is constantly see-sawing between inflation and deflation, and it helps me to aim towards the middle, best I can…to come to a more accurate self-assessment. To tie in your piece on defenses, my defenses help to point the way to get to my true nature – to the extent that I can dis-identify with them and treat myself w/ compassion. (I like the analogy for people who identify with/as their defense mechanisms, it’s like saying/believing that a wig is your real hair).
    Thanks for these great posts, so succinct and clear.

  2. Peggy Payne says:

    Sounds a lot like meditation, a constant redirecting of the drifting attention, of the tendency to revert to one’s “same old used-to-be.”

    My psychologist husband Bob Dick says that when someone comes into his office and talks about a problem he/she “used to have,” that’s usually still the problem.

    Good blog

  3. Hans says:

    Interesting post (title) in a world where the opposite (yes you can) seems to be the best practice… Thx.

  4. J. Perry Kelly says:

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom online.

  5. Pat P. says:

    Love your posts and love this site.

    I think true change is difficult to achieve in life. But I also believe that when someone reaches that apex, that moment of truth, the ah-ha of what they are experiencing isn’t working anymore, a surrender-of-sorts becomes the catalyst for thinking differently. And that translates to a shift in energy and therefore, external behavior. I love it when people say, “I’m a changed man/woman.” Beware of the Buddha on the road who claims same. Actions speak louder than words; friends and loved ones around us will soon see that change has occurred within.

  6. Steven Meer says:

    I have spent many years working towards creating real change in myself. Having suffered with drug addiction and other severe self-destructive behaviors, my need for change went beyond just trying to improve my quality of life, it was a matter of life or death. Many times I thought that I had managed to affect real change, using various methods & programs, but in the end always reverted back to my old self. Even though I was convinced that I had really changed, the test of time showed me that it was just a convincing illusion.
    What was always missing in my failed attempts at change, you hit upon when you wrote – “Even when you gain insight about your true nature, you then need to do something about it, over and over again.” I was fooled for a long time with the belief that by just gaining enough insight/self-awareness about myself, I had all that I needed to use my mind to ‘reprogram’ out all of my problematic behaviors, emotions, and thinking. Being a person who had a lot of faith in the power of reason and intellect, this idea made perfect sense to me. Many of my paths to recovery wanted me to do more, but I always avoided what was the necessity to change – action.
    I understand now that thinking can not be changed by just modified thinking. The only way that I have been able to actually cause any real transformation in myself has been through new experiences. The same old experiences will just keep me stuck where I’m at, so I needed new experiences. The only way to gain this new experiences was by the result of actions taken.
    You also wrote – “Effecting change involves hard work and difficult choices.”, and I could not agree more. The choices of action seemed difficult, because most went against what ‘made sense’ to me at the time. That should have been a sign that I was on the right track, after all I wanted to change what ‘made sense’ to me, but it was still hard to compel myself to do. So, I had to force myself to move forward and have some faith in a result that I was told would arise by doing these things. Doing these actions were also hard work, because it took a long time to even see the slightest change in myself by doing them.
    What I see now, looking back, is that all of these small actions led to little new experiences that over time led to the beginning of the transformation in myself that I was seeking. I used to think that only big events could be ‘life changing experiences.’ I see now that every new experience, no matter how small, is life changing.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Steven, I’m grateful to you for your comment. What I want most on this site is to help people understand the difficult reality and limitations of change, because there’s so much false optimism and easy sentiment offered by other professionals in my field. Hard work that leads to incremental change — that’s what I believe in and you obviously understand.

  7. Gina says:

    Ive been reading your blog and I find it very enjoyable, accessible and useful. However, I need to respond to this post. As a PhD in the field of Communication, I see things differently. IMHO – where therapy falls short is it does not teach patients HOW, through improving their communication (both interpersonal and interpersonal), to make the necessary changes. The Communication displine has much to offer the field of Psychology, but rarely do you look to our field to help with your patients. I think, if you did, some patients would greatly benefit. Talking about how you feel, and identifying specific communication skills to change it are two different things.

    I think people can change, but therapy is not enough to do it. People need to learn how to communicate with themselves and others more effectively. Thanks for reading.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      When I was in my master’s program in marriage and family counseling, systems theory and communication theory were the dominant paradigms. I think the communications discipline is extremely useful in that area, and most marriage and family therapists I know focus heavily on specific communication skills to change the system dynamics. As for intra-psychic issues, I find communications theory less useful. “Talking to yourself”, in my view, is a major part of the problem. Too often therapy teaches people how to talk a different language, both to themselves and to other people; it becomes a kind of veneer over the real issues.

  8. Paula Feig says:

    Excellent blog. It certainly explains why so many of my friends who have been in therapy for years and yet have exhibited little or no change at least outwardly.

  9. Alfred Jones says:

    What a great, useful, and interesting blog. Hope you continue this gift to the general populace.

  10. Melissa says:

    I think the keys to change are humility, compassion (towards self and others), curiosity about oneself, and an understanding of our own values. If we are humble enough to watch our own behavior, get to know our true self(even the unpleasant stuff) and get very familiar with our reactions, stories, assumptions, judgments, and how we are in the world, and then if we can watch what works for us and what doesn’t, and what keeps us living in alignment with our values and what knocks us off of this path, then I don’t think we can help but change. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of attention and perseverance, and even the best of us would rather be comfortable in our self-made caves than go out there and be uncomfortable or in pain. I agree that therapy is at its most useful when it gives people practical tools for change and when the therapist and client are both committed to positive change.

    I think your first line in this post is really telling, and can be read in more than one way: “Most people don’t change; they just become more the way they already are.” My reading of this is actually positive: I believe that what we seek when we seek self-change is to become ourselves more fully, to let go of the patterns and behaviors that we use to hide our true heart from the world and even from our own selves.

    Great post!

    -Melissa

    • Brenda says:

      WELL SAID MELISSA. I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND BUT I WANT TO COPY
      AND SHARE THIS WITH MY FACEBOOK FRIENDS.

    • Mark says:

      “I think your first line in this post is really telling, and can be read in more than one way: “Most people don’t change; they just become more the way they already are.” My reading of this is actually positive: I believe that what we seek when we seek self-change is to become ourselves more fully, to let go of the patterns and behaviors that we use to hide our true heart from the world and even from our own selves.” Couldn’t agree more on that.

  11. Debbie the Coach says:

    I’m so glad I found your site. I have been working with a psychiatrist for many years in my quest to change and to overcome addictions (of which I have many!) I did the hard work, and it was difficult see my real self and then to change. Change is a scary thing. Now that I have shared the bad times with my doctor, I still go and check in and enjoy sharing the good times. I have a safe place to go and be accepted with non-judgment. I still need that after all this time. Funny.

  12. Andi says:

    Really feel the same way. Insight and self-awareness don’t seem to accomplish much on their own. Do you think “average” therapy is just meant to validate one’s approach to self-analysis?

  13. Caroline says:

    I’m really interested in what you have written and I’m really interested in the concept of ‘change’. I’m trained as a Psychotherapist although I am fairly new to the field.

    I had therapy for many years in the past and the one thing I have found is I could talk myself around in circles week in and week out, I would tell my story over and over again, I would unearth the root of the issues but change was not forthcoming. I have found that change has been easier to accomplish outside of the therapy room. Now I’m in the therapist’s chair and honestly, I feel frustrated that clients come back week after week and spend an untold amount of money on sessions and yet, nothing ever changes. I wonder if they see therapy as a quick fix and think that by some miracle I might wave a magic wand and make the changes for them.

    Oh God, am I really doing ‘average’ therapy???? Probably! Any tips on how to become an above average therapist? lol.

    What makes one person turn his life around and make significant changes in his life whilst another lives the same old story? Do people need to arrive at a place where the cost of NOT changing becomes significantly higher than changing? like in the case of Steven who was in a life and death situation.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Caroline, in my experience, the best way to learn how to become an “above average” therapist is to have your own long-term therapy with a pro: a truly wise man or woman. I learned much of what I know about what makes people tick from having my own therapist teach me about myself.

  14. M. Sandomirsky says:

    People often declare that they want to change, they even pretend to do it, but they do not really want it to happen

  15. Mark Gerst says:

    Is it change people really need? Or, is it an understanding of who they are. You touch on this in your post. Before change can happen, don’t you need to become self-aware first?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Absolutely. You have to understand what’s motivating you before you can figure out how to respond to it in a different way.

  16. Fantastic article!
    Before I got sober over thirty years ago, I had therapy off and on for a number of years and didn’t say a word about the physical abuse from my husband. When we got sober the physical abuse stopped. After I had been sober for 4 years, my husband raised his hand to hurt me. I knew then I wasn’t willing to tolerate his abuse or behaviors any longer. After 13 years of marriage I left the relationship. My children stayed with the abuser, their father for the longest year of my life. I stayed sober, and worked on me. Today, I am still changing self-sabotaging patterns. To change a life pattern, one needs to be aware of it, then comes practicing a new behavior, most of all it is honoring the person you are and being willing to change the pattern that is hurting you. Yes, a lot of work and on-going.
    Today, I am now married to a man who loves me for who I am. That says alot as I am a psychic, medium and a full deep trance channel. It is funny how that small intuitive voice gets ignored both by emotions and logic even when the logic isn’t logical. Funny how we believe what isn’t true when we ignore our intuition which in many ways is a survival tool.

  17. Angela Williams says:

    Thanks for this information. It is so true. As a psychotherapist myself, I see that this is the case. Change is very hard. We want it to be easy and it isn’t. This in itself is a great cause of distress. Life is hard, but once we accept that we can get on with the business of making it easier.

  18. NMB says:

    we all have baggage. i don’t yet know how reliably (systematically?) to instruct someone or help someone to drop (or stop carrying for a bit) that baggage. everything in a mind says not to do it, and years of conditioning have led you to a place that is well suited to help you carry that baggage. your friends, your career, your education, your choices. now, to put that down, to give you space to acquire new, different bags, is hard. seems we are all our own Federer (in our individual life), and making this kind of change, is akin to asking Federer to change his serve. My best advice has been to trust the process and accept, bit by bit, that not knowing is itself knowledge. thx for the blog.

  19. RecoveringBorderline says:

    I recently came across this blog and want to thank you for sharing and articulating your insight and experience.

    As someone who is trying hard to take responsibility for my shortcomings, understand the roots of my frequent faulty/distorted thinking and resultant (unhelpful) feelings, and heal my “intrinsic and internal basic shame” (Basic Shame, Toxic Shame), it is both a relief and pleasure to find such information to chew on between therapy sessions. Thank you.

    I just hope that with determination and a willingness to look within, lasting change is possible….fingers crossed!

  20. Anita Sanz says:

    This was a great post about how difficult real change is to make. As a therapist, I am excited and awed when someone is truly dedicated to making real change. And as a human being, I have come to understand that insight alone doesn’t make me change. Only when I hold myself accountable for showing what changes I am making that I have said I wanted to make do I ever see real change occur. I’m a big believer in using a little notebook by my bedside that asks me to check off: Did I do “such and such” today? Did I act more consistently with this ideal today? That’s how I take the baby steps toward getting to be the person, partner, and parent I want to be.
    Thanks for posting this!
    Anita Sanz

  21. Bob says:

    What does it really mean to understand who you are? I mean how is a person supposed to know where to base that definition? If someone has been abused, then to know who they are based on their circumstances or some fuzzy definition of who they are based on a therapists valuation of that person will simply be confusing to them. The real issue is the fact that people can change all the outward circumstances and feel good about themselves for a little while, but as you stated people don’t really change. The reason people don’t change is that they have a constantly shifting definition of who they are and there lives are unstable. My question to you is where do you base your valuation of a person from? Is there some book they give all therapists? I truly want to understand the whole process for that.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “valuation”. I’m concerned that it implies some kind of judgment of value — not what I intended. For me, the goal of therapy is to help people understand aspects of themselves that they’re not familiar with. A therapist’s ability to identify those things comes, first of all, from having long-term therapy oneself so you understand basic human truths by experiencing them directly. Then, your ability to empathize with the feelings of your clients help you understand them, understand what they’re avoiding or defending against. Theory (books) counts for very little, at least for me. Having supervision from more experienced therapists as part of your training is also key. It’s more like an artisan craft than a science, with an apprenticeship as part of the process. There is certainly no book they give us all!

      • Bob says:

        What I mean is what are these basic human truths and who decided that they were such? And what does that mean to know yourself well and what is an accurate view of yourself? I really have no clear understanding of psychotherapy and am interested to know

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Ever since the Greeks, literature has been teaching us about human nature. Much of what I understand about the way human beings work comes from reading novels and plays. Shakespeare has quite a lot to say about the constants of our emotional experience: greed, envy, love, intolerance, gratitude, guilt, etc. Henry James’ portrayal of Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady is the most insightful portrayal of malignant narcissism and what is behind it that I’ve ever read. There’s no one authority on this subject. Ultimately, it is you who decides what’s true. Sometimes when I disagreed with an interpretation my therapist gave me, something about an unconscious feeling, he would reply, “I’m only telling you what I hear you saying that I don’t think you’re aware of, but you’re the ultimate authority on your own experience. If it doesn’t ring true for you, then I’m probably wrong.” It was the accumulation of emtional evidence, over a number of sessions and months, that would ultimately give me a sense of conviction about what he was telling me; it ultimately felt true to me. He never asked me to believe anything he told me, just because he said so, or to take anything on faith.

          Obviously who you go to for therapy is the most important factor, and it has little to do with where he or she received professional training. My own therapist was an extremely well-read, emotionally deep person who’d spend many years in therapy himself: he knew himself well, understood the basic emotions and drives of human beings, and helped me get to know myself better in a non-authoritarian way.

  22. College Student says:

    Speaking as a person who is considering a therapy program, what are the benefits of doing such a thing? I have some interpersonal issues that I want to improve, and I’ve been working on them alone — with some success — for many years. I can quantify that success in that I no longer feel the anxiety I used to in certain situations. I know I would like to improve further. There are aspects of group therapy that seem appealing to me, and I wonder if it might help me overcome my issues at a faster pace than I would be able to overcome them on my own. However, I do wonder if I am expecting more from it therapy than is realistic. I also feel squeamish at the idea that anybody might know that I am “in therapy.”

    . . . Any insights?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think group therapy can be very beneficial for some people, although I have no experience giving groups. In particular, it can help a person to recognize they are not alone in what they feel, and also to confront certain problems in an experiential way — directly in relation to other group members — rather than talking about them in isolation.

      Many kinds of therapy can deepen your relationship with yourself, if that’s a goal. For me, I can think of few experiences that have greater value; but that’s a very different aim from “over-coming issues” and may not be what you’re looking for. As for feeling squeamish about other being knowing, being in therapy is personal and private, and there’s no reason why anyone else needs to know. If you would feel ashamed of being in therapy, that’s different matter entirely.

  23. rosadtea says:

    Hi, nice article. Great reading.

  24. Thank you for sharing. I will admit at times it is hard for me to change. Easier not too. Take care!

  25. Sadia Raval says:

    Hi Joseph

    I am a psychotherapist, practicing in India. I simply loved this post. Your words ring so true, even in my own journey as a therapist and as a person. Change awareness is so keen and yet change is so difficult. I usually tell my clients, what you are doing here is committing to begin a lifelong struggle against your self-defeating patterns.

    thanks again for this wonderful post :)

  26. michael says:

    I found this article interesting as I can first hand know how difficult change can be. I read through the first 20 or so comments on here and including the article noticed that not once was our belief system really mentioned. It is our beliefs that either free us up to be the best that we can be, or limit us into a state of mediocrity and bind us to emotions like fear. When we free ourself of limiting beliefs, then we have less opposition to change simply because we no longer have those self imposed limitations holding us back. Is there more to change than just our belief system? Absolutely, but I do belief addressing our beliefs is fundamental in the process.

  27. dr nishu shukla says:

    interesting post Joseph. Really good.

    i think different people faces various problems in their life. their way to understand the problem and resolve by own ways. my suggestion is group therapy.


    Dr Nishu

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