Can a Person Really Change?
Several of us had been discussing problems that people have with their personal lives. It seemed to us that once a person reaches a certain age it is almost impossible to change his behavior.
What chances does a person have for changing his life? Or are there any chances? Maybe it’s impossible.
CHANGE: A LONG-TERM PROJECT
A man comes to be what he is at any moment or point in his individual history through a long period of time. What a man is today took a long time to form him. A decision made to change one’s behavior is a decision to a project which will take a long time. It is foolish and unrealistic to give false hope to anyone that behavioral change can be effected instantly, or without much difficulty, or within a short space of time.
Man has a tendency to look for easy and simplistic solutions to human problems. They might very well work in the area of the physical, but not in the area of emotional disturbances. A wife who has a drunkard for a husband hopes that a retreat or a talk with a priest will work the miracle. A mother or father of a high-school boy who is lazy, hostile and destructive hopes that a talk with the principal, or the priest, or a guidance counselor will solve the problem. But it cannot be solved that quickly and that easily. There’s no particular magic to exhortations, or talks, or instructions, or sermons, or “advices.” All they can bring is shame, regret, sorrow, willingness to undertake change and amends, but they cannot bring about a change, they cannot effect a change, and they cannot make a change.
One psychologist said that no amount of talking to a person will help him to change. You cannot talk a person into changing, like you can talk a person into buying some merchandise through slick sales-talk. If talk could change, then it would appear that another person could change the person seeking a more satisfying way of life. But no one can do this for a human being. Change must be his work. The condition, however, under which such work can be undertaken, is a relationship that will provide a climate and an atmosphere in which he can do so. As one expert put it : it has to be a relationship “which this person may use for his own personal growth.”
BEHIND THE SYMPTOMS: THE PROBLEMS
Just as pain is not the person’s real physical problem, but that which causes the pain, so also with psychological symptoms. Beneath them lies the problem. And this is true of any area of human life: in disordered drinking, in disordered gambling, in disordered eating or smoking, and even in disordered sex.
When people speak of “change” in a person’s behavior, they usually have in mind the outward conduct, external behavior. Thus, a mother desires a son’s drinking to be stopped. A wife desires a husband’s love-affair to terminate. A father desires a son’s hostile and destructive behavior to cease.
In all these instances, the more important question, however, is the question: What is it that is, causing such behavior? Real change can take place only when the source, the cause, and the fountain from which springs destructive behavior can he be cured and healed.
EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS: DEEP-SEATED
But the source of human behavior is deep-seated. In any individual’s life it has a long history. For this reason it defies instant change.
What would these emotional problems be? Behind the destructive and self-damaging behavior, behind the erratic conduct lie such problems as: A sense of inferiority, of failure, of self-hatred, of inadequacy, of insecurity, of blurred identity, of personal ego-anxiety, of fear and shame.
All of these have their roots in each individual’s childhood. It is this that makes a man such a mystery. He is apparently free to behave in a way he chooses, and yet so often he is paralyzed, helpless. He wills to act in one way, but he ends up doing what he resolved not to do.
All that has happened to the human being is never forgotten. It is stored. It forms layers, in the human personality. It seethes inside, like a volcano.
It is quite easy to understand why change is not a matter of one day, or one week, or a month, or even a year. When one takes on the project of change, one takes on a tremendous task, for he is wrestling with a giant.