Do People Ever Really Change?

“People don’t change, they just become more of who they are.”

A lot of people subscribe to that bold statement. And to some extent, it is true. You can’t expect compassion from a narcissist because they just aren’t built that way – it’s like expecting a lion to become a vegetarian. Or teaching a pig to sing. You waste your time and annoy the pig.

But I also believe that people can change their behavior. Because I’ve done it.

I think I’ve written before about how, when I was younger, I was late all the time. It was part of my family culture to be late. (My mom was even late to her father’s funeral and made us all late, too.) I was late to school, late to class, late coming home. I often arrived just in time for appointments and was relieved to find that planes hadn’t left without me because they were also late. And, when I got a job in college, I was late to that, too. I was supposed to arrive at 10:30 on Sundays to open the cash registers and open the store, but I was not a morning person and I had a new sexy boyfriend, and it was hard to get out of bed.

One morning, I stumbled into the store at almost 11 am. My manager, Linda, who I thought was the coolest person ever, was doing my job, opening the cash registers and programming the discounts into them – a tedious job that required you to hand key 10-digit item numbers, followed by the list price and then the discounted price for hundreds of items, after which you would print a CVS-length receipt and check that you had keyed them accurately and, when you discovered you hadn’t, you discarded the whole thing and started over. Linda had clearly started late because she had expected me to be there to do the job. And I hadn’t been because I had been frolicking instead.

“Good morning! Sorry I’m late!” I called blithely, heading for the locker room. And she turned and gave me such a look of disappointment and disgust that I literally stopped in my tracks. I didn’t like that this person I admired saw me that way. I never wanted to see her look at me that way. I never wanted to see anyone look at me that way ever again. And so I made up my mind to change. It took time and practice but soon I became someone who was usually on time, so often on time that, if I was late, people wondered if I was ok. I changed. Did I become more of who I was? I think, deep inside, I did. Because I am someone who has empathy for others and, recognizing how my behavior impacted them, I was able to change the behavior to align more with that empathy.

Was it empathy that kicked in the next time I consciously changed? Fast forward maybe 10 years, I was working in an office. I had just left the office of a colleague that I considered a friend, where we had been chatting. I got part way down the hall and thought of something else I wanted to add, and turned back. As I neared her office, I realized someone else – someone at a higher level, in a sister department – had entered her office and I overheard them talking. Talking about me. I can’t remember exactly what they were saying, but it was very matter of course, as if it was a given, and it was about how all I could talk about was how miserable I was and how everyone treated me so badly. Again, this is a behavior I had learned at home. My mom complained about my dad. My dad complained about work. I had grown up believing that, if you were friends with someone, you created intimacy by complaining.

At the time I didn’t have that insight. Instead, again, I realized I didn’t like that perception of me. I didn’t want people to think or say that about me. And I made a conscious decision to change. I began to reframe and try to see things in a positive way, to look for the silver lining. And I stopped complaining, I stopped oversharing. I had some colleagues who were picking on me and I put a sign above the door of my office – on the inside, where I could see it and they couldn’t – that said, “Customer Service” to remind myself that anyone who came to that door was going to receive customer service from me, the same way that I would provide customer service if I was still working in a store. The customer might be wrong, they might be having a bad day, they might take it out on me – but, by golly, I wasn’t going to let it bother me or cause me to join their misery. I don’t know if anyone noticed that my behavior was changing while it changed, but what they said about me changed. People started remarking on how calm I was and how nothing seemed to phase me, and about how they liked coming to my office because it felt like a place of refuge, calm amongst the storm, and they could think through things.

Again, was this changing who I was inside? Or was it changing learned behaviors to connect more with something that was inside me all the time?

Reflecting back now, I recognize that, in both cases, the behavior was changing to align with who I am. But I didn’t recognize that at the time; all I knew was the surface: I don’t want this person or people in general to see me in this way.

In retrospect, that was a marker for me of who I was and what is important to me, integral to me, as opposed to what I had learned from my parents growing up. It was a marker toward learning more about myself, who I am as opposed to how others define me. And it was an important lesson for me about the power of making up your mind.

Neither of these changes were instantaneous or easy. I had to try things out, fail, try again. I had to learn to recognize when I was doing things that might cause me to be late or to want to whine. It took me a long time to build up enough consistency that people forgot the previous negative behavior and began to remember me as someone who is “always” on time or who “always” has such a calm, helpful, positive demeanor.

Our actions are our only true possessions; we cannot escape the consequences of our actions; our actions are the path on which we walk.

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