Updated: Jan 17
This is the second of a two-part series where we tackle the questions that people always ask: Am I normal? And can I change? Last time, we talked about the issue of whether or not you’re normal. Now we talk about whether you can change. (All the images here are paintings of scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a book about nothing but change.)
I went to my 25th high school reunion and was talking with a friend there as we looked out over all our former classmates. “Wow,” I said, “you know, no one’s really changed.” And I pointed out several of our classmates as cases in point. The bitchy cheerleader now the bitchy society matron. The glad-handing class president now the glad-handing corporate executive. She agreed with me, but she was devastated. Was I saying people can’t change???
She was so upset that she insisted we meet a few months later so I could “take back” what I’d said and restore her peace of mind.
So, can you change?
No. But also yes.
There is a sense in which it’s true that you and I can’t change. There’s a whole branch of psychology—personality theory—that looks at those parts of being human that are pretty much baked in the cake when we’re born. And it turns out that there are lots of ways where we just are what we are from birth.
Some of us are born gifted musically, some remarkably ungifted, most in the middle with average musical gifts. Same when it comes to math.
The same when it comes to all kinds of traits we're born with. Take, for example, something psychologists call conscientiousness. If you’re very conscientious, you finish what you start, you don’t make careless mistakes, you remember to do things, you want to do tasks well, you make plans and carry them out. Stuff like that. At the other end of that spectrum, you’re fun and spontaneous and careless and—to others—unreliable. And again here, most of us are in the middle, imperfectly conscientious.
Now very conscientious people are born that way and tend to stay that way. The same with people at the other end who are often characterized as careless and extravagant.
And that’s true of most of our traits and characteristics. We’re stuck with them. So is that the same as saying we can’t change? Does it mean we’re just stuck being who we are?
Not at all. Not by a long shot.
Let’s take someone who has seemed as though she doesn’t have musical talent. She took piano lessons as a kid and seemed to progress slowly, plus she didn’t like it. She never learned to carry a tune when she sang.
So what’s true about that person? Is she doomed musically?
I had a tennis teacher who told me that over many, many years she only had ONE student who couldn’t learn to play tennis. One student, in other words, who couldn’t change. All the others could change, regardless of their level of talent. Now maybe most of them did not go on to become club champions, but they did go on to become good or good-enough players. Good enough to play with others and enjoy it and feel good about themselves doing it.
Well, it’s the same with that woman who thinks she doesn't have talent for music. The odds are overwhelmingly on the side of two facts: no, she never had a huge musical talent (that can’t change), but with a halfway decent teacher she can learn more and do more than she ever thought possible in her wildest dreams. Her basic talent level didn't change, but learning changed what she could do enormously.
This happens all the time!!
My husband, who is definitely NOT on the conscientious side of that spectrum, was unsurprisingly a poor language student. He was lazy and sloppy in school, so of course he came to feel he was “no good at learning languages.”
Now between you and me, he’s still kind of lazy and sloppy. But several months ago he decided he wanted to learn Spanish. He decided to use an online course: Duolingo. With that program, there’s no studying, no memorizing. There’s just exercises. And cartoon characters relentless pressuring you to work at it every day. Since he evidently can’t resist a cartoon character, he’s worked at it every single day for 200 days now and is in the top 2% of their students. He’s really learning.
Now how does this apply to the stuff people bring into therapy?
There’s no difference, really. Being a mental patient—and we’re all mental patients because there’s stuff we all struggle with—just means not being able to do well something other people can do well. Something in the realm of feelings, thoughts, and behavior.
Take anxiety. Suppose you’ve been saying to yourself, “I’ve been an anxious person all my life. I don’t think I can change. It’s who I am.”
This is exactly like my saying I’ve been a bad tennis player all my life because my husband, who’s also a bad tennis player, tried to teach me, and I had trouble learning from him. Well, yeah! Duh!
If you’ve been an anxious person all your life it’s because you’ve never had the right kind of therapist. Or not read the right kind of book. We’re all flooded every day by anxiety-producing thoughts and experiences. Many of us have ways—or have learned ways—to deal with and get rid of these thoughts. Which is a skill!! And so we’re not particularly anxious.
But this is a skill anyone can learn. And so anyone can learn to become way less anxious, to the point where it’s no longer a major issue in their life.
So can you change? The question is kind of irrelevant. You can learn. We all can learn. You can find a catalyst, teacher, therapist who can give you tools that will make changes in you so significant that it will seem to everyone around you, and to you yourself, that you have changed profoundly.
The art here is all based on stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, 1523. Ariadne, on the left is being changed into the constellation of stars we see in the sky above her.
Velazquez's The Spinners, 1656. Arachne has a weaving contest with the goddess Athena and wins. In a jealous rage, Anthena turns Arachne into a spider, condemned to weave webs all her life. The spinners in this picture are a reference to this.
Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, 1625. Apollo is pursuing Daphne so relentlessly she begs for release and so is turned into a tree.
The cover image is Waterhouse's Echo and Narcissus, 1903. Narcissus becomes so enamored of his image in the pond that he's changed in the flower we call the narcissus.