Can people really change? How to Understand Growth for Adults and Kids.

When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

I work as a therapist. I work as a consultant. I work as an executive coach. And I have heard this question hundreds, if not thousands of times over the course of my career. "Can people really change?" And behind that question is actually the statement, "I mean, he’s always going to be that way right? I mean, there’s no point in even getting him help, if he can’t change.”

The psychologist Gordon Allport once said that the definition of personality was essentially that you know who you are when you wake up tomorrow. So yes, there is something enduring about each of us. Some thread that runs through all of our years and make each of us who we are—so there is something in us that feels unchangeable. And indeed when those things do change—typically because of brain injury or memory loss—then we know longer feel like ourselves and people feel like they lost ‘us.’

So what do we mean when we talk about change?  We don’t question whether babies and children can change. We pray that our teenagers will change. But somehow when we get to adulthood we believe in a fixed notion of a person.  That they will essentially be who they are. So why bother with change—either my own or supporting someone else.

One of the problems is that change is a big topic. I can change my behavior: I can stop smoking or start exercising. I can shift my mindset and way of making meaning in the world: I can start taking another person’s perspective in a new way, or see a situation from multiple viewpoints—which I might call growth, but growth is change. I might use a behavior change to trigger growth: I might use behavioral change to stop interrupting people so that I am a better listener and with this change I can better understand other people’s perspectives.

Neuroscience, as I wrote about in the Norman Doidge book review, states unequivocally that our brains can, and do, change. Brains are designed with neuroplasticity—and our brains will change based on what we do: they will shift to match their use. So at the neural level the answer is OF COURSE PEOPLE CAN CHANGE.

But all of us, every single one of us also knows that, it can be really difficult to make change. It is difficult to  shift something, to learn something new. This is why we find ourselves doing that same, frustrating thing, over and over again.

The question about whether people can change does make you want to take out the old joke about the light bulb. You know the one: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. And our motivation for change, our readiness for change and how change is connected to what matters to us most all impacts our capacity for change.

But today I want to highlight the way we support ourselves and the way we think about change at all.

When I think about change I always start with the gurus of change: children. Why? Because in the right environment children grow beautifully, on their own trajectory. Even kids who have some big struggles, if you get any of the obstacles even slightly out of their way, they shoot forward, back on track. I have to say that the human brain and spirit loves to grow. I have witnessed it over and over and it has made me a devout believer in growth. Thich Nhat Hanh described it perfectly. We don’t blame the lettuce for not growing. We must look at the conditions we are asking the lettuce to grow in.

And this is where I think we are terrible about growth in adulthood. In the best of circumstances children live in a world where they can safely lean on the adults around them—where the ‘soil’ of their lives is safe enough that they can spend their energy growing. The ‘dependence’ and security of their lives doesn’t make them helpless, it provides a safe platform from which to launch.

In psychological terms we call this safe platform a ‘secure base’ and it provides external stability and an internal sturdiness to weather the turmoil of growth and change. This is what change requires. A secure base—something that feels solid enough to lean on and leap from.

And my observations is that adults get all confused about needing support or stability. Either they get fixated on the idea of stability and security as the goal itself, and forget to let go and trust the internal sturdiness. Or, they are so frightened of leaning on anyone or anything else that they never feel safe enough to let go and try something new because they have to use all of their energy staying put and holding themselves together.

So much of the work I do isn’t getting people to change or making people change: it is getting them to create an environment that would allow them to grow or heal or change. My experience is that adults want to grow too. That just like the kids I have worked with, when you can clear obstacles they often shoot forward on their own power. So in many ways change is complicated for adults because they are both the creators of the soil of their garden, and the seeds they would plant.

For children, change is the constant. They are used to feeling off balance a lot, which explains a lot of the meltdowns we help them through. They use up a lot of energy managing the ups and downs of change and growth—and they often long for something familiar and stable. Which is why they always want to hear the same story over and over, or watch the same movie over and over.

Adults often notice that they go through big changes when life throws them a curve ball: when there is a death, or divorce, or a birth, or a change of job. It seems that adults often have to be thrown overboard from life in order to get back into the ocean of growth. So it seems so important to help people understand that the goal of stability in adulthood isn’t stillness or "having arrived." The purpose of stability is to create a springboard. If we thought of our ability to use our relationships, and supports and strengths less as a “safe house to live in” and more like ‘fixed ropes’ to climb with—we would have a different experience of adulthood and growth. Growth is the very definition of disequilibrium. And when we think of adulthood as this ‘solid, stable platform’ then when we feel off-balance, we think we are doing something wrong. But if we thought of adulthood as ‘great climbing gear’ then we would know that the experience of feeling off balance here and there was simply the experience of moving forward.

So this week—rather than thinking about what you want to change. Ask yourself what you can do to create better conditions in your life for growth and change. What can you do to make the ‘soil’ of your life better for your own growth? And ask yourself what your attitude about change is. How do you understand the days you are off balance? When your foot is on one ledge and your hand is reaching up toward a handhold? How can you help yourself enjoy the feeling of shifting from one spot to another?

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD