Recently a friend of mine sent me a published article written by someone with whom we had both worked. It was a very well written piece, but, that was not the reason it was sent to me. It was sent to me because it was delightfully ironic. The piece was about kindness. This person was not known for their kindness. To be sure,he was very intelligent, was able to get people to do what she wanted, and probably did some good. Kind, though? No.
This prompted a discussion between my friend and me. Is it possible that this individual changed? Could it be that this man has now made kindness the center of their raison d’etre? I don’t know, maybe. The cynic in me automatically says no. My friend is generally more generous in the way she looks at people. She wonders if our mutual colleague may have changed. I don’t know who is right, but it did lead my to an important question. Can a person really change?
I believe the answer to that question is almost always yes. A person can change. I also believe that people often don’t. Here’s my theory.
Let us start with the core of the person. One of my favorite relevant quotes is from Anne Frank.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Another brilliant, albeit less contemporary, author, King Solomon told us, “See, only this one have I found, for God made man straight, but they sought many intrigues.”
People are inherently good, inherently healthy, and that is what we strive to be when we seek to change. Dr Joseph Weiss, the developer of Control Mastery Theory looks at all psychotherapy through this lens. He believes the mind wants to be healthy, and throughout the therapeutic process we test our therapists to see if the way we have distorted that healthy outlook is indeed a distortion, or if the world is truly as bad as we have thought all along. The messages and traumas big and small that we experience in our lives make us cynical. They make us unkind. We wrap our goodness in layers of toxic protection to shield ourselves from dangers, real or imagined, sometimes the former, more often the latter.
To those of us who live with these distortions, however, these dangers feel real and life threatening. We feel the heart quicken when we have anxiety, we truly are sapped of energy when we are depressed. Our face reddens and we feel the rage coursing through our veins when we are angry. It doesn’t matter that we are fighting a straw man. True, it is all happening in out head, but, as one of the most brilliant modern philosophers, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, tells us, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Change means facing those demons. Demons that no one else can perceive, that people don’t see as real. To others it is a matter of keeping your head high and lifting yourself up by the bootstraps. They don’t see the challenge.
Change is about one thing. Courage. Courage to believe that all the things that make our skin crawl, that keep us up at night, that push away those we love, and those whom we could love, those terrible fears that can control our lives, are phantom pains.
So can people change? Yes. But it means fighting against the perception that we are putting ourselves in danger. This is why we often do not. It takes hard work and an openness to vulnerability. The choice to recognize ourselves as human.