no-one ever really changes

originally published June 09, 2019

I like looking back. Not incessantly or obsessively but when I feel great appreciation for the way things are it’s natural to compare them to how things were. It’s been a few years leading up to this point, where I can truly appreciate anything in the first place. You and I both, I imagine, have seen a lot change in that time. My life externally looks a little different but my internal experience has been completely transformed. It makes me wonder what kicked all this off.

I think, if I tried, I could draw a narrative thread back through my whole life to explain that. However, the major catalysing event was a conversation during the breakup of a long relationship in 2016. I’ll keep it brief and dramatic by paraphrasing, she told me that:

“this isn’t going to work, no-one ever really changes.”

She was right, at least about things not working for us, but some part of me took this as a challenge. As I processed the end of this chapter of my life I went through some rather unhealthy stages, the one helpful thing I did was reflect. I stepped back and wrote an essay listing all the things that contributed to us breaking up, it featured a few of her behaviours that I didn’t understand but was predominantly me enumerating the negative character traits in myself. This was uncomfortable, at first, but I worked on this essay for a week or two and by the end I was proud of the giant list I’d made and that I’d mostly avoided blaming her. I was manically throwing words to the page about how “I had trouble expressing affection”, how “I always had to be right”, how “I felt I was smarter than everyone else”… It goes on.

Humbled by the picture I’d painted of myself I started the next step. I was determined to prove that I could change all these things I disliked about myself. At the time this was at least slightly fuelled by the duelling desires of showing her that I was better without her and trying to win her back. There’s something in here about doing the right things for the wrong reasons. I was pretty serious about this, I actually wrote a list of the statements I needed to internalise if I was to change and be a good person™. I like lists. Here it is:

  1. Your life is not and does not have to be better than everyone else's

  2. The life you build is about your own happiness, not being "great" in others' eyes

  3. The goal of life is contentment in the moment and ambition for the future, contentment is not complacency

  4. Never be ashamed of liking something because it's outside your, or anyone else's, taste

  5. Always attempt to understand and accept others' views even when they contradict your own, there is something to learn from every disagreement

  6. Readily accept and enjoy recommendations from others

  7. It's okay to love working but not for it to be all encompassing, relax and enjoy the moment

  8. If someone doesn't know how to do something, teach them patiently

  9. Whenever you are frustrated with someone, consider if it's worthwhile to burn the energy on anger

  10. Seek perspective in all things, but don't do anything for the sake of it

That’s in the raw form I first wrote it, you can probably reverse engineer this to see what sort of person I was. Since then I’ve tweaked the wording and added more points (and fixed some of the redundancy). Reading it now it seems remarkable how well those points line up with common Buddhist, Stoic and other similar philosophies. Or, perhaps it speaks to how obvious these goals are and that we have far more trouble reaching them than thinking of them.

Regardless, why am I telling you all this? The point is this:

I believe you can change almost anything about yourself, the only requirement is that you have to try. Possibly harder than you’ve ever tried at anything else. What’s more, you have to keep it up indefinitely.

One way I like to think about this is to imagine yourself as a collection of character traits. You exist as the summation of qualities such as “impatience”, “compassion” and “calm”. Within all of us exist the exact same possible character traits but with differing weightings placed upon them. I believe the starting point is laid by genetics but I also believe the vast majority is behaviour learned throughout life. My loose understanding of modern psychology seems to back this up but I’m always happy to be corrected. If it is the case that most of our personality comes from how we were raised then it follows that it should be possible to keep changing indefinitely. Every interaction you have must subtly shift these weightings by even an imperceptible degree.

An astute reader may realise that I’m describing the process of “growing up”. “Growing up” is the name we have for the impact our environments, our challenges and our relationships have on us. The tricky part is that we typically talk about “growing up” being something that happens to you not something you direct. We may not control how those things change us but could we control which influences we let into our life in the first place? Perhaps, but one thing is for sure, it won’t be easy.

The first hurdle

When it comes to changing yourself and self-improvement there are broadly two mindsets you run into: fixed vs growth. People with a fixed mindset tend to believe that they are the way they are and nothing can change that, conversely those with a growth mindset believe they can grow and improve themselves. The gotcha here is that both approaches seem correct. When trying to improve yourself one element is fundamental to the entire process, you must believe it is possible to change yourself.

In fact this is the only obstacle to most people changing themselves, believing you can’t change is a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. We have quite a lot of cultural re-enforcement of this perspective. Traditional sayings like “be true to yourself” can be a trap, there is no way you’re supposed to be. You can choose. What that little cliche is meant to mean (at least in my view) is to act according to your own internal sense of right and wrong rather than repeating the same mistakes ad nauseam 🤢.

The second hurdle

If you believe it’s possible to change then there’s still one confronting fact to deal with: changing yourself is really, really hard. You will fall short over and over, it may take months or years of effort to re-train ourselves out of ingrained habits. This is the next most common reason people fail to change themselves, they don’t actually want to try that hard. I’m not trying to call anyone out here, we all have challenges in our lives and depending on your situation it can be near impossible to set aside the energy needed to create lasting change.

The point I’m trying to get at is that you have to want to change. Not in a “oh it’d be good to start going to the gym this year” non-committal way, but in an “I will do this every day until I get it, if I mess up today I will do it tomorrow. I willnot give up unless it becomes obvious that this isn’t working” approach. At least, that’s what I sound like when I try to make changes. What this tends to boil down to is having a well though-out reason backing your motivation. When I’m at risk of skipping a day at the gym I remind myself that this is worth doing and that being active and healthy will improve my mood, my work and my life overall. I picture the ways that a future, healthier me will prosper. I imagine how I will feel great every day and in turn I will thrive creatively and consistently cherish my friendships. This is probably not what my life is ever going to look like but this is how I remind myself.

If you want to take charge of who you are then you should accept this: you can always try harder. Giving up cannot be an option that is even on the table. If you’ve defined a goal for yourself then you may try many paths before you find one that leads there but you can never stop pushing for the goal. When it comes to changing yourself, if you’re not going to try as hard as you can for as long as you can then… It might not be worth trying at all.

Ok, sure, I get it, I want to try

Well, now we’re getting somewhere. I may be getting on my soapbox just a little here but this matters to me. I have seen far too many people who say they desperately want to change themselves give up. So, assuming you think this is possible and you want to try, I’m going to outline my approach to changing anything about myself:

1. Recognise your flaws

This might seem easy but you need to be thorough and even a little brutal for this part. I can list off minor flaws about myself trivially: I’m impatient, too protective of my time, unwilling to embarrass myself publicly etc. While it is worth trying to improve on these aspects of myself, they require more scrutiny before you can act on them. These are the symptoms but we’re looking for the underlying cause. Instead, the type of flaws to focus on are: “I am obsessed with being self-sufficient because I want to protect myself from the pain of losing close relationships”. This, at least for me, takes courage to admit. I don’t want to believe that this is true about myself, and yet, it is.

It takes a lot of practice to cultivate this level of self-awareness. I used to think that the reason I was easily frustrated by people was because they were just not applying themselves to the same degree I was. Only with consistent reflection could I spot that it was me creating the frustration, no-one else. It can be helpful to remind yourself that any and all emotional responses we produce are our own responsibility. Obviously some people set us off more than others but we always have a choice in how we react.

It can also help to reflect from a distance. After we get out of an encounter that we wish ended differently our judgement is often clouded with fresh emotion. I like to reflect on difficult moments at the end of the day, the week and sometimes years down the line. As mentioned earlier, breakups are a goldmine for unpacking your issues once you have enough distance to analyse them.

2. Decide who you want to be

This is the big question. One that has no single answer and will continually evolve over your whole life. Luckily we can break it down a bit and tackle aspects of ourselves instead of designing the ultimate human in one fell swoop. For my example above regarding overbearing self-sufficiency I can look to people I admire for inspiration. Someone like Alan Watts would likely acknowledge the transient nature of all things and use that to quell the fear of any particular loss. Where-as Aubrey Marcus might tell me that to let fear triumph over love is to defy the entire purpose of existence. There shouldn’t be just one answer here, we can make a laundry list of approaches.

3. Fake it

Once you’ve decided how you aspire to act all that’s left is practice. There are no shortcuts here, you have to be present and aware of your behaviour then flag your old habits before they actually happen. Remind yourself often of what you’re trying to achieve and why it’s worth doing. This obviously results in plenty of failures and backslides, that’s why we should consider many approaches. It does get easier with time, but it never gets easy.

I’m still going

I still haven’t internalised everything on that list, not even close to it, but I’m a whole lot closer than ever before. In years of hard work I’ve turned the tide against the most hindering aspects of myself. Which makes me pretty confident that you can do the same. Remember to reflect on how far you’ve come, it reminds us that we can always keep going.