Can people really change?Making small changes is a key to personal growth

Can people really change?" Bill asked.

 

I've heard many folks pose this question.  When we make repeated efforts to alter our attitudes or behaviors, but fail, skepticism is a reasonable posture.

 

For his part, Bill has been struggling with interpersonal issues for a long time. His muted emotional responses and difficulties connecting with others have wreaked havoc in his familial and romantic relationships.  After years of counseling and repeated self-help efforts, he has all but given up on being different.

 

Some psychologists argue that core personality traits (like introversion/extroversion or optimism/pessimism) rarely change, even over a lifetime.  They believe that when people try to modify aspects of their personality, they slam into a brick wall of innate tendencies that won't budget.

"Yes, I believe we can change.  If I didn't, I wouldn't be in this profession," I replied to Bill.  "But it's what you believe that really matters."

 

When it comes to personal transformation, we underestimate the power of the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy.  There is research from education that illustrates this point.

For example, many of us believe that intellectual ability (or IQ) is set.  While we can acquire more information in a particular subject area, the basic intelligence we bring to a topic or task is fixed.  People say things like "I'm bad at math," suggesting they lack the fundamental capacity to work with numbers and that no amount of learning will change that.

 

Researchers call this a "fixed mind-set," and those who have it don't believe they can grow their basic intelligence.  Not surprisingly, they are usually right. However, studies show that people who harbor a "growth mind-set," one that embraces the idea that one's core intellect does increase with learning, can significantly enhance their fundamental intellectual abilities.

 

This self-fulfilling attitude extends well beyond the classroom. A growth mind-set ("I can change") fosters a greater sense of well-being, improved relationships, increased resilience and a significantly enhanced capacity to positively alter one's behavior.

 

Importantly, one's attitude in this regard is not locked in, meaning if you don't have a growth mind-set now, you can acquire one.  Giving one's self pep talks and "I know I can" affirmations is not helpful. Rather, by focusing on those actions, skills and strategies necessary to create change, and being persistent in applying them in one's daily life, a growth mind-set gradually emerges.

 

As small changes in attitude or behavior appear, they nurture the belief that constructive transformation is possible, further amplifying one's growth mind-set. This creates a positive feedback loop that is self-reinforcing.

 

In Bill's case, no amount of talk is going to convince him he can change for the better.  Words of encouragement are no match for a long succession of failed attempts.

However, by focusing on the "how to" of personal transformation, keeping expectations low and achieving small, incremental changes, he can create a growth mind-set.

 

If Bill gets there, he's won half the battle. Change will follow.

 

Philip Chard is a psychotherapist, author and trainer. Email Chard at outofmymind@philipchard.com or visit philipchard.com.

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