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You might’ve heard and might even believe the statement, “People can’t change.” There is also the long-running debate in psychology on nature vs. nurture. Are people born a certain way because of genes or do they do become that way because of environment and upbringing? Most people will say, to some degree both.
The question then becomes, regardless of whether it’s genetics or the environment, “Is change possible?” What change is possible and what isn’t? What can we change and what can’t we change?
Plasticity is the term scientists, and psychologists use for what changes and what doesn’t. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change. The book The Brain That Changes Itself details many astounding cases of neuroplasticity. So while genetics and biology can play a role in a person’s psychology, it doesn’t mean that change is impossible.
Co-founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman, in his book What You Can Change and What You Can’t, claims that there are things we can change and things we can’t change.
Can’t Be Changed and Doesn’t Work
Homosexuality cannot be changed into heterosexuality. That does not and cannot change with any form of “treatment” or “cure.” There is no such effective therapy that eliminates homosexuality. Psychologists have proven that homosexuality can’t be changed into heterosexuality. Sexual orientation is very deep and is extremely resistant to change.
Therapy that focuses on childhood insights has been found to be ineffective in treating problems. Reliving childhood trauma does not eliminate personality problems in adults. In fact, doing this can actually worsen the problems.
What Can Be Changed
Anxiety & Panic
Anxiety and panic can be unlearned but can’t be treated with medication alone. Followed by depression, anxiety is also the most common disorder. Anxiety caused by a specific phobia can be treated successfully with exposure therapy.
Moods, specifically anger, can be controlled. Anger had three parts to it: thought, feeling, and behavior. Each can and should be treated.
Depression is linked to cognition (the way you think). The four types of therapies that have been proven to work are medication (with side effects), ECT or electroconvulsive therapy (with side effect), interpersonal therapy or IPT, and cognitive therapy or CT. Extended treatment is recommended since relapse is likely. The main reasons why depression is not cured are because of no treatment sought and insufficient treatment. However, recovery from depression is possible.
Sexual dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation, impotence, and frigidity can be successfully treated. This type of dysfunction is considered a “surface problem” unlike sexual identity and sexual orientation which are very deep and do not change much.
Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, found in a series of studies that our mindset affects how empathetic we are. People who worked on having a “growth mindset” and told to believe that it’s possible to become more empathetic.
Empathy is a choice.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Research shows that BPD often goes away with time and age, even without any treatment. BPD is also often successfully treated with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and some antidepressants.
Many disorders are learned behaviors in response to stress like the eating disorder, bulimia. Because of this, it can be treated by unlearning and learning different responses to replace it.
Most mental illnesses such as the ones discussed above are actually likely to be short-term. Long-term and extreme cases are rarer. Research suggests that almost everyone will develop a psychological disorder in their life. That means that you are more likely to develop a mental illness in your lifetime than you are to get cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
Just like our behaviors, mental illnesses are often a product of our environment. In the book, Children Who Kill, the author studied and showcases multiple murder crimes committed by children and teens. These cases involved different types of murders and varying degrees of violence. What she found was a pattern of abuse and neglect in every case. The children had the potential for reform and recovery. They were not “evil” nor were they born that way. The younger the child, the more likely they are to live a normal life as an adult if they are removed from the harmful environment.
This applies to all different types of change. The younger someone is, the more likely they are to change whether it’s behavioral or cognitive.
The same type of behavior can be changed not only for children for adults who are abusive and violent toward their children. In a study in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, after a group of parents who had abused their children were assigned Parent-child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) only 20% of the parents reoffended in the span of 3 years after the therapy.
Factors That Go Into Successful Change With Therapy
It’s forward thinking
This means that the therapy is not focused on looking at the past and childhood like traditional therapy. Therapy that focuses on the here and now has been proven to be tremendously more effective. An example of this is solution-based therapy which focuses on solving the problem with behavior change.
It requires assuming responsibility
Therapy is a two-way street. The participation and responsibility of the patient play a significant part in the effectiveness of the therapy. It’s not solely dependent on the therapy itself.
Just like physical illness, how possible, quick, and easy it is to cure and recover depends on new research and breakthroughs, especially when it comes to mental illness and disorders. Just because something is “incurable” or extremely resistant to change now doesn’t mean that it is. The proper treatment may not have been discovered yet. Only time and technology will tell.
As for right now, whether you can change or not, the best thing you can do is to learn to accept who you are.