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Can People Really Change?

by Bill Cates
Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

I was watching a movie last night and a guy said to his girlfriend – who was miffed at some of his behavior – “But I can change!” Can he? Can people change? My answer is a resounding, “It depends!”


Usually someone won’t change their behavior until the cost of that behavior outweighs the benefit.


For example, years ago, I used to be extremely sarcastic – in a playful way. Then a close friend pointed out that sometimes my playful sarcasm wasn’t always appreciated by others – even though they still laughed. He pointed out that it kept me at a distance from others.


Then I looked up sarcasm in the dictionary. It turns out the root of the word sarcasm comes from the Greek “sarc” which means “tearing of the flesh.” Ouch!


At that moment, I realized that for 15 years of my adult life, I was pushing people away from me without even knowing it. Perhaps that’s what I thought I needed at the time I made that decision, but it wasn’t working for me anymore. I didn’t need to protect myself in that way anymore. I resolved to change. I asked my friends to point out the unwanted behavior whenever I lapsed into it.


Yes, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I slowly reduced my sarcasm to only safe situations – like when my family is being playful with each other.  Even then, it’s much more tempered. If there’s something important I need to say to someone, I never let it come out in sarcasm.


This formula is not reserved to outward behaviors such as my sarcasm. It can be something internal. For example, a friend of mine always had his buttons pushed by his mother-in-law. He became resentful of her whenever they spent time together. He tried not to let it show, but I suspect it came out in certain ways.


I offered a perspective that an old girlfriend shared with me one time. “Resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  It’s a destructive emotion.


Here’s a metaphor that has helped me over the years: I liken an unproductive way of thinking, feeling, or acting to a song that plays in my head. In some cases I may never be able to get rid of that song, but I can turn the volume way down – or change channels for a while.


Here’s the bad news and good news.  The bad news is that neuroscience has discovered that we are, indeed, wired into patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting.  The good news is that we can, over time, change that wiring.  As we think, feel, and act in a different way, slowly the neural pathways change into new patterns. And it usually takes time, but it’s possible.  This is the science of neuroplasticity.


So when my girlfriend complains about some behavior of mine and I snap back at her (I’m human), she says, “I’m not a nag!  I’m just a motivational speaker trying to change your neural pathways!”


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