Are people really capable of change?
And if they are, how does change happen?
These were the questions posed to me in a recent interview with a potential client. Certainly not standard fair for a job interview, and the depth of the question only served to intrigue me more.
I thought about it for a moment, and as I often do, I went back to my own experience as a starting point. My life is certainly very different from what it once was, but is that a function of change, or simply a natural progression?
The conclusion I came to was that it was something in between. People certainly grow and develop, but I don’t think describing the process as change is quite accurate. We don’t make hairpin turns on our fundamental principles.
I think it would be more accurate to say that we become more or less of ourselves.
What we usually recognize as change isn’t a process of altering ourselves, but aa process of uncovering ourselves.
People develop their values and emotional habits pretty early on in life, and it becomes harder to alter them as time goes on. You can check out this article for more on why that happens.
But, our values and emotional habits can be overridden by the people around us, especially while we are young.
You see, we humans tend to prefer people who are like us. We like to have similarities with our friends and family. We seek, in each of our friendly interactions, common ground to stand upon. Conversely, when we are being antagonistic, we seek to portray the opponent to be as different from us as possible.
So, what then is the best way to get someone to tolerate or even appreciate your presence?
Well, the simplest method is to be like them.
This is actually a tactic used by pick-up artists and social hackers (their morals aside, it’s undeniable that these people have a strong grasp on human social habits). It’s commonly called mirroring, and it involves mimicking the other person in subtle ways. This serves to endear you to them, as you appear similar to them. It can be something as simple as taking a sip of water at the same time as them or mimicking their vocal inflections.
More commonly, almost all of us hunt around for common ideas when we meet a new person. Do we like the same sports team? Have we seen the same movie recently?What about our politics — did we vote for the same person in the last election?
Knowing this, let’s now imagine a situation in which you really want someone else to like you. Say, you’re a child, and, like most children, you have a built-in need to be liked by your parents (parental disapproval can cause massive stress and anxiety even in adults).
So, what do you do?
Well, you be like them in every way that matters to them.
Many parents strive to love their children for who they are, but this is a difficult goal to achieve. Being a parent puts you in a position of massive power. It isn’t always easy to convince yourself to go through the difficult emotional task of finding love for a momentarily foolish or annoying child when the option of anger and disapproval is available to you.
Most parents falter regularly in this regard.
In these areas that the parents falter, the children erase that aspect of themselves and replace it, to the best of their ability, with a carbon copy of their parents.
Surely if mommy and daddy don’t like this part of me, they will like that part of themselves.
A new layer is built over the child’s true self, and they become more of someone else and less of themselves.
This process isn’t exclusive to parents either, though I think that is the most common example. People seek the approval of their friends, mentors, and collaborators as well, and when the tactic of self-erasure has proven so effective in childhood, why change the strategy?
We even begin to mimic idols that we don’t know personally, in the hopes of gaining some tacit approval from them.
It would be apt to say that those who are most socially successful and have the most loving, accepting, and humble parents are the ablest to express their true selves.
Or, is the causality the other way around? Is it rather those who are most adamant in their expression of themselves that gain the deepest and most fulfilling relationships?
I would say it’s a bit of both. The two feed a cycle that encourages itself.
Similarly, the cycle goes the other way, in a much more vicious manner.
He who suppresses himself in order to gain approval may gain social acceptance, but they will rarely form a deep and truly fulfilling bond with anyone. Few people actually want to be close friends with a carbon copy of themselves. We crave a balance of difference because difference breeds growth. Similar to how the introduction of new genes encourages evolution, the introduction of new ideas and behaviors encourages growth. We are made to cooperate with each other in our relationships, and balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses, not to all march in social lockstep.
So, this poor suppressed soul falls further in the social hierarchy, despite gaining outward acceptance. They strive more for the affection and connection they are lacking, suppressing themself more and more, ultimately to their own detriment.
On the flip side, he who excavates and displays proudly the aspects of his true nature is magnetic — or perhaps it is more apt to say that he is polarizing. Certainly, he will have enemies. Honest expression always offends some people. But he will also have deep, powerful bonds with his friends and allies. Those who like what they see will form relationships with him that will last through thick and thin, from inception to the death of one or both parties. And so, because he is more accepted, he expresses more, and becomes more loved, and so on.
He who suppresses himself has neither enemy nor friend. He who expresses himself has plenty of both. Some people may read this and think it seems a poor trade. For my money, I would rather have enemies and close friends with which to stand against them, than be eternally lonely and unrecognized.
This is what I mean when I say that change is really just becoming more or less of yourself. At any time, and in any action or choice, we either chip away at the crust of other people’s preferences and reveal more of ourselves, or we layer ourselves over with the wet, hardening clay of external personalities.
This process creates the illusion of change, but in truth, the core of who we are remains relatively stable. It is just a matter of our willingness to let it shine.
So, how exactly does one go about unveiling more of themselves?
Well, it’s a process for which I believe there can be little guidance because your unique self demands expression in unique ways. I cannot tell you how you need to express yourself. That is something for you to discover on your own.
What I can tell you is that the process is, in a way, easier than you think.
Becoming more of yourself is not a constant, lifelong fight against the habits you built up in all the years leading to your decision to be more genuinely expressive.
It is a few crucial decisions that build momentum and send ripples out across your future.
For the sake of understanding this, imagine yourself as two machines that work together to live your life — your conscious mind, and your unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind is a series of automated code that is built based on the decisions your conscious mind has made previously. The subconscious mind transcribes what you do, and builds a routine based on that. Once the subconscious sees you do something enough, it begins to get good at it. After a while, it gets good enough that your conscious mind no longer needs to take part in that activity. It becomes automatic. Walking, talking, eating, and for some of us, self-suppression.
Your goal, in order to be more yourself, is to teach your subconscious a different skill — honest self-expression.
Doing this is a matter of making a few key, highly impactful decisions to go against your ingrained habits and express yourself despite the feeling of risk and fear.
In these moments, you will feel certain that utter social rejection lies on the other side of the choice, and that feels like doom.
What you must remember is that even if that is the result (which is unlikely), you will have freed yourself from people who would have fought tooth and nail against your transformation.
A few key moments like this and your subconscious will begin to get the message. It will rewrite the code, and self-expression will gradually become habitual.
How will you know these moments when they come?
As cliche as it is, it’s the truth — you’ll just know.
They are the choices that you feel you will regret for the rest of your life if you choose wrong. They are the choices that, when laid out before you, grant you a moment’s wavering vision of the future that lies down the path of each option.
All the work lies in these moments. The only courage you need is the courage to muster yourself for these sparse but crucial occurrences, whenever they may choose to arrive.
The process of change, of becoming more of yourself, is only a short series of crucial decisions.