Self-Love and Self-Directed Kindness

Can People Change?

Sometimes we feel stuck in our life and like we cannot change. This experience especially causes a great deal of suffering when the following are true:

We feel like we are trapped in self-destructive patterns of behavior.

Or we feel like we undermine ourselves and we don’t know why.

We are not living the life we want, and we don’t know how to get there.

Or we have dreams we deeply desire to accomplish and we don’t know how to do so.

Change frequently feels impossible in situations like this. Perhaps we feel like we are completely lacking in the resources we need to get from A to B. Common beliefs about change often make this situation worse.

For example, I remember years ago talking to a friend who was upset about a relationship with a coworker. My friend said, “I might as well accept it. People never change.” This is a common belief—the idea that people do not or will not change.

When we add such a belief to our frequent feelings of “change despair”, it makes us feel hopeless.

But I am a big believer in change. I think people change all the time, dramatically, and for the better. And I certainly believe you and I can change in any way we need to.

I could tell you all the ways that I have changed for the better over the years. But I have written about that in other posts (you can read more here, here, here), and that’s not really the point of this post.

Rather, I want to focus on five beliefs that motivate positive (resilient and loving) change. So, here we go.

Belief One: Love, rather than fear or shame, is the greatest catalyst for change.

One of the biggest mistakes we make when we try to change is that we try to motivate ourselves through shame or hate. Here are some examples of people using shame or hate to motivate change. Some of them might sound familiar to you.

(Warning: Some of these examples contain harsh, untrue language that we use about our bodies or ourselves to motivate change. Please skip the examples in italics if such language triggers you, and it is certainly understandable why it would.)

Someone decides that he needs to exercise or eat better, and he calls himself “a slob” or “disgusting” to motivate change.  

Or someone decides she need to be a better house cleaner, and she calls herself “lazy” and “worthless” to motivate change.

Someone decides he needs to get a better job, and he calls himself a “loser” to motivate change.

In all these examples, the people trying to change use shame and fear as motivation. Granted, shame and fear can be a powerful temporary motivation for two reasons.

First, shame and fear, although they are negative emotions, are much more action-oriented than hopelessness. Therefore, they sometimes act as a ladder people use to climb out of their hopelessness. (I am not recommending this practice. I merely observe that it happens sometimes.)

Second, shame and fear cause painful feelings, and we tend to do all we can to escape painful feeling. So, shame and fear sometimes motivate us to change the behavior causing shame and fear.

The problem is that shame and fear are poor long-term motivators. Such feelings are exhausting and eventually we cannot tolerate them any longer. So they eventually cease to motivate us. But if we don’t have anything to take their place, we lose motivation. In addition, shame and fear cause us to develop self-hate, and most people cannot (nor should they) live in a perpetual state of self-hate.

Eventually we rebel against forces promoting self-hate. And, once again, if we do not have anything to take the place of self-hate (which we rightly reject), we revert to the habits we practiced before we shamed ourselves into change.

The alternative to changing through shame and fear is to change through love. We do this when we cultivate love for ourselves and we fall in love with a meaningful vision of life.

Read on to understand how to do this.

Belief Two: You are worthy now, and this understanding leads to positive change.  

Many of us develop the idea early in life that we must change to be worthy. For instance, we might believe that we must change our looks, our body, our personality, or our accomplishments to be worthy.

But when we believe we must change to be worthy, it activates shame and fear, and so we run into all the problems mentioned above.

So, if we wish to change, one of the most important things to do is to remember that we are worthy right now. (This is one of the most important ways we love ourselves.) The more we act from a place of worthiness, the more we develop a playfulness-based attitude, rather than a performance-based attitude, towards life. Playfulness cultivates curiosity, openness, and joy. And such attitudes are a powerful catalyst for change. You can read more about playfulness vs. performance here.

If you are like a lot of people, including myself sometimes, you may struggle to believe that you are worthy as you are. I get this. Unfortunately, many cultures (especially U.S. culture) tends to equate people’s worthiness with their performance, which encourages fear and shame and discourages change. You can read more about cultivating a sense of worth here and here.

Belief Three: Change comes from developing a personally meaningful vision for our life and orienting change towards this vision.

One of the biggest obstacles to change is the habit of trying to change ourselves to meet other people’s expectations, rather than orienting change towards a personally meaningful vision of our life.

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever tried to lose weight, exercise more, get better grades, change your personality, earn more money, or change your appearance because someone else pressured you to do so, and you wanted to please them?

I know I have.

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make other people happy. On the other hand, if the changes we make proceed solely from a desire to please others, we change for extrinsic reasons (reasons based on other people’s standards), rather than for intrinsic reasons (reasons that are personally meaningful to us.

Realize that if a change is not personally meaningful to you, it will be extremely hard for you to maintain that change. Furthermore, if you make changes to please someone else, you likely fear losing their love or approval. Or you are afraid they might shame you for not being good enough.

If this is the case, you change because of shame and fear. And all the problems pertaining to shame and fear-based change raise their ugly head once again.

So rather than changing to please someone else, consider developing a personally meaningful vision of your life. When you do this, you imagine a life that excites and energizes you. You imagine a life that you love, and you decide the changes you need to make to move you closer to that life.

When you do this, you change from love, excitement, and joy. And you change because of internal reasons that are meaningful to you. These are the ideal conditions to bring about long-lasting change.

And you may not know exactly how to develop a personally meaningful vision for your life, as well as make changes accordingly. It’s okay. That is something you practice. You can read more about how to do this here, here, and here.

Belief Four: Change frequently occurs in leaps and bounds, rather than occurring only in incremental steps.

Imagine that you have cultivated a meaningful vision for your life, and you feel energized! And then you think about where you are right now and how far you must go to reach your desired life. Your life vision feels like a million miles away, and it feels like you will never reach it. I have had that feeling before, and it’s overwhelming.

But I have good news for you. Change often happens through sudden leaps and bounds, rather than through incremental steps. If this is the case, change could be one or two swift leaps away (and you can make these leaps), rather than a million miles away.

Gestalt learning theory, which you can read about here and here, suggests that learning (and change) often happens dramatically and seemingly all at once. This kind of learning happens most frequently when we have been thinking about a problem that is meaningful to us; we have thought about various ways of solving it; and we approach it with curiosity and joy, giving ourselves time to rest along the way.

By the way, we have been exploring this kind of attitude in points one through three above (with their associated links). So if you would like to encourage a gestalt leap in your own life, consider returning to the previous points and reading the links included in their discussion.

Here is the truth about change: It is much closer than you think.

Belief Five: Change is reaching out to you all the time.

Believe it or not, just as you are reaching for change, Change is reaching out for you.

Whenever you aim towards making positive change, you aim towards bringing more love, hope, grace, playfulness, and integrity into your life and the life of others. The good news is that those things are always reaching out to you as well.

If this seems too good to be true, here are two reasons to believe the claim, a non-religious and religious reason.

First, love, hope, grace, playfulness, and integrity—I will call these the Super Five—represent the highest, most joyful states of human existence. (You could think of them as Super Existence or Super Being.) The Super Five love existing so much, they love to bring more of themselves into existence. It’s like any plant in full bloom. Plants thrives to be alive and work to perpetuate their existence through spreading pollen or seeds or whatever. The Super Five are like plants in this way; plus, they have intelligence. They thrive to be alive and are very skilled at perpetuating themselves.

Here is a practical example. Have you ever known someone who was especially loving or hopeful or graceful or playful or filled with integrity? Do you notice how much they love to share these gifts with other people and figure out new and creative ways to do so?

People who possess the Super Five (or any one of them) feel so joyful that they want to share this joy with others. And they look for anyone ready to have more of these gifts in their life so they can share them.

So, please know that if your new habits ever reach towards the Super Five, the Super Five are most definitely reaching back to you and want to help you make any change you need to.

That’s the non-religious reason. Here’s the religious reason (which you can skip or not, as you choose.)

Second, we can also imagine the Super Five as foundational to God’s character. And if the Super Five are always reaching out to us when they flow from human character, we can rest assured that they are always reaching out to us when they flow from God’s character.

A Final Reminder: You can change friend. Change is reaching out to you, and it is lighting a path through your most exciting visions of life. You are worthy right now. And loving, positive change is your natural path.

It is only a leap away.


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