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Do people change?

“People never really change,” she pronounced as she tapped her nails with a shiny new French mani on our table.

My mouth was stuffed with a delicious deli sandwich. I froze for a hot minute and pointed out what an odd thing to say to a mental health therapist – obviously she HAD to know I would not agree with that statement. I chuckled for a split second, she didn’t.

My entire career is based upon the premise that people can and do change.

I was meeting a “haven’t seen you in 20 years” friend. We grabbed lunch or at least I did, she drank coffee. I had come in for a reunion and she decided not to go as she lives close to our hometown but not connected enough to our former classmates to make it worth her while.

She calls me by the nickname Kimber, the name which dates when she knew me well. It holds a special place in my heart due to the college friend who gave it to me, whom of course, she knew. Eventually, I dropped it after my husband claimed it sounded like a porn star… but alas that is a different story.

She married someone who makes their living off of adrenaline and I married a computer engineer – anyone who knew us back in the day would have pegged us for the reverse.

I have been in the social work/mental health field since my first professional job. She has been in sales for just as long. Both of us need to read people for our jobs and receive our training early – we divined the unspoken rules of engagement from the tea leaves of our parents’ slightest mannerisms.

We used to scour flea markets held in a bunch of abandoned barns, trampling grass as high as our hips to discover old costume jewelry looking for redemption. Repurposing, swapping good books, and writing quotes on worn-out jeans we were thirsty for change. Much of our friendship had a never-ending background of change – schools, loves, friendships, careers, first apartments…we chronicled much of it in handwritten letters, mailed to each other’s colleges.

She pressed on saying, “Well yeah, I know but you got to admit people stay the same in their essence, they don’t REALLY change, right? We all know that.” I could feel the edge in her voice, the one of the people pleaser/conflict avoider I had known since we were 14. Her coffee cup shook slightly as she took a sip.

Never one to walk away from a solicitation/possible set up to speak my mind I responded ”No, that’s not what I think or know. I’ve seen people change radically, beautifully in ways I couldn’t imagine when I met them.” Truly uncomfortable now she moved her hair behind her ear – there’s just one too many holes in her ear lobe for business casual, hinting of a different life prethe corporate issued BMW.

Funny how quickly you can slip into old patterns – I feel myself slipping into the girl who drove to the end of her block with my headlights off as my friend Spiderman-ed out of her bedroom window and I floored the gas pedal before her parents thought to check if she was asleep by her 830 curfew (Yeah you read that right, 830 pm curfew on a weekend, I shit you not. We were 17).

Her knee jerk was to placate and soothe, mine was to take risks and confront. It made for some interesting adventures.

Our friendship abruptly ended in our early 30s in a cutoff that had more to do with our inability to communicate and tolerate conflict than it did with each other’s value.

Social media‘s siren song eventually pulled us back into each other’s worlds.

She raked her hand through her signature thick shiny locks, she still wears that silver band on her thumb. “But” she forged on, “that is just window dressing, people cannot change who they are at their core.” My head tilted as I looked at her – she needed me to OK this viewpoint. In a sacred way she appeared to stake her life on that belief.

And I had staked my life on the opposite belief – that change makes life worth living.

“Oh..that’s why she won’t go to our reunion.” I thought.

Old tensions materialized between us – the reason being we knew each other when we weren’t completely formed. Our lives were so different from our parents, we had no template for adulting or at least no template we thought applied to our own lives. We watched each other mess up spectacularly in front of and towards each other. Each of us had friends who urged us to
consider leaving the friendship – it was rich and complicated.

Why, I wondered, would she be sitting across from me if she thought people didn’t change?

I am certain I wouldn’t be sitting across from her if I hadn’t seen and experienced radical change.

Surely someone who has known me this long, even if we now only like each other’s social media a few times a year, would know I believe and actively seek out change, the same way I know of her first tattoo, penchant for bright red Chanel lipstick in matte, and preference for Marlboro reds, (it was the 90s), from the days when she used to smoke.

To top it off I am a trauma specialist – I work all day long with folks who were/are dramatically changed and come to my office to make sense of it all.

Who, I wondered, had she cut off? It was tempting to guess as we had been in each other’s lives for so long, and a professional gambler would bet on my ability to call out guilty parties….

I held my ground and told her we would have to agree to disagree to relieve her of the discomfort of our lack of alignment.

This is a skill you learn fast as a therapist. Being a therapist causes you to become a lightning rod for everyone’s stuff – people trauma dump on you at parties, others ask you to defend your entire profession or decide they can inuit your politics. Changing the topic to relieve another’s internal pressure is essential.

Really though I could have found common ground, perhaps even expanded her perspective but she wasn’t sitting with me for therapy – she wanted the tea on our classmates.

Besides, I had rattled her cage enough already.

If this was a conversation with a client I would keep going, leaning into Hanna’s 7 precursors to change. I learned this early in my career and it’s been a staple in the work I do. You can find his research here https://www.dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dsamh/files/precursors1192.pdf

Based on his research Dr. Hanna says there are 7 precursors to change that we need in abundance for change to happen. Many of these may seem like common sense. It is tempting to question why anyone needed research to know these precursors. Yet it is amazing how many times we overlook these factors, and then ponder the mysteries of change. Below are the precursors to change:

  • You have to realize you have a problem or struggle that needs to change
  • You have to have the necessary skill set to change
  • You have to have social support to change
  • You have to have a sense of urgency to change -(ie staying the same sucks more that
    dealing with something different)
  • You have to hope for change – if you have no hope to change then change is unimaginable
  • You have to be willing to put in effort to change
  • Sustain the effort to change – you need to be able to sustain the change

If you or someone you know doesn’t have all 7 of these precursors to change in excess then change is likely not to happen. I work to have all 7 bursting at the seams, knowing change will happen organically once we have these factors in spades.

If either one of us knew Hanna’s 7 precursors to change, I ponder which bad boys with issues would we have avoided.

My dear friend is correct that some may not have the willingness, insight, sense of urgency, etc to change but that is very different than the idea that people don’t or can’t change.

My heart felt soft as we said our goodbyes. I still have to bend down slightly to hug her. I pondered what it was like for her to believe that SHE couldn’t change – my breath catches in my throat when I think of it now.

As I turned on my car I was filled with positive vibes which I then sent to her, asking the universe to reveal growth around & in her, as it is such a pretty sight to see.

Schedule a free15 minute virtual consultation to begin therapy with me by going to my website https://kimberlyperlin.com/ and clicking the green dragonfly.

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