People Don't Change
If there is a person in your life whose behavior bothers you—
It’s probably not going to get better.
People don’t change. Someone who is an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic. Someone who is a thief will always be a thief. Someone who is a sex addict will always be a sex addict. Someone who is a gambler will always be a gambler. Someone who is an adulterer will always be an adulterer. Unwanted behavior keeps going, and going, and going.
How often have you seen this play out: parents are dismayed to learn that their 15-year-old is smoking pot. They ignore it for a while, thinking it is harmless, but then it turns into Adderall, pills and cocaine. Soon the teenager has a full-blown drug problem, and he is flunking out of school. The parents ride to the rescue, going to the school to talk to his teachers to convince them not to fail him. The kid swears he will never do drugs again, but he is caught again within a few weeks. They take the kid to a therapist first, but 15-year-olds don’t do so well in therapy, so that eventually fails. They take the kid to outpatient drug treatment, to no avail. Finally, the kid goes to rehab for a month. Swears he will stay clean. Mom and Dad think that things are finally back to normal. Caught with drugs again two weeks later. This continues a decade-long cycle of jails and institutions, with the parents bailing him out every step of the way. After years of this, the parents eventually tire of rescuing him all the time, and let him fail. The kid (now 25 years old) becomes homeless, where he is robbed, raped, and assaulted. Unspeakably awful things happen to him.
And then, magically, he gets sober. And it sticks.
People don’t change…until they do.
People don’t change, until they do. And when they do, it is a miracle. But inevitably what has to happen is that person has to hit bottom, where things absolutely cannot get any worse. Bottoms vary for different people—people with a high bottom get to keep their jobs and spouses. People with a low bottom have to lose everything before they learn.
It may seem as though I am focusing on addiction. I’m talking about all behavior that we find unpleasant. It could be chewing your fingernails. It could be obsessively washing your hands. It could be yelling at your kids. It could be watching porn. Behaviors have a tendency to continue until there is a significant emotional event. Until you lose, or are about to lose, someone or something you care about. Maybe you chew your fingernails, and you go on a date with someone you like a lot, and you catch them staring at your finger jank, and then they never talk to you again. You lost something. That is a significant emotional event. There is a saying: I don’t change when I see the light, I change when I feel the heat.
Funny thing about our criminal justice system. Yes, you have criminals with long rap sheets who spend their entire lives rotating in and out of jail. But a lot of people, once having had contact with the legal system, are suddenly scared straight. One DUI and getting booked and photographed and fingerprinted is all it takes. They will never drink and drive again. They will never drink again. That was a bridge too far. So I’ve found that getting arrested is often the best thing for people. It is the significant emotional event that they need to get clean. For others, the jails and institutions have no effect. They’re on an elevator going down, and they’re going to get off in the basement. Which means death. I’ve known some people who were just never able to figure it out. They had no bottom. It got worse, and worse, and worse—and they ended up dying of the disease.
But if you have a family member whose behavior bothers you, just know that it’s not going to change, and not only is it not going to change, there is nothing that you can do to make it change. Not only that, anything you do to try and change this behavior will be completely counterproductive and actually make the situation worse. If you’ve heard the term codependence before, that’s what I am talking about. While you bail someone out of jail, literally or figuratively, what you are doing is depriving them of their bottom. Because of your efforts, it will take longer for that person to hit bottom and figure it out. And this is a risk, because some people never figure it out, and they die. But if you continue to intervene, they will never get better—and neither will you. You have to let go.
Allowing someone to fail is not easy—especially when the consequences can be so great. But it is necessary. By the way, this concept is not just limited to family affairs—it’s in business and economics, too. Companies that are failing will continue to fail. Turnarounds are rare. Everyone loves to bet on a turnaround. But the entire system is at risk if companies are not allowed to fail. No bailouts, right? That’s true for individuals as it is for corporations. If you bail out a spouse, child, or family member, you may be temporarily easing their pain, but you are creating the conditions for the behavior to continue far out into the future. People must be allowed to fail—otherwise, nobody learns.
We know why people get sick—we have no idea why they get better. There is no explanation for when someone suddenly figures it out and turns it all around. I can tell you what the precondition is: the person has to want to get better. Some people want to want to get better—no, you have to want to get better. Remember, sick people want to stay sick. It’s easy. It’s what they know. All the chaos, all the unmanageability, it becomes familiar after a while. As the loved one of a person suffering from addiction, you have to understand that there are significant psychological barriers to getting better. You hope that the person doesn’t have to lose everything to get it, but oftentimes, they do.
In the mid-2000s, I was suffering from pretty severe OCD, which mostly took the form of repeatedly locking my front door. It may sound benign, but it was actually crippling—45 minutes each morning of ritualized behavior, just trying to get out the door and go to work. It followed me to South Carolina, where I had to double check that I closed the garage door each morning. After a few weeks of driving back to the house multiple times to check the garage door, I knew I had hit bottom. I had to develop some pretty sophisticated psychological techniques to get past this fear of leaving the garage door open. I used to think about something else—like work—to distract my mind as I was driving away from the house. Twenty minutes later, I would remember the garage door, but by then, I was almost at work and I was committed. I would get home in the evening to find the garage door closed, which reinforced my belief that everything was okay. In other words, it was a lot of work. And it still flares up from time to time. But I have developed tools to deal with it. That’s not the only behavior I’ve had to change in my life, but it is the only one that I am willing to write about.
If there is some aspect of you that you don’t like, something that you wish you could change, why don’t you change it? Because it’s hard. Because it’s a lot of work, that’s why. It’s really, really hard. But you know what? You can ask for help. Change is difficult, almost impossible—but it can be done. So no, people generally don’t change—but when they do, it is glorious.