Do people really change?
I’ve gone back and forth about this over the years. I want to believe people change, because I want to believe in the redemptive power of love and growth. But the more I watch the people I’ve known for years, the more I’m forced to admit that people never change who they are at their core.
I’ve been agonizing over this issue lately because of reconnecting with someone I used to know quite well. We haven’t had extensive contact, but my gut tells me to be wary. He was someone I came to distrust decades ago. When circumstances brought us together recently, I thought maybe he had grown — and that maybe I had grown — enough that things would be different.
He’s changed on the outside. He’s more successful. He’s more polished. He says the sort of things that made me have some hope. But then the mask slipped this week — and I saw the ugliness that pushed me away from him long ago.
On the inside, he hasn’t changed. He’s learned to hide it a bit better. He’s learned to pretend to be someone he’s not. But when push came to shove, I saw the same person. It chilled me.
From my point of view, he’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing. To me, there’s something dangerous about him. There’s something that warns me to stay away.
But I have to remember that the wolf has a different narrative. The wolf is just living his natural life, looking for food and trying to survive — just as the rest of us are. The wolf and I see the world in very different ways — and that’s not ever going to change. Who’s to say that his inner core is wrong and mine is right?
I know we can make changes to ourselves if we work hard enough. I’ve grown tremendously over the years, but especially the last decade or so. Some people who knew me in the past would find me to be a very different person than the guy they knew, mostly for better, I would think.
But they would be wrong to think so.
I have learned a lot about my behavior. I’ve learned more and more about my motivations and programming and hurts and history. I know how to present myself better. I know how to help people understand my shortcomings and how to protect them from the worst parts of myself.
But I’m still the same person I was as a child.
In my essence — for good or bad — I’m the same as I was as a curious and scared little boy, as an arrogant and confident teen-ager, as a disappointed young adult, and as someone who learned our plans don’t always work as we think they will.
Aspects of me changed. My behavior changed. The ways in which I relate to people changed. My understanding of myself and the world and other people changed. But the core part at my center — the person I understand myself to be when I say “I” — he hasn’t changed.
We can’t force people to act the way we believe they ought to act. We can’t get them to understand why they hurt us. We can’t get them to stop treating us in ways that leave us wounded.
The best we can do is separate ourselves from people whose essence makes them toxic to us. We can’t kill them. We can’t change them. All we can do is break away before they do lasting damage to our psyche.
I have to separate myself again from this person I’ve known for so long. I know better than to think he would understand my reasons why. There are times when the only thing we can do is accept that two people are completely incompatible at their core.
Putting yourself into the same space as those toxic people is asking for trouble. Moving completely away is the only safe and sane thing to do with some people.