Most people agree: Everyone makes mistakes.
You might use this phrase to console a loved one who’s done something they regret or boost self-compassion when you mess up yourself.
Perhaps you add the reassurance, “You’ll do better next time,” or vow to use your experience to improve in the future.
These common sayings imply people can change — and they absolutely can.
Anyone can make an effort to alter specific habits or behaviors. Even some aspects of attitude and personality can change over time… with some dedicated effort.
Yet while people can change, not everyone does. How can you tell if someone will ever really address certain behaviors? What factors make improvement more likely?
Keep reading to find out.
Change is often complicated, and it doesn’t always happen the way you envision. The following reminders can help you maintain a realistic perspective about the process.
You can’t force change
Simply telling someone “You need to change” usually won’t work.
Before someone can make lasting change to a specific behavior or trait, they need to want to make those changes.
You can certainly offer encouragement and support or set an example of positive change, but you can’t control anyone else’s actions.
Ultimatums sometimes inspire behavioral change because they illustrate what’s at stake:
- “Either you stop drinking or I leave this relationship.”
An ultimatum may not work, however, when the other person views it as an attempt to exert control. What’s more, they probably won’t commit to a lasting effort unless they truly care about the consequences.
Change takes time and effort
If you’ve ever resolved to change something about yourself, you likely understand this decision is only the beginning.
After setting a goal, such as “Stop showing up late,” you probably explored reasons behind your frequent lateness:
- trouble getting up in the morning
- frequently misplacing keys
- a tendency to lose track of time
Once you had a clearer idea of what you could do differently, you probably tried to put your plan into action. Maybe you tried setting your morning alarm 15 minutes earlier or attached a key hook to the back of your front door.
But even the best intentions don’t yield immediate improvement. You might have needed to experiment with different strategies to find one that really worked.
When hoping for change from someone else, don’t expect overnight success. They’re going through the same process. Encouraging them and praising their efforts can help build up their determination to keep trying.
Change doesn’t always follow a linear path
Even someone with a sincere determination to change won’t always succeed the first time, or the second. It’s easy to slip back into old habits at first, sometimes without realizing it.
It often helps to reconsider your strategy and explore other methods of managing triggers before trying again.
That said, true commitment to change generally shows up in noticeable effort and progress.
Say your partner teases you whenever you disagree.
After some discussion, they admit they do this to lighten the mood because they dislike conflict. When they realize it hurts you, they agree to stop. They succeed for a few months but eventually fall back into the habit.
When you call it out, they decide to go to therapy to address the underlying issues related to their fears around conflict.
Various factors combine to make up personality, values and beliefs, and behavior.
Some of the biggest factors include:
- genetic predisposition to certain traits
- childhood environment
- life experience
In the past, experts largely believed personality traits tended to remain relatively fixed, once developed. More recent findings suggest personality can change throughout life, even into older adulthood.
In fact, personality seems to change most
One possible explanation for this involves the self-exploration process common in early adulthood, which may promote self-directed change.
While your traits aren’t set in stone, some characteristics are more easily adaptable than others.
With encouragement and effort, most people find it possible to change aspects of self, such as:
- habits and behaviors
- attitude and outlook on life
- physical or verbal responses
What about people who cheat or lie?
Many people wonder whether people who do hurtful things — lie, cheat, or manipulate, to name a few — can really change those behaviors.
In theory, yes, anyone can stop doing something if they choose to do so. The problem typically lies in what prompts the behavior and their willingness to address that emotional trigger.
It’s often difficult to address ingrained strategies for coping and survival, but people can, and often do, learn new behaviors with support.
Considering broader behavior patterns can help. Someone who regrets their actions and expresses interest in growth may succeed at making changes.
But someone who insists they’ll really change “this time” yet shows no remorse and makes no effort to do anything different? They may not be ready to address their behavior.
While people are generally capable of change, there are some aspects that are less likely to change.
Core personality traits
While personality does continue developing into adulthood, core traits tend to remain relatively stable throughout life.
These traits, known as the Big Five, include:
- openness to experience
These key elements of personality tend to evolve in smaller ways instead of changing completely.
Someone who’s fairly introverted in early adulthood, for example, probably won’t swing toward extroversion. Instead, they might work to become more social by seeking out and cultivating important relationships.
People who do want to make changes in personality may find it most helpful to address beliefs and coping mechanisms associated with specific personality traits, not the traits themselves.
Say you’re fairly untidy and have a tendency to procrastinate on projects and chores.
When you notice these traits occasionally cause problems in your relationships, you make a greater effort to complete things on time and keep your living space more organized.
You didn’t directly change your level of conscientiousness.
Instead, you changed your response, perhaps by reminding yourself to stay on task when you feel distracted or telling yourself your partner doesn’t want to see dirty laundry overflowing from the hamper.
Emotions and emotional responses may not change easily, either.
Even unpleasant or painful feelings can have a lot of significance, and it’s tough to “turn off” emotions. (Even when you can, you shouldn’t — this can affect well-being.)
By acknowledging and accepting them instead, you can teach yourself to react in more helpful ways.
Mental health conditions
But you can improve your symptoms by seeking treatment and learning new ways to cope.
Once you realize the need for change, you’ll move through a few stages:
- contemplation: thinking about the change
- preparation: getting ready for the change
- action: implementing the change
- maintenance: sticking with the change over time
It’s common (and very normal) to experience setbacks along the way. The factors below can help improve your chances of a successful outcome.
Outlining some of the reasons behind your desire for change can help you feel more committed. When you get stuck or discouraged, these reasons can renew your desire to keep trying.
Once you decide on a change you want to make, list your reasons. Reviewing this list whenever you struggle can make a big difference in your determination to stick with it.
If a loved one shares difficulties making progress with a change, help boost their motivation by reminding them of what they’re working toward and what they stand to gain.
Your brain can’t always separate imagination from reality, so mentally “seeing” your success may actually help you achieve it.
Visualizing yourself succeeding at your goals can help your brain believe you actually can succeed. The more you believe in yourself, the greater your chances of improvement.
Positive feedback and support
When you hesitate to acknowledge the possibility of change, you give others less motivation to make an attempt. They might think, “Why bother if no one has faith in me?”
You can help increase a loved one’s chances of success by offering encouragement instead of doubt.
- asking about their progress
- praising their attempts
- joining them in making positive change
Keep in mind that the same applies to you. If you don’t believe you can change, you might not succeed.
Generate positive support by telling loved ones about your goals. They can offer encouragement, cheer you on, and strengthen your faith in yourself.
Effort (not ability)
Getting stuck on your perception of your abilities can sometimes stop you before you even get started.
If you’re naturally shy, you might think, “There’s no way I can get to know new people on my own.” Convinced you lack the ability to change, you might continue avoiding social situations, even though you want to make new friends.
A better approach involves exploring ways to achieve growth.
- “Talking first is too much, so I’ll start by smiling and making eye contact.”
- “I’ll introduce myself to one new person each week.”
- “Today, I’ll say hello to two coworkers.”
After you successfully complete these smaller steps, the end goal might seem more achievable.
You can also encourage a loved one with this strategy. As they practice a new behavior or work to break a habit, offer encouragement and recognition of their effort instead of focusing on end results.
Some change requires professional support. Not everyone has an easy time addressing certain behaviors on their own, and some changes require professional support.
In fact, the behaviors and characteristics that cause the most harm — dishonesty, infidelity, low empathy — are often the most difficult to address.
But therapy can help with any type of change, whether that involves:
- breaking unwanted habits
- rebuilding trust
- overcoming addiction
- increasing empathy
- addressing mental health concerns.
A therapist can help you (or a loved one):
- uncover factors contributing to the unwanted behavior or personality trait
- explore strategies to promote new behaviors
- develop a plan to manage triggers and maintain effort over time
Even behaviors associated with personality disorders, which were once considered extremely difficult (if not impossible) to treat, can improve with professional support.
In therapy, you’ll find compassion and guidance, not judgment, so don’t hesitate to reach out.
Change is a possibility, not a given.
It’s important to recognize that people can change, but it’s just as important to know when to move on.
In most cases, change doesn’t happen until someone wants it for themselves. If they don’t seem willing to address problematic behaviors, waiting and hoping may simply leave you in a position where you accept pain again and again.
If you’d like more guidance on your specific circumstances, a therapist can always offer support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.