How To Know If Someone Can Change

Man with a probing stare with his hand on his chin

Are you hoping for your partner to change? A friend, sibling, boss, or parent? Do they swear up and down that they are going to change, but you don’t really see the evidence? You see their potential and wanna give them the benefit of the doubt. You have reason to believe they can or will change. But after a while, you start to wonder if you’re wasting your time, self-abandoning, being taken advantage of or taken for granted. You get frustrated, resentful, confused, or sad. Maybe you even begin to blame and shame yourself for putting up with this crap.

Or maybe this person is you. Do you occasionally think, What the hell is wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this when I know I shouldn’t? I have full awareness of what’s happening, but I just can’t stop stepping in this same pile of doo-doo.

What makes someone able to change? What makes them willing to change?

Answering these questions is a tall order, but I’m gonna take a stab at it. Because probably 100% of the self-help industry assumes people are both able and willing to change before they even read the book, hire the coach, take the class, or whatever. And I think that’s a glaring problem.

Seems to me like selling the hottest new “How To Change” strategy to folks who don’t even know they aren’t equipped for change is perhaps a well-intentioned but poorly designed system that exploits people’s suffering and sets them up for failure. When “It worked for me, so it should work for you” doesn’t pan out for the brave souls who had a completely different starting point, there’s nothing but crippling shame and self-loathing to explain the self-inflicted cookie-cutter lacerations they now need to self-medicate even more than ever.

The Uncertainty of Change

I’ve met people who went to twenty rehabs before they finally got and stayed sober. And probably not because that twentieth rehab was doing anything special. Something else happened that gave them the ability and willingness to change. I’ve also watched people sign themselves out of rehab against medical advice and go overdose in a cheap motel.

Plenty of people want to change but just can’t seem to pull it off. Some read a million self-help books and do tons of therapy to no avail. Others have a single experience that transforms their whole ass life. It all seems random enough to conclude that change is an entirely mysterious, cosmic lottery system.

And perhaps this is exactly the shred of hope that people cling to for decades while the waves of disappointment keep battering the jagged shoreline of desperation.

Maybe today will be the day my ship comes in.

But I don’t think it’s quite as random or mysterious as it may seem.

Change 101

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld writes, “Human beings are either in defensive mode or in growth mode, but they cannot be in both at the same time.” And, as far as I know, “defensive mode” is synonymous with survival mode.

The human autonomic nervous system is literally wired to support such a binary. The sympathetic branch controls the fight or flight response (survival), and the parasympathetic branch controls functions of rest and digest (growth). Only one can operate at a time. Thus, being “scared shitless” is not a metaphor; it’s neurobiology.

So, if we want to change, the first requirement is that we get out of survival mode, at least for regular and predictable stretches of time. To be sure, the survival functions of our stress response are there for a reason and should definitely kick on from time to time. However, the human organism is not equipped to live in sympathetic activation. Doctors and scientists have known this for decades (despite their apparent inability to affect public policy changes that would proactively support the functional well-being of a clearly decomposing populace).


How many people today work 60+ hours a week? Live check to check? Hand to mouth? No savings, revolving debt, operating at a perpetual sleep deficit? Constant stress, anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness? They jump outta bed, caffeinate, run out the door, commute, work, check a thousand emails, shuttle their kids around, shop, do chores, put out fires, pay bills, and barely manage to treat their exhausted ass to a prepackaged meal with a side order of escapism. Then do it again tomorrow.

Even people with plenty of money and two cars in the garage are similarly living with fever-pitch urgency too loud to hear the “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” that hums beneath the chaos and commotion of an existence too busy for itself. Tons of people have their material needs taken care of but are nonetheless living with chronically unmet emotional needs, which are just as important, if not more so.

They don’t feel safe, seen, soothed, or secure — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially, socially — in their jobs, homes, neighborhoods, relationships, families, in their country even. So many people are clearly trapped in defensive or survival mode.

In theory, these people can change… but not like that they can’t.

Imagine trying to grow a tomato plant in a real shady, dry ass, wind-whipped patch of gravel. For obvious reasons, it doesn’t grow very well. You know it could grow. You’ve seen tomatoes grow before. After reading all the books on tomatoes and talking to the best-known plant therapists, you’re at the end of your rope.

Will this stupid plant ever change? Is it capable of changing?? Does it even WANT to change???

You realize how ridiculous these questions are, yes? The plant isn’t the problem here. It’s the environment.

Inner and Outer Influences

Bruce Lipton says, “Your life is a printout of your subconscious mind.”

Your internal landscape definitely creates the life that surrounds you in many ways (one of the unfortunate reasons traumatized people tend to reenact their trauma). But also, our environment strongly influences our internal state as well — a psychological feedback loop that can work for or against us.

We can alter both our inner and outer environments, but which one is easier to change? For example, if you’re in a bad mood, is it easier to just BE HAPPY!? Or is it more manageable to listen to some upbeat music, go for a walk, or attend a social gathering with friends? Maybe your experience is different, but changing my external environment is always way easier than trying to just strong-arm my emotions.

This is why I always say willpower sucks. No amount of desire, strength, self-discipline, ability, or willingness is gonna convince a dysregulated nervous system to trade in its survival resources for health, growth, and restoration. Not a chance in hell.

We have to change the ecosystem of our lives before real healing and growth are possible.

Getting Out of Survival Mode — Boundaries

A time-honored recovery slogan tells us that changing “people, places, and things” is an integral part of the healing journey. Anyone or anything in your life (at least during the early stages of recovery) that is triggering, threatening, dangerous, or toxic has to be remedied, removed, or minimized to protect the safety of your healing process. (see Three Types of Boundaries for guidance on this).

Picture trying to get a good night’s sleep with someone setting off fireworks in your bedroom every half hour. This is what it’s like trying to rewire your nervous system in the same environment that has that thing spracked in the first place.

In other words, the first step in effective burn treatment is getting out of the fucking fire.

This might look like seeing a trauma-informed coach or therapist, joining a yoga studio, filling your calendar with recovery meetings, meditation groups, church, or whatever forms of support and accountability feel good for you; making sure you are safe from abuse at work and at home; having consistent structure and routines for bedtime, sleep, wake-up, hygiene, eating, self-care, etc.

Ultimately, you have to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure to escape survival mode.

This is the bare ass minimum.

If you can’t experience the four S’s with regularity (and many people can’t, so no shade intended), know that you will for sure be unable to create lasting change until you get the support you need.

Getting Out of Survival Mode — Needs

If you’re tired, cold, hungry, and homeless, you’re probably not about to make a major breakthrough in personal development. Because living with unmet needs keeps us in survival mode.

But also, humans have a pretty complex set of social and emotional needs (see Do You Even Know What Your Needs Are?). It’s easy to assume that having food, clothes, shelter, money, and modern creature comforts means your needs are being satisfied. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When our needs are met we feel good; when they aren’t, we feel bad. So if you spend the majority of your time in negative feelings states (or completely dissociated), then it’s quite possible you’re living with chronically unmet needs.

I.e., in survival mode.

This absolutely has to be addressed before healing, growth, and transformation are up for discussion.

Getting Out of Survival Mode — Connection

Maybe it’s obvious that boundaries and needs, plus the imperative to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure implies the necessity for healthy connection with other human beings. But I’m gonna go ahead and state it explicitly because I understand the paralyzing shame and isolation that the struggle to survive imposes.

Dr. Stephen Porges (who has studied the neurophysiology of safety for fifty years) says, “Safety isn’t just the absence of threat, but the presence of connection.” If you leave a baby in its crib all day, it’ll be safe, no doubt; but it won’t feel safe.

We need connection, y’all. Healthy, safe, loving, mature, nurturing connection. In real life. (see The Importance of Community on the Healing Journey).

Sure, the internet has “connected” humanity as never before. But when you stare at a screen or type out a message to someone, your body knows it’s sitting in a room by itself, alone as shit. Nervous system parched for some real human connection.

I’m willing to bet this is what makes social media so wildly successful — the fact that you can never get enough of something that almost works (as Dr. Vincent Felitti famously observed).

If you don’t have any deep, authentic, vulnerable connections with good people, there is scant chance you’re not treading the treacherous waters of survival mode as we speak.

And thus, unlikely to change.

Getting Out of Survival Mode — Trauma

People with profound trauma histories may find it virtually impossible to manage boundaries, needs, and connections as stated above. If their personal boundaries were violated throughout their formative years, they may have never had a chance to grow a single boundary. And living without boundaries all but guarantees continued abuse and exploitation.

Some folks were punished or shamed for expressing their needs. Maybe they discovered the only way to get love and approval was by having none at all. And undoubtedly, many people learned through brutal experience that connection is extremely dangerous — that people are malicious and can’t be trusted.

The idea of feeling safe, seen, soothed, and secure may be utterly foreign to these survivors.

Anyone in this camp may need intensive care and professional intervention to provide the necessary resources to escape the vicious cycle of unresolved trauma.

You are not broken, crazy, unlovable, incompetent, or incapable of change. However, somebody got you into some shit, and you’re gonna need someone else to get you out of it before you can realize your full potential.

Picking yourself up by the bootstraps is NOT how real change happens. In fact, it’s literally impossible if you’re barely surviving.

You need help.

Finally Answering The Damn Questions

Twelve hours of writing ago, I set out to answer the million-dollar questions:

What makes someone able to change? What makes them willing to change?

I hope I’ve made clear that someone’s ability to change depends largely on their past trauma and their current environment. They absolutely cannot be living in survival mode. People need strong boundaries to ensure safety (core need of the lizard brain); competence at meeting their needs to ensure satisfaction (core need of the mammalian brain); and healthy human connection to ensure attachment (core need of the human brain).

These are the irreducible requirements for a properly functioning human being who is capable of change.

If you don’t have these, you can change your excuses, change your relationship status, and change your underwear, but that mirror is gonna show you the same thing it showed you yesterday.

Now, I’m trying to imagine a healthy, fully-integrated, mature, functional adult who is simply unwilling to change. Assuming this request to change isn’t super unreasonable or unhealthy, I’m not convinced such a person exists. My best guess is those who feign unwillingness (“I could change if I wanted to”) would rather convince themselves that they have a choice in the matter rather than admit defeat, powerlessness, failure, or ineptitude.

In other words, I don’t wanna change is significantly less terrifying and shameful than I can’t.

Tommy Rosen once said, “Rock bottom is nothing more than when you’re willing to tell the truth.” When that moment comes, you better reach out for some real help before you self-medicate, dissociate, and slam that window of opportunity shut. Because the unpalatable truth is this:

Those who most need to change are invariably the least capable of doing it themselves.


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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

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