“Can people really change?” is a common question—and that “really” seems to imply we can’t. Sayings like “a zebra never changes its stripes” or “a leopard never changes its spots” reinforce this idea. But people often come at this question from a narrow angle: can this person change in the way I want them to?
Part of being human is constantly growing. But in order for this growth to really stick, it has to be your own decision. Making a change in order to please someone else means you won’t be intrinsically motivated to maintain it.
Recovery Brings Immense Change
If you’re in recovery—or know someone who is—you’ve seen that profound changes are possible. In a couple months I’ll be six years sober; I can barely recognize the person I was six years ago. I see the world incredibly differently; I think very differently; I experience my emotions profoundly differently.
People can maintain an essence of personality while changing immeasurably. I was originally going to write that I’m a “different person” than I was before I got sober, but that’s not true; it just feels that way sometimes. I’ve noticed a similar trajectory in other sober people I know, too.
What I want and value has stayed mostly the same, I have a similar sense of humor, and I am at the core still me. But I don’t even know if my current and former self would get along if we could meet—that’s how much I’ve changed.
Addiction itself is proof that we can become different. During active addiction, we typically don’t act like ourselves. Addiction is the dark side of the brain’s capacity to learn. Along with other alterations, it adjusts levels of dopamine receptors to account for the dopamine received from drugs and alcohol. It learns to change.
Neuroplasticity: Definitive Proof We Can Grow
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, and it can last a lifetime. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley, California, “The adult brain in fact remains extraordinarily malleable. It has the ability to produce new neurons, to reinforce or diminish the activity of existing neurons, and even to attribute a new function to an area of the brain that usually carries out a completely different function.”
This neuroplasticity is what allows our brains to heal from addiction. It enables us to learn new things, even in old age. If nurtured—through meditation, active learning, and exercise—it can prevent us from getting stuck in our ways.
This is why you have to want to change in order for it to stick. You have a foundational personality—based on a complex combination of genetics and environment—that will likely stay the same if you don’t make efforts to grow.
Believing in People’s Ability to Change
Recognizing that people can change allows for empathy and compassion. Imagine if those in your life regarded you as “once an addict, always an addict.” It would be difficult for you to believe in your ability to get sober, hard for you to receive support from people who think you’re incapable of change—and in turn, challenging to stay sober.
Knowing people can change means mistakes don’t define us, and we can expect more from those around us. Believing in our ability to change provides hope—and the motivation to change.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you make one of the most profound and worthwhile changes of your life: getting sober. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.