People certainly can change, but for someone dealing with a character disturbance, the job isn’t an easy one. Here are four factors which make the difference for a successful effort.
Living and dealing with a person with a significant disturbance of character is one of life’s most trying experiences. People in a relationship with someone with a personality or character disturbance or disorder ask questions like:
- Can they ever really change?
- How do I know the change is real?
- Am I better off cutting my losses or can I hold onto some hope?
I am asked these same sorts of questions on a daily basis, so here are four factors which my experience has taught me make all the difference to the prospects of making real, lasting changes for someone with a disturbance of character:
- The Severity of Character Dysfunction
- I suggested in “The Continuum of Character Disturbance” that character disturbance exists along continua of both quality and severity. When problematic personality traits are so intensely present, so deviant from the norm, so inflexible, and so ingrained and resistant to modification that they significantly impair a person’s ability to function adaptively, the character disturbance can be rightfully considered a “disorder.” Such disturbances are very difficult to modify, even when all the right other influencing factors are present. Fortunately, most character disturbances don’t rise to the level of an extreme or intractable disorder.
- The Nature and Degree of Motivation to Change
- Just why someone wants to change and how badly they want that change make all the difference in the world. It especially matters whether the motivation to change is primarily external or internal. Folks who are feeling some pressure because things in their life are falling apart (e.g., a relationship is on the rocks, they’ve suffered some kind of setback socially or occupationally, gotten into some trouble with the law, etc.) experience heightened pressure to take a serious look at the ways they typically do things and think about things. But that pressure inevitably relents when circumstances improve, leaving little motivation left to make meaningful changes. It’s much better when the motivation to change comes from inside — when people mindfully pondered the kind of person they’ve been, are no longer comfortable with it, and sincerely want to redefine themselves. Rather than changing their ways for some immediate practical benefit, such folks are motivated more by their internal moral compass, wanting to be a better person simply because they’ve lost respect for the person they were before.
- Level of Commitment
- Changing who we are is arduous work. And it takes a lot of time because old habits are hard to break. The older we are, the harder this work is. It takes a firm commitment to do this work — an unwavering determination to remain on a new course despite the inherent difficulties that will inevitably arise.
- Access to the Right Tools
- Even a person who is optimally motivated and committed has to know how to go about the process of change. And if they seek professional help in the enterprise, it helps a great deal if they gain access to the proper methods and tools. All too often, folks complain that they tried various types of counseling and didn’t get the help they needed, whether they were a person in a relationship with a character-impaired individual or a character disturbed person finally at a point in life where they recognized the need for change. Securing formal help is not a prerequisite for change, but whether you’re getting help from a therapist, trying to go it alone with help from a support group, or working a self-help program of some type, it sure helps to have access to tools and methods that have proven their efficacy (e.g., the “12 steps” in many self-help group-based programs). I’ve written several articles on the tools cognitive-behavioral therapists provide their clients to empower them and guide them through the process of change; it’s not very helpful just to sit and talk and look for greater “insights” about oneself. While that’s all fine and good, what’s really crucial to the becoming a better person is employing the right tools to promote and to reinforce meaningful, lasting changes.
Can people change, even those who are character disturbed? Of course, they can. But whether they’re really likely to do so depends on how seriously disordered they are to start, what’s motivating them, how badly they want to be and do better, and whether they know how to best go about the process. With the right motivation, level of commitment, and access to time tested tools and methods, there’s hope for anyone who truly wants to be a better person.
I’ve addressed this topic to some extent in a few prior articles and in my most recent book:
- “Disturbed Characters: Can They Ever Really Change?”
- “Can We Change Who We Are?”
- “Getting the Right Kind of Help With Character Disturbance”
- “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”
- “Tools of Assertiveness: Decide, Plan, Act”
- How Did We End Up Here? [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?)
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by