…they actually haven’t changed at all. It’s different if you’re younger and you’re still growing up, but we all reach a point somewhere in our early adulthood where we will always be who we are at our core. This isn’t about trivial preferences like cheese or pepperoni pizza. It’s character. And maybe, maybe, we could argue that people could change after traumatic life experiences, but we’ll leave the exceptions out for simplicity. My aim here isn’t to make a case one way or another; it’s to help people understand what’s really happening when they see a side of someone they’ve never seen before.
I’m breaking this down into two parts: the current lens through which most of us view people and then how we can paradigm shift to make sense of something that seems to make no sense at all.
As human beings, we naturally seek to understand things around us, including, other human beings. We’re also really pressed on time. This is the same psychology behind why we create stereotypes about people; it’s a desire to rapidly identify, assimilate and categorize. So, when we meet new people, we can’t wait to know everything about them in order to quickly reach the point where we breathe a sigh of relief and say “I know her” or “I trust him.” It is our natural inclination to do this, and frankly, any other process would seem cumbersome.
But there is a fault in this mechanism. We become fixated on the idea of a person and it’s almost as if our brain shuts down the ability to receive new information about people as characteristics of who they are. Here’s what I mean. You meet someone you like, you’re getting to know them, you like what you hear. And for what you don’t know about them, you attempt to fill in the blanks yourself. You may do that consciously, you may do that subconsciously, but it’s happening because of your need to understand. Once you’ve created this seemingly “perfect” identity for them (and you may have even accepted their flaws since, you know, no one is perfect), you crystallize that idea. Then, when you learn something new about them, you don’t say “Oh, I’ve only known him for three months, I’m still getting to know him and this is just another part of who he is,” you instead think “That’s strange, I know him, and that doesn’t sound like him.” New information isn’t attributed to the person. Instead, it’s treated as a deviation from their normal behavior pattern.
Do you see how this can be damning to us? We focus on trying to understand why those seemingly inconsistent things happen, making excuses and brushing them aside. It’s detrimental not just for obvious reasons, but also because when this behavior repeats itself (as it often does), we’ve mentally categorized the older incidences as unusual and they’re discarded from the profile we created about this person. Every new incident is isolated when it should be seen as part of a collective whole, yet any past incidents have been explained away or forgotten. We don’t retrieve that vital information when we need it most. It’s the blessing and the curse of the human mind.
It’s important to note that singular instances don’t necessarily define people. I didn’t use any absolute statements on purpose, because every circumstance is different. Sometimes one incident can be really revealing and sometimes you can know someone for a lifetime and not really know them at all. Now that I’ve left you completely unsettled with that truth, back to what I was saying before.
So, what’s a person to do? This is where we paradigm shift. Knowing what you now know, you can consciously perceive people differently. It doesn’t mean you need to be a hermit and avoid the world because no one is predictable and that makes life too scary. The better (read: healthier) route would be to accept the fluidity of life. Pay attention and accept things when they happen so you can recall them when you need to. Don’t assume you have people figured out and shut down your own remarkable ability to learn more. Personally, before I come to any conclusions, I like to look for patterns. I’ve found that I’m at full attention when things happen a second time, and three times is enough to say something is part of a person’s character. You don’t have to make decisions at the receipt of every new piece of information, but when you have enough evidence to make a case, it’s time to make a decision.
Receive new information about people without a predetermined bias. More time means more exposure, but people reveal their real selves when their character is tested, not when everything is great and things are going their way. Sometimes that won’t happen for a long time. We have to accept new information about them as we learn about it and then continuously make a conscious decision about whether they need to be in our life or not.
Question what you think you “know” and recognize that “I know them, they wouldn’t do that” is the biggest lie people tell themselves.
There doesn’t need to be any agony about how much they’ve changed or dissecting situations to figure things out. Weighing what’s important to you and defining your standards is the harder part here. I’ve touched on this a few times, but I stand behind what I’ve said before: do you know who you are? If there was the slightest feeling of anything but a resolute “YES!” to that question, you have to work on YOU. Take the time to learn about yourself, to develop who you are and what you stand for. If you start there, the rest is easy because you’ll create an incredibly strong reference point: yourself. An inconsistent, cowardly and weak reference point will take you somewhere you don’t want to be, only to make you wonder how the hell you got there. Or wondering why your friend is so condescending. Or why your significant other takes advantage of you. Or why you’re overlooked for a promotion. Catch my drift? It’s easier to measure things against a set of well-defined standards and this is crucial to a happy, fulfilling existence. Make it a priority to sort this out and the rest is cake. And really, who doesn’t love cake?!
[Inside my mind: What I shared above is something I’ve gathered from my personal experiences and my own observations. It’s a personal theory I developed while trying to make sense of things, and the advice I often find myself giving to others. Hearing the phrase “People don’t change” wasn’t enough for me. I needed to understand why that was hard for us to accept; what our minds are currently doing to cause the breakdown in receiving new information. This perspective was born through the marriage of everything I’ve been exposed to and the very little bit I know about human psychology. People find solace in this outlook and I hope it sheds some light for you too.
I also want to say thank you to those who have trusted me enough to share your personal stories, as each story has lent to solidifying my understanding of this process and, in turn, has granted me the ability to give this advice. The best teachers are always students first. Your questions and curiosity give me the opportunity to learn before I teach (that includes hair and makeup too!) Thank you.]