Friday, March 24, 2017

Can People Change?

Heraclitus believed that everything was constantly changing (painting by Johannes Moreelse)
One of the biggest and most overarching questions faced by anyone interested in the human mind is the question of whether people change. Most people who are honest probably would answer “no,” “I'm the same.” The only problem is that it's notoriously impossible to be objective about the self. That’s the reason why even the most practiced clinician cannot effectively practice self-analysis and also why people who know each other too well like old married couples are not very effective evaluators of each other. When you see someone all the time your pre-conception of them is so set that it’s likely to trump reality. That’s also why people who see each other all the time aren’t really able to recognize the physical change, called aging, that’s likely to be occurring. Individuals pursue all manner of attempts to change, but changing human character seems to be the highest hurdle. You may change your attitude and cognitively learn to do away with maladaptive behaviors, but still at the heart of the self, the same beast lurks, constantly transforming and camouflaging itself in ever new ways, like some kind of constantly mutating virus, always on the verge of creating new symptoms. Ask anybody suffering from OCD; in many cases they eliminate one obsession (like needing to check if the gas is turned off), only to find themselves at the mercy of a new compulsion. Some experts argue that behaviors are what  constitute character, while those who deal in so called depth psychology might say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and still another point of view might be held by those who argue that human character exists totally apart from its most visible manifestations, much the way Plato’s ideal forms are something which, by definition, elude apprehension. Those who embark on the journey of classical Freudian analysis sometimes spend years on the project of human character, only to find that while their so-called character may have been changed (together with the lens through which they view the world), they still suffer from many of the symptoms they had initially sought help for in the first place. A philosophical attitude becomes necessary in the face of such a seemingly paradoxical understanding of human personality.

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