Myth number one - you have an unchanging center.
We might call this “personality” - a consistent characterization that is fundamental to you and is primarily responsible for your identity.
Now, do you have pieces of your life that stay, relatively, the same? Yes. Do you have an identity that shapes the arc of your existence and could show common foundations throughout your life? Yes. But to say that you have a trait that is stable and unchanging or undeveloping over time and is consistent across the spectrum of situations with no malleability takes away from the reality of your humanity. It is a very small, limited, and constrictive view of yourself.
Just think about what you were like last year or during your childhood. Not only might your clothes not fit (especially if they are size 2t onesies), but you are different. You become you over time and it is rooted in changes that, no matter how small, keep developing who you are.
Or think about how you react to different situations - you might claim to be a people pleaser because you tend to sacrifice your own hopes, desires, & what you think is best in order to avoid conflict and make people happy at your own expense or at the expense of a larger good. So there is a trait that seems stable and consistent.
But what about when you are not around those people you tend to please? What about when a situation has no indication of conflict? In those moments, you might be willing to dismiss the desires of the other and choose a different goal.
So are you a people pleaser? Yes. At least sometimes.
It might be a dominant characteristic…but it isn’t the only one.
Lee Ross, a psychologist from Stanford, explains this as the “Power of Situation” - that if your personality is consistent, it is not because your personality is consistent, but the situation is.
Back in 1963, one of the most profound research studies in psychological history was done that is commonly referred to as the Milgram Study. Basically, regular, common individuals were willing to commit violent acts to other humans (zapping them with an electric current to deadly levels) because someone was commanding them to do it (though they couldn’t see the person, they could hear the effects…and no, no one was actually being zapped). People were willing to be obedient to a command, even if they showed hesitation, that was incredibly destructive even though it went against their personality.
Different circumstances determined different actions…even actions that betrayed what they thought was central to their identity.
If your personality stays consistent, it is because the situation is consistent.
Essentially, your personality and identity are not static or set.
You are constantly changing.
You are a mix of identities that are not inherently good or bad and you have the power to determine what will emerge every moment of your life.
We see this in neuroscience as well - even your basic biology doesn’t stay the same. It, too, is constantly changing. Your body, from your cells to your atoms to your skin to your brain are constantly changing. Some science even claims that, every seven years, you have a completely different set of physical composition.
But go even further - we see this is true about the future, but what about the past? Your memories don’t change, right? Well, neuroscience has shown that memory itself is incredibly malleable. Not only do you never remember something exactly like it happened (which is why eye witnesses are incredibly unreliable), even a significant memory begins to unassemble itself the further you get from the memory. It might be unchangeable for a time, but every time you recall that memory, your recall begins to corrupt it. And if you fail to consistently encode the memory, not only will it be altered, you could lose that supposed significant memory entirely.
We have an illusion of continuity that betrays itself.
We are not thinking right about who we are…and this illusion might be holding us back.
Because here is what can happen. You have decided who you are. You have determined your lifestyle or attitude or actions are simply an innate part of your being. And you become static. We think that we cannot change, that our identity is fixed, and we become victims to our biography.
There was a test done in 1968 referred to as “The Marshmallow Test” where children were put in a room and given a marshmallow. The adult with them said that they would leave and come right back and if the child didn’t eat the marshmallow then they could have two marshmallows. What do you think many of the children did? They ate the marshmallow. The response they chose, then, seemed to be an indicator of their identity.
But then some of the researchers were reflecting on the findings and the were troubled by the response this test was getting - that it determined the innate goodness or badness of the children because of how they went through the experiment. So they took some of the children and changed the context of the test…and found that children responded differently in different situations.
A child could reinterpret their actions when the context changed.
Their identity wasn’t set - they just decided which part of them they were going to bring out in different situations.
Here’s what this means for “How We Change”.
The question isn’t whether or not we will change. We will and there is nothing you can do about that.
The question is, “How will we change?”
You have no control over the universal principle that change will happen…you only have control over which direction you will change in.
There is a Buddhist teaching that says, “Every moment you are being born again…and you must choose what you are going to be born as in every single moment.”
Your identity is not set.
You might wander…but you can always return.
History might describe your past, but it doesn’t decide your future.
You might be handed something that imprints itself as a dominant factor in who you are, but it isn’t static.
You are capable of deciding who you are going to be every single moment.
Can we change? We can.
It is one of the central building blocks of our lives and our humanity.
And not only can we change, it is one of the few unchangeable parts of our existence…that we always will change. The world will not stand still and neither will we.
Change is necessary and the good news is that you are in control of how it will happen. Your story is going somewhere, and you have the power to dictate where your story goes next.
So how will you change?
This is “How we change” - and we will explore the second part of the process next week.