By: Lizzie Reezay
You can’t change people. I grew up hearing my parents and preachers and counselors repeat this phrase to me. It was introduced as this foundational life wisdom, guaranteed to foster positive relationships. The idea is that wanting to change someone—whether it’s a friend or a parent or your boyfriend— devalues him or her as a person. Not only that, but it sets you up for frustration: Since it’s impossible to change someone, you’ll just fail over and over again and become frustrated about that relationship. Instead of trying to change people, just accept them. Accept each person in your life for all of who they are, even if it’s different from what you would like. That’s the loving thing to do.
When I was younger, I accepted all of this without thinking it through. In some ways it went against my personality type, which thrives off of interventions; but whenever I heard you can’t change people, I was genuine in nodding along in agreement. I thought I was being humble in accepting the concept. I felt wiser for being able to apply it.
Something odd though— the most comforting thing for me in the midst of sobbing about a breakup I went through this year, was realizing how much my ex changed me. I love that he changed me. I’ve written dozens of journal pages about how specifically he changed aspects of my convictions and spiritual life and the way I relate to people. The last time we talked, he thanked me for specific ways that I changed him. My best friends change me too. So do my family members, the people in my small group, my Professors, and even my Preacher. You can change people. And you do. You shouldn’t think of it as a negative thing. The people you live with and laugh with and worship with—they change you too. Most of the time all of this mutual changing occurs without either person realizing it. It takes times of closure, like a breakup or the end of being roommates with someone or the end of a school year— times of reflection— to realize how much you’ve been changed.
So why do we latch on so easily to this concept of you can’t change people? I think it’s because most of us hate change, whether it be changes in our lives or changing aspects of ourselves. Change often involves being out of control so it’s uncomfortable, but also uncertain and sometimes painful. You can’t change people seems to be the perfect motto for someone who doesn’t want to change— If you don’t try to make me a better person, I’ll overlook all the ways you need to change too. I think almost everyone who repeats the phrase has good intentions and is just wanting to promote healthy relationships, but it’s not healthy having a static attitude toward your personal character development and it’s not healthy having a non-interventionist policy toward the people you love the most. Each of us has moral flaws, bad habits, mindsets that are harming us, and things we can improve upon. In other words, aspects of us that need to change. If we love people, I think it is absolutely our responsibility to help them change. If we’re serious about living a moral lifestyle and reaching our full God given-potential, we should crave for aspects of ourselves to dramatically change.
I am extremely fortunate to have people in my life who have called me out on specific flaws I have, because that has led to me changing. Examples of some of these changes include: complaining all the time, being manipulative, not sleeping enough, bragging, being messy, communicating in a demanding way, showing up late to places, omitting truth, and not saying thank you enough. Yes, I’ll always have those tendencies because I am a crazy-flawed human and I’m sinful and imperfect by nature. But I need the people in my life to continue to help me change and turn away from these tendencies by calling me out on my behavior and choices and character. People change me the most—the ideas they share with me, the way they make me feel, the convictions of mine they challenge. And I love that. I love that the people I trust have a huge influence on me. I love that God uses Christian community to mold us into who He needs us to be. I respect people so much more who call me out on awful habits of mine or beliefs I have that are not scriptural.
The person who changes me the most— Jesus. His words convict me to change. They’re harsh and shocking and gentle all at the same time. A lot of His commands seem impossible to follow and way too much of a sacrifice to apply. What God commands us is often the opposite of comfortable. That’s because God is much more concerned with our character development than our comfort. Hebrews 4:12, "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." God loves us too much to not mold us through pain and uncertainty. And so Christianity is a religion of constant change. I think the reason a lot of us don’t want to be changed is because we are blinded by our own pride. We are prideful in thinking we are right and we don’t want to admit to others or to ourselves that we are wrong. When it comes to the things we do, it would feel embarrassing to find out we are wrong. When it comes to what we believe, it is scary and could disorient our entire worldview to be proven wrong. Pride is comfortable. It alleviates us from having to feel stupid or misinformed or embarrassed or oblivious. We love our comfort so much that often we’d rather avoid truth than have to change. Wanting someone to change can come out of a place of pride, too. So when thinking of changing, first focus on how you need to change. If you do want to actively change someone, do it in love: meaning be gentle and don’t start off being direct. Pray about it more than you talk to them about it. Usually when I change someone, it’s not because I tried. It just happens. Sometimes I do try though. And sometimes I think it is very unloving to not try to change people. Right now some of my friends are hurting from things tearing into their happiness. They aren’t healing because they don’t realize how broken they are. Some of them are scared of what would happen if they completely changed their perspective and let God speak truth into their hearts. They don’t want to change, but they’re hurting. And they need help.
So yes, you can change people. And you do change people. Helping someone change is sometimes the most loving choice to make.