“Personality is destiny.”
Ask any parents of grown children, and they will tell you that the personality traits that their children display as grown-ups were often apparent from infancy. In Psychology, personality traits are considered to be pretty stable throughout one’s lifetime.
So, does it mean that people don’t change?
Research shows that people become more forgiving and accepting as they grow older. Does this imply that that you can always save a relationship that was broken in the past?
If an employee makes a really bad call, and asks for your trust again, should you grant it?
If an ex comes to you asking for a truce, saying that he has changed, can you believe him?
If a parent shows up after being absent from your life for 20 years, and says that he’s a changed man, do you try to make the relationship work?
If a high school frenemy calls you up after many years, saying that she has learned a lot as she grew up, and wants to be close with you again, would you let her in?
How do you know if someone has in fact changed, and you can trust him again?
How do you protect yourself from getting hurt again?
As a Life Coach, I want to believe that people can change: their values can shift, their experiences can smooth out the rough edges (or break people open), and people’s capacity to give and receive can expand.
In my personal experience, though, I see many examples of character stability:
A friendly, brilliant, curious and occasionally rebellious kid who was in my 4th grade class is now a friendly, brilliant, curious and occasionally rebellious journalist with an internationally known name. Another kid from our class, who was super smart, secretive and power-hungry in 4th grade, is now a trusted aide to a country dictator. An unpredictable and manipulative college acquaintance from 15 years ago is still unpredictable and manipulative, even after having gone through transformative life experiences. Another friend, who has always approached disagreements with kindness and an open mind, still approaches conflicts with kindness and an open mind, so even after major disagreements, we’ve always found a way back to each other.
Here are some ideas that you can use to decide whether you should forgive and start again, or to politely decline and continue on your path without that person.
1. Are you asked to forgive, or to forget? When someone comes with a heart-felt apology for the way he or she has acted, and can think of alternative actions that seem better in the hindsight, there is a chance that in the future this person may take a new course of action. On the other hand, if someone comes to you saying: “Let’s just forget this ever happened, and start again”, there is absolutely no indication that this person won’t follow the same path that he has in the past. “Let’s forget it” could mean anything from “I think you screwed up, and I’m giving you a way out” to “I hope you’ll fall for this again, because the last time totally worked for me”.
2. Pattern or one-time? Do you know that story about a scorpion and a turtle, where the scorpion asks a turtle to carry him across the river because he can’t swim? The turtle is worried that the scorpion would bite her on the journey, but understands that it’s illogical – they both would drown. So, she grants the scorpion’s request, and in the middle of the river, the scorpion bites her, saying: “I can’t help it. It is my nature”. So, if someone consistently acts in a way that is harmful or irritating to you, the chances are that this behavior is tied to one of the stable “big five” personality traits and is hard-wired into him. Unless the person undergoes a major brain trauma or gets a new medication, it’s unlikely that things will change.
As an example, lateness has often been labeled as a time management and attitude problems, but research points to the idea that lateness may be more related to a personality trait, and therefore be a stable characteristic. So, there is a good chance that lateness will re-appear at one point or another.
Unless You have found a new way of dealing with an old problem that is part of a pattern, giving this person a second chance means that you will be a part of history repeating itself. On the other hand, if you see that a falling out was a one-time slip-up and the relationship is worth saving, give this person another chance.
3. Personal responsibility, or bad circumstances? If someone comes to you for reconciliation, and instead of talking personal responsibility for the falling-out starts discussing ways in which You contributed to the problem, or various situational factors, or other things outside of his control, you know that you are off to a bad start. For example: “Next time, I’m willing to do things differently, but only if you do XYZ”. It’s not that you are not willing to do XYZ; it’s that this person is trying to build a new bridge on something completely outside of his control. So, you know that if things don’t work out again, he will find someone to blame.
In summary, while people may not always be able to change their nature, as a result of life experience they can often be able to change their world views and behaviors (when those behaviors are not tied to stable personality traits).
So, if you are considering mending a broken relationship with someone dear to your heart, consider this: if the person comes to you with a heart-felt apology, takes responsibility for his actions without blaming anyone else or conditions, and you’ve seen a problem as a one-time thing rather than a pattern, go ahead, give this person another chance. It’s not that people change, but you may have just seen a wrong side of someone who has a lot more beauty to show you.
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