By David Joel Miller
Are people just that way or can they change?
There are certain things about you and about others around you that are just the way people are. There are other things that change with time, with the situation and with who you decide to be. The trick is to know what about you is just you and what things are possible to change.
There is a world of difference between being an “angry person” and being angry right now.
Some people think that they are always angry, sad, and so on and this provides a rationale for not trying to change. It also can be an excuse for bad behavior.
Someone in your life gets angry, says or does hurtful things and then later says “that is just the way I am, you know I get angry a lot, deal with it.” It is hard to take that over the long haul. Being always full of negative emotions drives others away.
You may have said that yourself about certain characteristics you see in yourself or others see in you. But is this true or is change possible?
Spoiler alert – I believe people can and do change. They recover from what others have done to them and from what they have done. That change is often not easy and changing may have a price.
One way of understanding this is that who you are and who you can become is the difference between states and traits.
A trait is presumably a stable characteristic.
This can apply to outside characteristics like hair and eye color and to inside qualities like anger or kindness. True you can dye your hair or wear contacts to change your eye color. These efforts to change yourself do not change the underlying you. Some people might say that these efforts fall under the heading of deception or telling lies.
These underlying qualities may change as you get older. One way of explaining this is called gene expression. So the gene that gave someone Black hair in their twenties may give them gray hair in their eighties. Emotional expressions that worked for you at 9 months old will probably not work so well at 90.
Are some people born with particular emotional temperaments? Could you just be born blue-eyed and sad, or brown-eyed and angry? If you were just born that way could you learn to control or regulate those feelings? (CBT therapy and neuroplasticity research tells us this is way more doable that we used to think.)
People are not born with only one feeling. So even the irritable baby who cries a lot sometimes smiles. Angry people have episodes when they are not angry or at least less angry. (Watch for a future post on Reactive Attachment Disorder which talks about the challenges of learning new ways of feeling if you did not learn them at an early age.)
What is causing those feelings to change as situations change?
It is possible for something to “cause” or “trigger” an emotional state. One question that I ask in counseling is “What makes you happy?” And then – “What makes you sad.” Some people can quickly give me lists.
People who say nothing makes me happy, that is a red flag they may have depression.
Research has shown us that the brain continues to grow and create new connections throughout the lifespan. If you learned to be sad or anxious very early in life you can learn new ways of feeling.
Granted if you learn one language as a child and then at eighty try to learn another it is much more difficult but the good part is that no matter what age most people can still learn new information.
Learning to regulate your emotions and to move from an angry state to a calm one is possible if you chose to learn this skill. In fact, you can learn to not get angry in the first place. This does not mean you let people walk all over you and just bite your tongue. You can learn other skills to reduce the causes of your anger also.
If your life is full of anger, anxiety, or sadness you can learn skills to reduce the impact of those feelings on you and to create a new happy life. The cost for this? Some effort on your part and the need to stop making others responsible for how you feel.
To change your emotional life you need to take charge and get to work on new emotional skills. More in upcoming posts on this topic.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books
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