As an addiction counselor, I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at what causes people to change. Although relapse is a normal part of recovery, most people can find long term stability. Many people can make long term changes, but there is still a significant number who do not make these changes.
Digging into the research on what causes people to change, in addition to years of observing human behavior, I’ve come to an understanding of the motivations leading to change. Hopefully, this general theory of change will be helpful if you are trying to make sense of someone’s behavior.
So what causes people to change?
People change when motivated by a sense of independence, a sense of competence, and a sense of connection to others. These motivations can be sparked in moments of extreme frustration when a person realizes their current approach is no longer working.
This answer is based on the empirically derived self-determination theory. This theory explains intrinsic motivation, meaning people change based on internal forces. Although people can be forced to change through external forces, these changes are not sustainable and don’t often result in real long-term change.
Can People Change?
The simple answer is yes.
Research shows 40% – 60% of individuals in recovery from addictions will relapse. Although relapse is a normal part of recovery, most people can find long term recovery, even after several relapses.
People can change for the better, and people can change for the worse.
The idea that someone has a fixed set of personality traits that determines their behavior is a myth. Personality traits are generally considered to be relatively fixed, but they do not determine behavior.
Personality traits only increase the chances of certain types of behavior. For example, someone who is high in novelty-seeking may be more likely to travel, but it does not mean they will become an avid traveler.
The idea of an “addictive personality” is also largely a myth. Although there are certain personality traits often associated with addiction, there is no standard definition of an addictive personality in the literature.
Even if certain traits can be associated with addiction, they do not mean the person is destined to develop an addiction.
Therefore, people can always change. No set of personality traits or past behaviors completely determine how someone will behave in the future.
What Causes People to Change for the Better?
People often change for the better when they encounter a great deal of pain or frustration and realize the way they are behaving is not working.
In the case of addiction, this is often referred to as hitting rock bottom. Though everyone’s rock bottom looks different. One person may need to experience years of hardship before deciding to change, whereas others may only need to experience a single painful event.
When someone develops the humility to admit that their current behavior is not working, they are at a turning point where it is now possible to make the required changes.
The motivation to pursue a new direction comes from a sense of independence, a sense of competence, and a sense of connectedness to others.
As described in self-determination theory, a sense of independence means the person is making the decision to change for themselves, not due to external forces. This is also referred to as intrinsic motivation and is one of the major factors predicting long-term change.
External pressures, otherwise known as extrinsic motivation, can assist in the short-term, but the person eventually needs to develop their own internal desire before long-term change is possible.
Another major factor leading to change is a sense of competence. A person gains motivation by seeing the rewards of their efforts. Accumulating small wins kindles the desire to continue efforts to change. Building a sense of competence develops hope that change is possible.
Lastly, change is motivated by a sense of meaningful connection to others. In the case of addiction, many people join support groups, seek the support of family, or find support in a counseling relationship. Human beings are social creatures who thrive in supportive social contexts and deeply suffer in isolation.
To read more about this phenomenon, check out my article, The Impact of Isolation on Addiction.
How Do You Help Someone Change?
There is nothing you can do to make someone change, but there are several things you can do to increase the odds of someone changing.
Before helping someone change, it is important to have firm personal boundaries. We might be tempted to overextend out support to people who are not ready to change or who are merely taking advantage of our help.
When talking to someone about change, the first step is to listen. Listening builds a sense of engagement and trust, allowing you to understand where the person is coming from, in addition to understanding the underlying reasons for their behavior.
Seeking your own support is also important when helping someone change, especially if their behavior directly impacts you. Spouses of persons with addictions may participate in support groups like Al-anon, seek the support of friends or extended family, and even seek the support of a professional counselor.
If you are interested in an in-depth look at how to help someone change, you can check out my comprehensive article on the topic: The Ultimate Guide to Helping Someone Change.
In that article, I go into a great deal of detail on effective communication and interpersonal techniques, accompanied by personal examples.
People change when they come to a place of deep frustration and pain. When they develop the humility to admit their current approach is not working, they are ready to take the first steps to change.
Long-term change is motivated by intrinsic motivation. External forces can spark initial short-term change but is not sustainable in the long-term. Long-term change ultimately depends on a person developing their own internal reasons for change.
As change occurs, motivation is built through small wins and accomplishments, building a sense of competence and hope that change is possible.
Lastly, a sense of social connection supports long-term change.
If you or someone you know is thinking about change, just know that change is always possible. If you are suffering from an addiction, it is important to remember that relapse is a normal part of recovery.
Turning back toward your internal values and motivations requires a simple decision. Although it is simple, it is not easy.