They Say, “You Can’t Change a Person,” But Can I Change Myself?


For me, an important part of maturing and self-discovery throughout college included the harsh realization of my worst personality traits.

One of the lessons my mom taught me is that you can’t change a person. When considering a husband (or wife or other committed partner, etc) she warns me that I should love all of that person including their flaws and despite the parts that drive me crazy, because I am never going to change them. This bit of momma-wisdom has been drilled into my brain. Now, I can’t help but wonder, and even fear, whether or not I am able to change the traits I dislike about myself. Are my worst traits inherent character flaws or can I change them by adjusting my attitude and changing my behavior?

For the record, I hate the alleged Marilyn Monroe quote, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” That seems like a bullshit excuse that someone would use to justify terrible actions and behaviors. Nobody should have to handle me when I am at my worst because I am not talking about minor imperfections, like going weeks without shaving or the way my makeup is smudged all over my eyes in the morning. When I am at my worst, my most ugly thoughts lead me to act in unacceptable ways that I am ashamed of. When those unattractive attitudes and thoughts become apparent in my words and behaviors, I genuinely fear pushing away even my closest friends and family.

My fear worsened after I read an article called “How Much Can You Really Change After You Turn 30?” The author, Brian Little, a psychology lecturer at University of Cambridge, discusses the late Harvard psychologist William James’ conclusion that in most of us, our character and traits are “hard-plastered” by the age of 30, never to soften again. The psychologists are referring to what are known as the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Now I worry about this added time-pressure (only 8 years!) to change my less-attractive traits.

I have a terrible need for control in not only my life, but also the lives of those around me. It wasn’t until recently that I realized so many of my negative judgments stem from my feelings of losing control. I don’t want to actively control any of my friends or family or tell them what to do. Instead, when someone doesn’t behave in a way or say what I subconsciously want, I get stressed out and then upset in one way or another. My struggle for perfection and control in my life, and the failure to reach it (because who could?), leads to a chain reaction of not feeling “good enough” for my friends, and then jealousy because they are hanging out without me. On more than one occasion, I have convinced myself that my friends were mad at me, stayed in my room with the door shut for two days, then ended up getting mad at them for my feelings of exclusion. This spiral of negative thoughts puts an unfair pressure on myself and on my relationships.

There’s no question that I am the hardest on the ones that I love the most. Typically, when my negative thoughts come to life in my words and actions, they are taken out on my closest friends and family. This undoubtedly comes from an unfair expectation and comfort that I hold in believing that they will always be here for me, no matter how I treat them. While I do have wonderfully supportive relationships, I understand that it is wrong for me to assume that they are unconditional. The feelings I have are no excuse to treat my family and friends this way.

These traits and behaviors do not help me to be the person I want to be. I don’t yet know whether these are inherent negative character traits, or patterns of behavior and thoughts I can change. I have to hope that if I am at least conscious of these unattractive behaviors and how or when they appear in my actions, there is the possibility to change them. If I work on staying more self-aware, maybe I can recognize what triggers these behaviors and put an end to them. I hope to become a more attractive person not only to others but also to myself.


Annaliese Stockmeier : 90’s Rom-Com Fanatic, Tabata Aficionada, and Chicago Foodie. The next Rick Steves. Please call me Smalls.