This originally appeared on VICE CA.
A couple weeks ago while visiting my hometown I had a beer with a friend I've known since elementary school. Growing up we played on the same hockey team. We spent a lot of time at each other's houses. Briefly, we even put together an unlistenable screamo band. When I left for university and moved to Toronto my friend and I mostly lost touch. There wasn't any malice to it but a blossoming sense of independence coupled with the fact that we no longer lived in the same place made keeping up with one another a chore. For a little while we'd send texts back and forth, we'd try to get together during holidays and spring break, but eventually the extent of our interaction was reduced to throwing one another the occasional like on social media. The beer was the first time we had seen each other in three years.
Catching up was an interesting experience. I had vaguely remembered that after high school the friend had gone on to study a trade. Apparently after completing his certificate he had landed a steady job and moved in with his girlfriend, soon after they purchased a bungalow, and recently they got their first dog. The friend explained that for the last little while things had been more or less the same and then asked how I'd been doing.
"Good. OK. Busy. There have been a lot of changes all at once," I said. "I left my job and got another job. I had to move apartments. The thing with that girl fizzled out and I've been seeing someone new."
"So you've been the same," he said.
"No. A bunch of stuff has changed. I just told you."
"Same type of stuff that was changing last time we drank. Jobs. Girls. The only difference is this time you're not trying to convince me IPAs are delicious."
For the next hour I tried to tell the friend I wasn't the same person I had been three years ago. Recently I'd been attempting to get in shape. He reminded me of my brief foray into P90X. I said that some of my work had been published online. He said that I had been writing dumb poetry since my teens. Sitting at the bar I tried to come up with more examples but eventually I gave up and ordered an IPA. I definitely felt like I was different but I didn't know how to convince anyone this was true.
When you're younger the changes in your life are obvious, but as we creep into adulthood those changes become subtle. While a new job or moving apartments might seem like a big thing on a personal level, from an outside perspective they mean less. The beer with my friend got me thinking about whether external changes in our lives are the same as fundamentally changing as a person. That got me thinking about whether not after the age of twenty-five change is really possible at all. I wondered if my bad habits, general personality, and work ethic were all pretty much set in stone. To answer these questions I turned to some experts in psychology and fitness, as well as some people some people who have made big shifts in their lives, to ask how/why we do/don't change while entering adulthood.
Geoff Girvitz , Director at Bang Fitness
The brains of adolescents and young adults have many things that actually mess with perception/perspective. A great example is the phenomenon of the imaginary audience, where teens feel like the world is watching them and every little mistake is universally accounted for. Having a teenage brain is like having a computer with incredible processing speed and about a thousand tabs open. In contrast, the middle-aged brain is a slower, but more efficient machine. Fewer connections that run much faster. White matter peaks around middle age. That means that processing time is quicker and people can put things together faster. Meanwhile, synaptic pruning means that the unimportant/unused stuff falls away. Greater expertise comes from depth of connection between related areas. And, of course, fewer fucks given in general. So, sure, we basically are who we are at some point. Identity becomes more intractable as we age. That doesn't mean change is impossible. It's just a shit ton of work. Think of pathways of thought and habits like trenches that water flows through. Actual change requires digging even deeper trenches than the ones that already exist.
I work in fitness and people make a lot of assumptions about what they can and can't do to their bodies. They tend to assume that there are a lot of changes that come with age. There's no doubt that a thirty-year-old body is not the same as a twenty-year-old body. But it's important to uncouple the effects of aging with the effects of time. What I mean is that pretty much all of us are doing stuff that's less than ideal. How we're moving or sitting or eating or otherwise living. These things will often trigger adaptive changes. This isn't catastrophic stuff. It's subtler. A nightly drink might impair sleep. That in turn might lower resting testosterone levels. Is your hormonal health suboptimal because you're getting older? Or because you have 10+ years of cumulative shenanigans?
So expectations sometimes need some tempering. Fitness goals are often achievable—but at a far greater personal cost than people may be willing or able to pay. The people who struggle the most with getting leaner tend to connect eating (or drinking) with reward. Telling someone who eats emotionally to eat fewer calories is fundamentally unhelpful. First of all, they fucking know. Second of all, they don't need nutrition advice; they need more support and better self-care. They need to think about the habits they've built over time. But the beautiful thing is that people over twenty-five are more capable of embracing that process than their younger selves. I have the privilege of working with many people who are discovering that they're finally able to take control over the relationship they have with food. And most of them are in their thirties and forties. So can you change past a certain age? Yes. But it's going to be a culmination of process orientated goals with the ability to course correct when things—inevitably—go wrong. And that's a lot harder to sell people on than a shake weight.
Kate, Behavior Therapist
The whole premise behind my career is that all people have the capacity to change regardless of age and circumstances. Anyone can create/change their actions and habits. That doesn't mean that you have changed who you are as much as it means you've changed what you do. Repetition and exposure are great ways to change behavior, but unless you are intrinsically motivated to have those behaviors change who you are, they wont. You can for yourself to go through all the proper social etiquette and motions but that doesn't make you a social person unless you want to be engaged in those interactions or are receiving adequate reinforcement from them.
I think that it's very toxic to think that we are unable to change who we are. This mentality is something that causes significant challenges in my line of work and often results in people developing significantly lower qualities of life. Part of my role is to advocate for people's capacity to change, especially as adults. To think that we have no ability to change who we are—fundamentally—is a really dangerous way of thinking and prevents a lot of progress in both people and society as a whole. It's caused a very strong dislike for the principles of 12 step programs. I've always found them to take away people's responsibility for their own actions and personal choices. I've supported individuals who accessed programs like AA/NA and found that anytime they achieved success it was due to their own internal motivations and less about the program itself.
The largest barriers I encounter with people wanting to make changes are the influences of other people. We as a society love our labels and putting people into boxes. Often people are limited from making changes because others won't ever allow them to stray from who they are believed to be at any given time. This is increasingly more challenging when you have a person living within any sort of supported model. People are also often reinforced for certain personality traits naturally through peers and environments that can make it challenging for changes to happen. I would say actual long-term changes are seen only about 50 percent of the time, if I'm being generous. But I would not attribute this to an inability to change as an adult but rather ineffective reinforcement or maintenance from one's natural environment. That can be increasingly difficult when we've been doing the same thing for a long time.
Robin Black , MMA Analyst and Color Commentator
In my late thirties after years of playing in a glam rock band I made the decision to become a MMA fighter. The whole thing was filmed as a TV pilot, but I didn't take it as a joke. People close to me definitely thought I had lost my mind. Studying Martial Arts and becoming a "cage fighter" at that stage of life isn't conceivable to most people. It's a punch line. It's an episode of Friends about a mid-life crisis. But. Whatever. I couldn't let what other people thought I should be doing with my life dictate something that I knew I needed to do.
The move from full-time musician to full-time athlete was pretty demanding. The lifestyle was pretty opposite and the mindset was too. I loved the challenge of such a wholesale life shift and eventually that shift lead to my job analyzing mixed martial arts. From a lifestyle perspective it's a huge shift, but when I think about it in context of my career? I don't know. I've always been an entertainer. I like to share ideas, make people laugh, influence them to think, get them to dance. I see singing in a band, fighting in a cage, or talking on TV as all kind of the same thing. So it's weird: fundamentally I think that I'm a completely different person than I was at twenty-five. Like In almost every way. I think differently. I behave differently. I want different things. But at the same time I'm still an entertainer. I could think about that more but what's the point? I'm frightened to think where I would be now had I not been willing to flow with change and welcome shifts in my life. I have always, literally always, looked forward. If you want to have success I think you have to.
I believe that we have the potential for massive changes later in life, and I think the thing that prevents some people from doing this is that they believe at 30 they are fully formed. But this is absolutely not true. We can reshape our understanding of the world around us as long as we live, from a consciousness standpoint as well as a physiological standpoint. The "fully realized adult" concept traps us. I believe that we can keep learning, growing, and actualizing ourselves as long as we live. I did. I think everyone can.
Seth , Social Worker
We all change throughout the course of our lives. This is what Erikson's stages of psychosocial development are: our perspective of reality changes as we get older and based on our motivations. My desire to leave a legacy at twenty five is not the same desire at seventy five. Even ignoring psychosocial development, most people change and learn as they get older. This starts with core values—ideas and beliefs you hold true at your core. Core values are often challenged and the implication is that the value may not change (though it does with very thoughtful practice), but the implementation of it does. Take, for example, the core value I value people getting the help they need. Such a core value can start as cruel-to-be-kind ignoring homeless people on the streets to demanding universal housing. And even ignoring the implementation of changes, our core values change. If I'm told I can be successful by working hard, and then I work hard and I'm not successful, I can challenge that core value. These core value challenges often happen at times of major change—death or moving or firing or birth of others—but can happen any time in a person's life.
I'm definitely not the same person I was in my early twenties. My dad died when I was twenty-five and I challenged myself to rethink things he had told me. He worked every day of his life almost and was diagnosed six months after he retired. Those six months were the happiest in his life. I was forced to reconcile that my core value, that work will make me happy. I wasn't correct. I found a middle ground in social work where I plan to work my fingers to the bone, but only 9-5 for the rest of my life.
It mostly comes down to motivation. Are you motivated to change? Are there things you can't deal with anymore? Are those things changeable? People often come to therapists when they're at their worst and it's a good time to change, but if you're in a stable place (particularly with regard to housing, family needs, personal needs), you'll be more capable of changing.
Marsha Shandur, Storytelling and Speaking Coach
Honestly, a lot of my move from the UK to Canada was naivety. When I told people I was moving, everyone said, You're so brave! and I'd reply, No I'm not, if it's shit—I'll just come back. It never occurred to me that it would be really fucking hard AND I'd want to stay. I was following a relationship (following love!) but in reality, I was ready to leave London and looking for a reason. I was thirty-three.
I was fundamentally changed by the experience of how hard it was. The move—along with a combination of other things—led to me having the most emotionally painful year I've had, and the first time I ever felt suicidal. I was in a new country. I had left a lot behind and I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I had thought the move was going to be the change I needed and when it wasn't I didn't know what to do. I had to start over in so many different ways and it was brutal.
What rescued me was going back into therapy. A bit of self-development, too—reading and meditation. But mostly years and years of therapy, worth every penny and hour. Now I'm so much happier, more grounded, and thrilled to be here. I have a tattoo of the CN Tower on my ankle.
I think that most people are basically who they are by twenty-five because they don't have the drive to change. But I absolutely disagree that people can't change. Most people are pretty lazy, and will only make the effort if they (a) are in extreme pain (as I was), (b) have the resources and support (as I did) and (c) have seen examples of this working (as I had).
My external behavior probably doesn't look wildly different from thirty year old Marsha's external behavior, but my internal thinking is very different—especially when it comes to self-talk and to relationships. If you want to make a change yourself, find people who've done this before, read what they did, and keep trying things out until something works. Life is research.
Graham Isador is more or less always the same. Follow him on Twitter.