Is real personal change possible?
October 17, 2006 7:37 AM   Subscribe

How does a rejected person become an accepted person?

I'm not talking about evil people - murderers, rapists, out and out sociopaths.

I'm talking about a run of the mill 'weirdo' - a person who exhibits psychological and social difficulties over time and finds himself or herself excluded from social groups or has trouble keeping a job because of it. The person in one's knitting club or whatever who joined in order to make friends and it's just too painfully obvious that that's why they joined. The person one would have pity for, if they weren't so abrasive and annoying. A person who wants to change, for real, and for good.

In general, can this person change enough to exorcise central (actual, absolute) personality flaws given today's resources? Can the available pharmaceuticals and therapies treat this person to make enough change to enable acceptance? Additionally, is there a particular type of change, such as a milestone like a house or kid, or a formal apology for one's past personhood, that triggers acceptance among such a person's friends and family?
posted by By The Grace of God to Human Relations (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
With determination and therapeutic help, I would say yes. It takes a willingness to be corrected and a desire to change, along with professional help. But I bet it could be done.

There are no milestones that guarantee acceptance, especially a formal apology for one's past personhood. That would appear to be a desperate plea for friends. Instead, the person should get into therapy with the express goal of changing personal habits and gaining social skills. A change of location may help-- this often happens when nobodies in high school become somebodies in college-- a different pond sometimes makes a difference for the fish.

An aside-- I was a pretty angry and critical kid, which made me pretty socially left out. I noticed in high school that one of the most popular girls was really nice to everyone, so I made a choice to become a nice person. By the grace of God I started just being nice and stopping the critical comments before they came out. It worked wonders and I was a totally different person in no time.
posted by orangemiles at 7:56 AM on October 17, 2006

Step 1: Move.
Step 2: Be nicer to people in the new location.
Step 3: Acceptance.
posted by jellicle at 8:01 AM on October 17, 2006

I think to answer this question more accurately, we'll need some more details on what kind of psychological and social difficulties the person is having.

Social difficulties, in my experience, are often caused by an inability to properly interpret nonverbal social cues. I know I can trace a lot of my past social difficulties to that factor. This is a big part of the answer for the run-of-the-mill geek. But since you're describing apparently severe psychological and social problems, I'm guessing it's more than just normal nerdiness or unpopularity. Thus the request for more details.

Yes, people can change and exorcise major personality flaws. How they go about this probably depends on what kind of flaws they have, and what's causing them. Again, a lot of what could be considered personality flaws could be caused by very poor social awareness, which can be improved through practice and experience. (Although many people seem to have a kind of learning disability in this area, they can still learn.) Other people might need therapy or medication.

In any event, without addressing underlying issues like these, I doubt that getting a house or having a kid will make others accept the person any more.
posted by agropyron at 8:03 AM on October 17, 2006

Response by poster: Sincere thanks for the answers so far. To respond to agropyron's questions, this is a person with depression and anxiety and some social cues blindness, although the person is often hypersensitive to negative social feedback. The person is also selfish, but genuinely wishes not to be - this is a powerful aspiration in this person's life. The person wishes to gain acceptance from existing contacts that have rejected them - more particularly, to change their minds, hopefully, about their personhood and value over time. This is a friend of mine who does not yet wish to consider a life of diminished capacity for joy and functionality because of past abuse and habits.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:16 AM on October 17, 2006

Hmm. This person would benefit from sort of social coach, someone to work with him or her and point out what specifically she or he is doing wrong. Perhaps a combination of counselling from a professional, thorough reading of Miss Manners and self-help books on how to develop social skills, and coaching from kind friends will work.

And remember... real change is gradual. It won't happen overnight.
posted by orange swan at 8:22 AM on October 17, 2006

I'm having trouble putting the top and bottom paragraph of your question together. What is "a major personality flaw?" I think that to categorize those outcasts in the top paragraph as dealing with major personality flaws is a mistake; inability to perceive certain social cues or to mold oneself into a person that appropriately handles those cues is not a personality flaw to me. I think it is possible to spend concerted time and effort learning to interpret and transmit said social cues, but that's a learned social behavior.

I have dealt with this issue in the past personally;I was the weirdo. I don't have this problem now. I changed my social behaviors accordingly, but I don't believe my personality has changed, or at least that changes in my personality over time have had much impact on this issue. Oddly, I think it is a clamoring after acceptance that often makes this impossible. Other people perceive this desperation and back away slowly...
posted by theantikitty at 8:23 AM on October 17, 2006

When I interact with someone who fits that description, I try very hard to help them within my own capacity. If they are so difficult that it drives me batty, I generally avoid the interaction because I don't want to do further damage. But this is rare as I get older and more forgiving of others and perhaps more aware of my own behavior and how I want that to be.

If I can, I try to help in gentle, nonjudgmental ways. I engage them in pleasant small talk. I make an effort to direct it in positive ways. I forgive them if they slip into negative small talk but always try and bring it back to the positive or simply ignore the negative. I think of this as practice. It doesn't need to be anything big, but it's important practice for pleasant social interaction.

I try to consider what may have made this person this way. It could have been many sad situations built up over time which helps me have empathy for them (not pity). However I don't really try and go past small talk. I'm not their therapist. It's not my responsibility to deconstruct them, make them see the error of their behavior, or even know about those suspected sad situations in their history. I'm assuming their background and interacting with them now as a polite and friendly acquaintance.

I use positive body language. I'm open to them approaching me. I smile. I also pay attention to my limits for interaction. If I feel like I'm starting to judge them in any way, I politely excuse myself for a little while or the rest of the time if needed.

I find that often when I show annoying people the slightest bit of kindness and respect, and clearly demonstrate the boundaries between us, they respond positively to that social structure. If they don't respond positively, I forgive the interaction because it has nothing to do with me. Perhaps that interaction is an early practice one for them.

Sorry for the book, but lately this has become an important issue for me personally and in my work. I think we would have a more mentally and physically healthy community if more people would demonstrate more social grace with each other. It can be difficult, but I find it easier if I am forgiving of what MY perceptions of their behavior are, stop myself from passing judgement on what they say and do, and evaluate my own behavior in the interaction and make sure my actions are as I want them to be.

I do believe that people can change. But it is a difficult combination of many things: social acceptance, different types of therapy, personal desire for goes on. I try and influence positive change with my own behavior, and then I hope that will pass to others. My behavior is what I can alter and control.
posted by dog food sugar at 8:23 AM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'd work on accepting the flaws, actually. You can't really make people accept you. A good sense of self-depricating humor works wonders in these situations. Essentially, accepting yourself is what gets other people to accept you.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:27 AM on October 17, 2006

Additionally, is there a particular type of change, such as a milestone like a house or kid, or a formal apology for one's past personhood, that triggers acceptance among such a person's friends and family?

Abrasive unpopular people who bear children or purchase houses don't magically become accepted. They become abrasive unpopular parents and homeowners. In some contexts, they might be entitled to a little more formal respect. To their faces, at least. But are they liked? No.

I don't think a formal sit-down apology would help this person much. Actions speak louder than words. This person would gain more by committing himself to being a better person with a more pleasant personality.

And yes, this is possible. It just takes a lot of work.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:33 AM on October 17, 2006

Real acceptance begins with self acceptance. I had to begin to accept both the world and myself as is, not as I would like it to be. In my case it took alot of courage just to "own" me as I am.

I also had to let go of any hope that I would be able to change anyone else to make them act favorably towards me. I began pursuing behavioral change for it's own sake, not as a means to an end beyond my control. I had to own what's mine, grant you what's yours and move on. I can attest that real change even for the most severely afflicted is possible.

I have found Reinhold Nieburh's Serenity Prayer to be of immense help in this process.
posted by Xurando at 8:45 AM on October 17, 2006

Learning to be nice to other people so that they'll like you is a band-aid solution. You have to learn to like yourself. I know a number of people who were, as children, perceived as social outcasts and weirdos because they missed social cues and ended up acting in ways that were perceived as strange because they didn't know how to negotiate the type of interaction that is more intuitive to most people. But with few exceptions, those people have grown up to be pscyhologically healthy people with friends. It's not because they got medicated or had therapy (neither of which I'm against in general, btw). It's because they got interested in something, and good at something, and learned to like themselves, and found a community of people who respect them for who they are, in all their quirkiness.

Sometimes these people turn out to be 'nice,' and some don't. Either way is fine, because...drumroll....being perceived as a nice person is not, and should not be, a de facto goal in life. In fact, there are a lot of faux-nice people running around out there, not really wanting to be nice but having been convinced long ago that they must be, so when they're unhappy with a situation, they end up dealing with it in some kind passive-agressive way, and that (to me) is much more annoying than straightforward social awkwardness.
posted by bingo at 8:51 AM on October 17, 2006

You've said it's very important to this person that he or she gain the acceptance of existing contacts. Initially, instead of spending a lot of energy trying to change those existing impressions, I would recommend the person try forming new friendships first. Work on the depression and anxiety issues, work on the social skills, then try to meet some new people. After forming some new relationships, the person should have more confidence re-approaching the existing ones. They'll also have less to lose if they fail to the existing contacts' minds.

Maybe you can help them find a support group for people with problems like this. I think an accepting, understanding environment like that would be a great place to work on the problem. I just googled "social skills" + "support group" and found some interesting possibilities.
posted by agropyron at 9:02 AM on October 17, 2006

The above advice is pretty good.

Could your friend have ADD? There are lists of symptoms readily available that many never look at because they aren't hyperactive, but hyperactivity isn't a necessary element.

Meditation can't hurt and will over time, result in a greater sense of control and calm. Relaxation skills would be of benefit so even if your friend is unwilling to regularly meditate then there are other options worth looking into, self-hypnosis, breathing exercises, etc.

While I am optimistic about each person's potential for change, I am skeptical about changing the minds of others once they have an opinion. That's a perfect example of the sort of thing where the more you want it the more unlikely it is to happen. Release the desire for it and allow it to happen as a result of the other changes the person is making, or not. I suspect that when your friend is more comfortable with who he is and how he behaves the opinions of others will matter less, even if they are important people in his life.

External acquisitions, like a house or a child, will only result in the most shallow acceptance if any at all.
posted by BigSky at 9:05 AM on October 17, 2006

When a person is rejected, they become unpleasant -- defensive, abrasive, know-it-all, withdrawn, out-of-step, you name it. Maybe the rejection was something their parents did or didn't do, or maybe they were fat/ugly/too smart/the wrong color-religion-family situation-whatever as a child. What else are they going to do? When you are under attack, you defend yourself however you can. And that is going to persist even when the original cause of the persecution is gone.

Now, this person still feels rejected, and wants to stop having the personality traits that "protected" him psychologically all this time. I think he's approaching this from the wrong end. What he wants is not to stop defending himself, what he wants is to have people stop rejecting him.

How to do that? Be who the fuck you are, with maybe one change -- be as beautiful as it is in your power to be. Work out, buy nice clothes, groom yourself within an inch of your life, and never leave the house without looking amazing. You don't have to do this for the rest of your life unless you want to, just for a while.

You will find that people are surprisingly nice to you. Maybe it's your new-found confidence, maybe people just like people who are easy on the eyes -- probably a combination of the two. Just like that, you will find your defenses falling away on their own -- you don't need them, when people are nice. When you see that the world is not necessarily a hurtful place for you, you will become a nicer person, too. Whatever you are, is fine.

It's not you, it's them. Don't try to win them over -- compel them.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:10 AM on October 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

jason's_planet: While an apology isn't going to fix things by itself, I think if preceeded by some genuine improvement, it may help trigger re-evaluation and shake off first impressions. But that re-evaluation will only happen if there are observable improvements in behaviour.
posted by RobotHero at 9:15 AM on October 17, 2006

I have to agree with bingo - I was one of those children and as adult now have good relationships with my fellow beings.

As a child/teenager I was desperate to be accepted. The harder I tried the more lonely and depressed I got and the lower my self esteem.

The key is definitely to learn to like yourself, to consider yourself worthy of satisfactory social intercourse and to take it from there.

Developing hobbies that provide social interaction might be a good idea, as long as this is based on a genuine interest in the subject matter.

A lot of people also have a very skewed view of themselves, of what is causing their social exclusion. People do not exclude you because of the spot on your nose - if they do they are not worth bothering with.

They exclude you because you do not have anything interesting/funny or in another way rewarding to contribute to the interaction, or - more likely - because it takes too much effort on their part to bring out the positive contribution.

Social skills and graces can be learned to a degree - these skills are more intuitive to some and require conscious effort from others. But a few years ago I was watching a TV programme on autism - even autistic children can learn to interpret body language and other social clues - to a degree.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:29 AM on October 17, 2006

My suggestion is group therapy- they'll get a chance to get immediate feedback from people in real face-to-face interactions.
I've known some people with substantial anti-social behavior issues that have dramatically changed their interactions with others over the course of several years of group therapy.
posted by Four Flavors at 10:03 AM on October 17, 2006

Go hang out with some other people who are also socially awkward? Then maybe you won't offend each other. I don't know how you would find them, though--maybe make a meetup. :)
posted by exceptinsects at 10:04 AM on October 17, 2006

Real acceptance begins with self acceptance. I had to begin to accept both the world and myself as is, not as I would like it to be.

Exactly. And its very likely going to take some form of counselling to get to that point.

As far as in the meantime, look for places that are naturally accepting, group therapy was mentioned but perhaps volunteering at a homeless shelter or even just visiting a local place of worship - go somewhere where the practice of acceptance is the norm.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:21 PM on October 17, 2006

Fuck 'em. Look at the people who tend to the most accepted. You're probably much more acutely aware of your flaws than most people, but do you really deserve to be ostracized? No. People are monkeys. They are naturally inclined to fear anything that's different or not easily categorizable. They love those who seem to love themselves, because they have no way of knowing what a person is "really" like on the inside. And if you get down on yourself, just think of the president - I find it to be an effective self-esteem booster.
posted by Astragalus at 6:32 PM on October 18, 2006

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