The Inevitability of Change

This seems like as good a time as any to mention a couple of articles about personality I’ve recently read. They take up the subject of whether we can change our personality, a subject that has occupied a lot of space on this blog.

Naturally, we have discussed this a great deal because of its apparent importance in Doc Martin. In the show, we have many occasions in which various characters argue people can change, people don’t need to change, people must change, and finally that we are who we are. (Please see the many posts on change on this blog for a fuller engagement with this topic.)

I have also noted that it would be rather strange for a therapist to believe that people can’t change because there would be no use for therapy if that were true. Since Ruth Ellingham is a therapist, and even more importantly one who treats the criminally insane, she would be expected to believe strongly that therapy can make an impact that reduces the likelihood of more criminal behavior, ergo it can change a person’s tendencies. Her conviction in the value of her vocation is reinforced when she reacts to Caroline’s query as to whether she truly believes therapy works by saying she wouldn’t have spent her life doing it if she had any doubts.

Nevertheless, she, in particular, gives us mixed messages by telling Louisa that people don’t change, only to later tell Al he writes his own story, and then tell Martin that he must change or lose Louisa.

In addition I have claimed that we all change over time whether we try or not. All sorts of things in life impact us, especially family and having children.

Well now we have these two articles that inform us that we not only can change our personalities, especially if we have therapy, but we inevitably change over time. (In the second article personality is defined as “‘an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms—hidden or not—behind those patterns,… quoting psychology professor David Funder’s definition.'”

Indeed, as of this year we now have a report that states “in an analysis of 207 studies, published this month [January] in the journal Psychological Bulletin, a team of six researchers found that personality can and does change, and by a lot, and fairly quickly. But only with a therapist’s help.”

For the record, there are some who differentiate between traits that are genetically programmed and traits that are socially induced. Either way, it now seems that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that we can change our personality, or at least how we “present ourselves.”

The other article is much less equivocal about change. It states: “The longest personality study of all time, published in Psychology and Aging and recently highlighted by the British Psychological Society, suggests that over the course of a lifetime, just as your physical appearance changes and your cells are constantly replaced, your personality is also transformed beyond recognition.”

We must conclude, therefore, that whether Louisa or Martin believe it or not, they are changing with every year, and even without therapy. Furthermore, Louisa may not have to actively mold Martin into someone whose personality doesn’t offend her; he may convert to that person gradually over time anyway. And Martin may discover that Louisa is changing her approach as they continue to live together without any intervention on his part. Hell, she may have already changed tremendously by the end of S7!

Originally posted 2017-03-05 15:56:26.

4 thoughts on “The Inevitability of Change

  1. Amy

    This comes as no surprise to me. I think people do change, with and without therapy, but some traits and perhaps their core personality remain the same. I will give some examples from my own life. My father, who has never had therapy, has definitely mellowed over time. As a young man he had a bad temper. He’s still no pussycat and can still get angry, but it takes a lot more to get him there than it once did. I know that I also do not get as angry or upset about small things as I once did. You get perspective as you get older and tend not to sweat the small stuff. But your basic personality stays the same.

    I have also seen one of my children change quite a bit. She was a shy and introverted child and teenager, in fact, pretty much through college. Then she started working, gained confidence, and is now very social and outgoing. She also changed without therapy.

    And I’ve certainly known people who found that therapy helped them overcome their fears, their anger, their guilt. I’ve seen couples who once argued and almost split up become much better partners. I’ve seen people suffering from depression recover and live full and happy lives.

    I am sure that Santa and Abby could cite much longer lists of examples of how people change through therapy (or even without it). I also think that Martin has changed over time (even excluding the aberrational first series). He is willing to go to therapy, after all. That’s a big change. And although he continues to struggle with his inability to communicate his feelings, he certainly is better about it in S7 than he was in S6 or before.

    One more example from the show: Mrs T goes off for help after her psychotic episode when she stole JH. Both Ruth and Martin try to persuade Louisa that with therapy and treatment, Mrs T will now be fine. Louisa says something like, “Well, she was always a bit odd.” And Martin agrees. That is, therapy could help her curb her inappropriate behavior and feelings for Martin, but it would not change her oddness. And, of course, by S7 she is again chasing after Martin until she comes to her senses and reconciles with Clive.

    For me, the question for the show is not whether people can change but whether the writers will allow Martin and Louisa to change in ways that make them a more functional couple (as characters). Changes in their behavior and means of talking to each other can be done in a credible way without changing their basic personalities. But will the writers do that? Or do they believe that the show can only succeed if M & L remain the same?

    If part of the theme of the show is that we have to accept people as they are, does that mean that it is also saying people should not be made to change? If so, then why have so many instances where other characters turn to therapy for help (Mike Pruddy, the OCD teacher, Penhale, Ruth’s next-door neighbor with scurvy, the man who thought he was his wife, etc.)? Obviously the show is saying both that we need to accept the differences in people, but that when it comes to being dysfunctional, people can and should be helped with therapy.

  2. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Whew! I have done a long post on how the main characters in this show have or have not changed called “People Make Mistakes.” It wouldn’t surprise me if you forgot about it. I had to remind myself what I wrote. That gives you my take on some of this as relates to the show. (And I promised to stop writing about change at the end of that post, but here I am resurrecting it!)

    I have also wondered about their position on therapy and its usefulness. While you’re right that they sometimes recommend therapy, it’s also been true that they are tentative about its effectiveness. Mrs. T has not been a success story in my book. The last episode of S7 has her still hovering around Martin’s cottage. Penhale is hard to judge because he’s overcome many phobias very quickly. To me, they shrug off his supposed anxieties and use them as the bases for humorous scenes. Surely having a police officer who can’t leave his station is amusing. (A bit like a surgeon having a blood phobia, no?)

    So I continue to find it difficult to know where they stand on therapy.

    I hesitate to say what the show is telling us, except to say there are a lot of quirky people in the world and they can be a source of amusement as well as a source of compassion. I mostly found these two articles worth sharing because all of this concern about change can be summed up simply by saying we all change over time and, if we wish to boost the timeline for change, we can seek therapy. (At least therapists would say that!)

  3. Amy

    Who can remember? Why the whew? Anyway, you brought up the topic again, and I’d recently seen that episode when Mrs T returns, so it stirred up the whole question of the show’s view on the effectiveness of therapy.

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