You Can’t Change People

Many people will waste their lives away fantasizing about how things would be better if person X changed.

“If only he listened when I talk to him.”

“If she would only read that book that I recommended to her.”

“If only they would start exercising so they would live longer.”

But the truth is, you can’t change people. They are who they are.

And the sooner you accept that truth, the happier you will be.

Read on to learn how to let people be, how you can facilitate (but not force) change, and what you really should focus on.

The Evidence Is Clear

You can’t change people.

If you harbor any doubts about that statement, ask yourself: “When did I last observe someone changing their ways because someone else (a friend, a family member, a lover) wanted them to?”

The answer is, of course, “Never.”

People might behave like they have changed just to please another person. They might even be coerced to do something, to avoid punishment. Or worse yet, they might be manipulated into action by false promises.

But none of that changes who they are. And when they act in a way that is incongruent with who they are, there will eventually be a clash.

The house of cards will collapse.

Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.

Coco Chanel

How Experiences Shape Our Values

No two people are ever the same.

Only you have experienced what you have experienced. Because of that, you come up with certain learnings about life, which are uniquely yours. These learnings are called your “values.”

If you grew up in a harsh environment where you had to fight for survival, you might value strength above everything.

If you were raised in a sheltered environment, you will probably value diplomacy more.

Neither of these viewpoints is necessarily wrong. They are both appropriate to the context in which they were developed.

But as a result, people have different outlooks on life. And if you believe in displays of strength above everything (and I believe in intricate diplomacy), we will only get so far with each other.

Two different life stories resulting in two different sets of values

You cannot overrule someone else’s values. If you try to, you are effectively imposing a belief system on them which doesn’t match their life experiences.

It’s like telling a fish to get out of the water and be a bird. How could they? It goes against everything they know to be true.

But What if I Am Right?

If two people cannot agree on their values, it doesn’t mean both of them are right. They are only both right relative to their specific life experiences.

But objectively, if your doctor is trying to convince you to stop smoking, he is probably right, and you are most likely wrong.

And oftentimes, it is painfully obvious that one side is right (or at least more right), while the other person is clearly being stubborn, stupid, lazy, or a mix of those.

And what do you do in these cases?


Because, first, people will not give up on their values just because you want them to. You can’t change people, see above.

Second, everybody must be free to make their own mistakes. And that includes friends, lovers, and especially children.

Third, if we try to coerce or manipulate people into going along with our values, there will be a price to pay. It will destroy the relationship.

Why a Violation of Boundaries Always Backfires

When we coerce or manipulate people into doing what we want, we violate their boundaries of self. We take the liberty to play god with their innermost sanctum.

People will rightfully resent you if you do so, even if your intention is to help them.

If you keep doing so, you will destroy whatever relationship is in front of you.

Even if we understand this, we rarely stick to it. The reason is ego. When we know better, we want to vehemently spread that truth. We enjoy the feeling of dominance we get from it.

“Trust me, I know what is best for you.”

But if you are one of the few people able to restrain themselves, you will be appreciated. People will love you for not invading them, no matter how wrong they are.

Self-destruction Is a Choice

I know how hard it is to watch someone you love self-destruct. I have been there.

You can of course voice your disapproval. Set a different example. Be available. Maybe ask some careful questions, to get them to think. But that is about it.

Ultimately, you need to let them go their way.

The greatest gift in life is freedom. We can create ourselves as we see fit.

But the flip side is that we can also choose to throw it all away.

You cannot have one without the other. We either let people be free or we control them. There is no such thing as selective freedom.

I prefer liberty with danger than peace with slavery.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Can People Ever Change?

Some people can change for the better, and when it happens, it is one of the most beautiful things to behold.

But they will change of their own accord, when they are ready to change, not when you want them to.

It usually happens after a certain number of failures. As we keep hitting walls, some of us will adjust our behavior to get better results.

In essence, we learn from pain.

But it’s also true that most people will go to great lengths to not face that developmental pain. That is their choice. Don’t take it away from them.

They must own the change. They must feel it is theirs, that they chose it. Only then will it last.

How To Facilitate Change

You can’t change people, but you can create a positive environment for change. Let’s look at your options from best to worst.

1. Lead by Example

Your typical weekend? Getting wasted with the boys. But now you have decided to get your life together. You stop drinking. You start exercising. As a result, you feel better than you have in years.

That can have a rippling effect.

To be sure, most of your former drinking buddies will not approve. But there might be one who was also questioning these escapades. And now, inspired by your example, he too quits.

Leading by example only works if you have no intention to lead by example. Any outcome dependency like, “Maybe if I start exercising, she will start as well” will ruin it. You must be completely focused on your own change.

Only if you truly want to become a better version of yourself will you appear inspiring to others.

A fish swarm, led by a red fish

2. Don’t Enable

I said earlier that you should not force your values on other people, and that is true.

But neither should you enable people when they choose the path of self-destruction.

This is a fine line to walk. If you err on the value side of things, you will be seen as intrusive. That will lead to refusal.

But if you err on the side of enablement, you will make it easier for them to self-destruct. They will feel like you approve, it’s no big deal, we are just having fun, etc.

It is okay to let your cheating friend know that you don’t approve of his behavior. This is not the same as making a scene, putting pressure on him, or telling his wife. You are simply stating your viewpoint.

If at some point he decides he needs help, you can be available to him (see next point). You can encourage him to come clean, look at non-monogamous relationship models, etc.

But until then, don’t enable him.

3. Don’t Exult

Every once in a blue moon, someone is ready to make a change. Not because you forced him to, but because he himself is fed up with himself.

When that happens, don’t exult. The other person already knew you were secretly waiting for them to change. By celebrating their conversion, you will just create resentment and therefore hinder the change.

4. Be Available

The other thing you can do is to let them know you are available. It’s the classic, “If you ever need someone to talk to, I am here for you.”

The qualifier is important. Do not force your help on them. Let them come to you.

When they do, listen. Try to understand what they need from you. If their request seems reasonable and will facilitate the change, help them.

So if your beach bum friend asks you to look over his job application, invest a few hours. Maybe even suggest role-playing the interview with him.

But should he ask you to write the applications for him, say no. Being available is not the same thing as enabling him further.

Be like Google. Let them feel that there are resources at their fingertips. But it’s up to them to utilize these resources.

5. Ask Questions

When you invade someone’s personal boundaries with demands (“You should get a job!”), they will reject you, even if you are right.

It’s a better idea to ask them questions, to get them to think for themselves.

This is why we pay psychotherapists or coaches — not to bombard us with directives, but to set a process in motion.

Instead of demanding, “Get a job!”, you could ask, “What would you really like to do with your life?”

Instead of demanding, “Split up with that emotionally abusive husband of yours!” you could ask, “Do you feel happy with him?”

Instead of demanding, “Don’t spend so much money!”, you could ask, “Why do you enjoy consuming?”

A word of caution — this can easily backfire. If your questions are too suggestive, people will see right through your attempt at manipulation.

Also, don’t expect quick results. There is a reason why therapy can last years.

For Whom This Will Work — And For Whom Not

Why will some people be perceptive to these methods, and some won’t?

Think about it in terms of hunger.

Imagine you haven’t eaten in several days. You are ravenous.

Now you come across someone who is offering you a delicious meal. You will of course take that chance.

Likewise, some people are hungry for change. They are looking for an opportunity, an initial spark.

But these people would change no matter what. If you didn’t offer them food, they would find it somewhere else.

Vice versa, you cannot force-feed a full person. They have no need for change, no matter what delicacies you put in front of them.

You can’t change people. But you can help people who are ready for change.

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: None. The light bulb has to want to change.

Dad joke

Focus On Yourself

Getting people to change, even facilitating change — none of it ultimately matters.

Instead of fixating on something you cannot control — the behavior of other people —, you should focus on what you can control — your own behavior.

That means understanding the power of direct alternatives and becoming the orchestrator of your social circle.

Choose Direct Over Indirect Alternatives

Many people will waste their lives away, fantasizing about how things would be better if person X changed.

One friend pressuring his obese friend to start exercising.

The father placing all his unfulfilled aspirations on the college education of his son.

The wife nagging her husband to visit art galleries with her when he would much rather watch a football match.

When you think like this, you are putting your own happiness in someone else’s hands. You are voluntarily giving up control, hoping against hope that someone will act in a way they have never acted before.

This fool’s errand is called an indirect alternative (a term I borrowed from one of my favorite authors, Harry Browne).

Stop placing your hope on other people. Instead, focus on what you can control. There are plenty of things you can do to make yourself happy.

You can eat healthily (aka a paleo diet).

You can escape the 9-to-5 grind.

You can pursue your passions and hobbies.

You can learn how to not let things bother you.

You can surround yourself with high-quality people, similar in values.

These powerful direct alternatives solely depend on you. No one can stop you from implementing them.

But that is exactly the point. By placing your hopes on other people, you keep yourself busy. It’s the perfect excuse to not take responsibility for yourself.

Drop that. Concern yourself with changing yourself. This path is more difficult, but much more rewarding.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

Leo Tolstoy

Become the Orchestrator of Your Social Circle

You can’t change people. And if you try anyway, you are putting yourselves at their mercy. Your happiness now depends on their behavior.

The solution?

Filter who you allow into your social circle. Specifically, look for people who share your own values — based on how they act, not what they say.

This is your best chance to experience companionship or even love. Don’t change people (indirect alternative). Find more compatible people (direct alternative).

That means not being a passive bystander anymore, which is how most people go about their social life. They end up with whomever they studied with or met at work.

You must be different. You must actively get to know hundreds or even thousands of strangers, to find one or two high-quality people who also want to spend time with you.

The number of people you go through vs. the number of people you keep


To get quality, you must offer quality.

If you want to be with physically attractive people, become physically attractive yourself.

If you want to hang out with successful folks, prove your success.

You like smart people? Educate yourself.

Understand Your Triggers

You can’t change people. Yet despite your insight, the urge persists.

Analyze that urge.

When you do so, you will discover two base patterns:

  1. Complementation
  2. Mirroring


When someone feels the urge to change another person, it often stems from a need for complementation.

This is very common in couples. Person A is very risk-averse and never takes action. Because of that weakness, they are attracted to Person B, which is very much a risk-taker, but also doesn’t think before they act.

Initially, this is great. But the longer it goes on, the more they lose patience with each other. Their values are so fundamentally different, they start trying to change each other. Now you want the other person to be more like yourself.

Of course, that doesn’t work.

There are two possible courses of action here:

  1. Reduce your exposure to the other person, to the point where you start to appreciate their different qualities again. Satisfy your need for similarity with somebody else, be it another lover or another friend.
  2. Better yet, question your need for complementation in the first place. Instead of relying on other people to take action for you, could you yourself not become more of an action-taker? Learn self-sufficiency.


There is a second reason why we feel the urge to change somebody, and that is, they unconsciously mirror our own behavior.

For example, I get very upset with people unable to prioritize. They run around, trying this, trying that, never sticking with anything. And then they wonder why success keeps eluding them.

But the truth is, that is me. I am also unable to prioritize. I need constant distractions to not get bored with what I am currently doing. And as a result, the success I crave keeps eluding me.

In short: I get angry with other people for the things that I dislike about myself.

Once we realize this, we can use this. We can watch ourselves. When we react very strongly to somebody, so much that we want to change them, we should take note. Whatever that trigger is, we should change that undesired behavior in ourselves.

There is no such thing as an accident. What we call by that name is the effect of some cause which we do not see.



Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding, “You can’t change people.”

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