Can We Change Our Spots? Indeed, We Can

I can’t count the many times I have heard people say that human beings are like leopards; they can’t change their spots (the good and bad behaviors that characterize our tendencies). I’m both amused and puzzled by statements like this; sayings of popular culture that says little to nothing about human beings ability to change. Can you imagine thinking that you may live 80+ years on this earth and being unable to change your beliefs, self-image, and way of being an iota, because these characteristics innately define you? This is sad, indeed! Even the shape and appearance of rocks are changed, over time, through outside influences. And, all they do is just stand there, in all of their majestic beauty.

There is no person or thing on this earth that isn’t altered in some way through its interaction with the environment. Even the spots on leopards change through environmental influence. That’s right. “Scientists at Bristol University analyzed the markings of 35 wild cat species to understand better what drives the evolution of so many beautiful and intriguing patterns.” They found that the detailed differences in physical markings was evolutionarily linked to types and colors of vegetation and greenery in which the cats lived. Coat markings modified enough to fit with the setting so that leopards could get close enough to their prey to catch them but also to camouflage themselves from predators (Actually, a leopard can change its spots by CliveCookson).

If we are like leopards, it seems that it is more because we can change too if the situation requires it, even behaviors that we tend to refer to as innate. The psychological and physical sciences used to distinquish between innate and learned behavior. But, this distinction has blurred, as a result of research.  

Stress, lifestyle habits, thinking and emotions can positively or negatively alter how genes for certain behaviors get expressed in our bodies. Many of these factors must be present for a genetic disposition toward mental or physical illness to show up in us. Environmental influences and our actions can determine the activation or suppression of a gene’s behavior.

The one thing that is clear is that we humans are wired for change, even on a genetic level. We are always in a process of influencing our surroundings or being influenced by them. What we do gives feedback that can alter our beliefs, behavior, and self-image. And, thank goodness, this is the case.

Nonetheless, it can still be hard to make personal changes. The behaviors we tend to think of as  unchangeable most often involve negative features of our personalities or habits that trouble us. These are the behaviors that we may resist changing. This is especially true the more areas of our lives support the existence of these negative behaviors. Changing our “spots” can shake up every area of our lives and bring us great discomfort. This, and our need to feel safe, comfortable and secure can make us unwilling to change.

We like the knowns of living; feeling grounded in who we are, sure of what we know and where we are going. We want to keep learning and growing. On paper, this all sounds very good, like personal change is the right thing to do. But, in actuality, we are often indecisive about making changes that affect our whole life.

A Willingness to Change

Our unwillingness to change is at the heart of the problem. Many of us get stuck talking about what we need to do. We may need to quit smoking, lose weight, learn to be more assertive, or better manage our anger but cannot motivate ourselves to do it. Because, at our core, we are unwilling to change, no matter how much we say otherwise. 

The renowned psychologist James O. Prochaska calls this stage of behavior change pre-contemplation. It’s a lack of willingness to undergo a change in a behavior pattern that may show up in chronic excuses as to why we cannot. Or, our unwillingness may show up as a false sense of authentic self-expression. You know, the “This is me” declaration that is usually a defense against changing.

Even patients entering psychotherapy, by their own decision, can be stuck in the pre-contemplation stage of personal change. They come to therapy more to talk about their problems than to actually change. It’s true that talking about our problems and getting professional support can relieve us. But, this alone doesn’t necessarily lead to personal change. Change usually requires that we do something as well.

Get Beyond the Excuses

When we are willing to change something about ourselves or our lives, suddenly the reasons we once used to resist the change fall away, along with the words “I can’t”. Surely, there are things about our lives that make some changes challenging and difficult. But, it is amazing how we begin to problem solve, once we decide to make the change.

I want to share with you today a tough-love technique that I sometimes use to waken my patients from self-deception and from spending any more time in the pre-contemplation stage of behavior change. I use it on myself, too. 

Remember, the technique is tough only because it suspends excuses and gets us to look at the true source of our hesitation. But, the message of the technique must be conveyed in a respectful, compassionate, and authentically caring tone, to be effective.

Let’s try it on ourselves for a moment. Think of a negative behavior that you’d like to change, but let one reason or another stop you from doing it. Do you have it in your mind? Okay, read the following: 

“If I can’t empower myself by changing this behavior, I will empower myself by admitting that it’s because I’m unwilling to do so right now.” 

Each time you find yourself talking about the reasons why you cannot make the change that you say you want, immediately say to yourself: “I’m unwilling to do so right now.”

Self-honesty can be a positive, first step toward changing the behavior that you are resisting. By reminding yourself that you are unwilling to change rather than you can’t moves the problem from a given of circumstance (unchangeable) to possibility (changeable). This sounds strange, I know. But, think about it for a second. By owning up to your unwillingness, you are now free to decide either way. If you say no to the change, for now, at least you can stop obsessing about why you can’t remove the behavior and move on to other things in your life. In my experience, however, many people actually start to contemplate change. With no excuses, they begin to think about all that is involved in the change and ways that they can bring the change about.

I hope you liked today’s post. Let me know by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet or Google+1 today’s article to let family and friends know about it. Warm regards to you, Deborah.


One Response to “Can We Change Our Spots? Indeed, We Can”

  1. I really agree with you, and think that you have made what needs to be done in order to change so clear. Thanks for the great article.


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