Can Leopards Change Their Spots?

-Linda Sapadin, PhD

At the end of a frustrating therapy session, Emma turned to her husband and said, “you’ll never change.” Feeling defeated, she then turned to me and said, “My mother always said, ‘a leopard doesn’t change its spots.’ Now I see what she means. Do you think that people ever really change the way they are? ”

“Of course I do!” I responded. “That’s why I’m a psychologist. That’s why I love my work. People can and do change — when they’re open to it.”

Now it is true, that a total personality change is not in the cards for most people — nor should it be. We are who we are. But changing aspects of one’s behavior (how we think, what we do, how we speak) is definitely possible and happens all the time as people adjust to new circumstances.

However, when you’re trying to change someone else’s behavior — or even your own — here’s why you must temper your expectations about change.

  1. It’s practically impossible to get someone else to change when he doesn’t want to. Think about it. It’s tough enough for you to change when you know what’s good for you, (i.e. exercise, eat right, temper your anger). So how can you expect an unmotivated person to change just because you want him to?
  2. Some people, more than others, find it easier to change. The more rigid a person’s personality, the more sure they are “right”, the more anxious they are about change, the harder it will be for them to modify their behavior.
  3. Meaningful change is a process that takes time. One does not listen to a guru, read a self-help book, or get hyped up by an Oprah show, and presto, a new person! These experiences, however, can, and frequently do, jump-start change. Still, such change may not survive the test of time. For better or for worse, we still carry our psychological baggage with us wherever we go.

Now, with tempered expectations, let’s take a look at how meaningful change might occur between Emma and her husband, Doug, without Emma having to struggle so hard to make her husband change.

Emma desperately wanted Doug to take her seriously, particularly when they were discussing finances. But once they started talking, it didn’t take long before Emma felt shut out. Everything needed to be Doug’s way. He dismissed her ideas, viewing them as stupid or wrong. She had no idea how to change him, despite telling him over and over again that she wanted to be heard. And treated with respect.

As Emma became more aware of her husband’s put-downs, she stopped complaining about what he was doing. Instead, she learned how to respond with increased strength and self-assuredness. When she felt that he was baiting her, she didn’t allow herself to get hooked, nor feel intimidated. She simply agreed to disagree.

As time went on, not only did Emma become more knowledgeable about finances but she also became more self-assured in what she said and how she said it. With her new approach, Doug became less insistent that his way was the only way, the “right” way. He was changing too. Not because Emma demanded it, but because her change created a different situation for him that he, in turn, needed to respond to.

There are limits to what you can change about another person, particularly when you keep behaving the same way. So, think about what you can do that will create a different scenario for the other person. Not because you are the one to blame. Or you are the one that’s wrong. But because you are the one that desires the change.

As you create a different dynamic between the two of you, be aware of how things are changing. Not dramatic change. Not magical change. But small change that’s moving in the right direction. Day by day; week by week; month by month. Until one day you suddenly notice, things really are different between the two of you. Then it’s time to rejoice!

Why Some People Can’t Change

-Jonice Webb, PhD

There’s no such thing as standing still in life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.

It’s baffling how some people seem to identify a problem in their lives, decide they want to change themselves, and start changing; whereas others don’t seem to be able to take steps forward like that.

Some folks seem to stay stuck no matter how hard they try. They might read self-help books, talk to people, go to therapy, or even see multiple therapists. But nevertheless, their issues don’t seem to improve.

If this is someone you care about, you might watch helplessly from the sidelines as they continue to be their own worst enemy. They may seem to be repeating patterns that are self-destructive, unable to hear or take others’ advice, or distant and unreachable. It is painful to watch.

It’s even more painful when it’s you, and you are watching yourself live this way.

In my 20 years of experience as a psychologist, I’ve identified 6 personal traits that can stymie and stick even the most deserving and lovable people. The last one, #6, is the least recognized and, I think, the most powerful block of all.

6 Obstacles to Growth

1. You Can’t See the Path:

When you’ve spent years living a certain way, the way you’ve been living becomes your reality and your world view. Other people seem to be living in a different world, and you can’t understand how they got there. It’s hard to attain something that you can’t even imagine.

2. You are Walled Off:

Growing up feeling unloved, unaccepted or unsafe can force a child to erect walls around herself for protection. Those walls are helpful in childhood, but in adulthood, they block out the people who can help you the most. It can be difficult to trust the people who could be supporting you. You find yourself “safe” but alone, trapped within walls that are holding you back.

3. Comfortably Uncomfortable:

Self-destructive or damaging life patterns can be so entrenched that they’ve become a part of who you are. No matter what’s wrong in your life, you can get accustomed to it. Our brains store life patterns, and we have a natural tendency to settle into them. We are who we are, and on some level, we get comfortable with it, even if it makes us miserable. The idea of changing can feel very discomfiting and scary. It feels easier and safer to choose “the devil you know.”

4. Depression: Depression interferes with growth in three important ways. It saps your energy and motivation, which makes it harder to take on a challenge; it makes you isolate yourself so that you have less support to change; and it makes you feel hopeless, so there seems no point in trying to change.

5. Anger at Yourself: Self-directed anger has a way of breaking you down. Like drops of water on a stone, there is gradual erosion of your self-worth. How can you change when you don’t feel you’re worth the effort it requires?

And now for the big one.

6. Past Mistakes & Misdeeds: In order to truly change, you have to acknowledge and face your own painful history. Who have you hurt? What damage have you done to yourself or others? The guilt and pain that can result from looking at the past is a powerful force that can hold back even the most courageous. I have seen that this factor alone is a tremendous block in the recovery of anyone who has a personality disorder, or any other long-standing destructive life pattern. If you catch even a glimpse of how your past choices or mistakes have affected others, it may be so painful and guilt-inducing that you immediately look away. And there you are, right back where you started from.

5 Requirements for Personal Change

  • Motivation
  • Enough discomfort with how things are
  • Persistence
  • Willingness to face pain
  • Support

What to Do

  1. Read the list of obstacles, and think about which one (or ones) applies to you.
  2. Is “walled off” on your list? This one must be overcome first. Your walls are keeping you away from the support that you need. So start trying to let at least one helpful person in.
  3. Think through all the ins and outs of how your destructive pattern is harming your life. If you get pangs of pain or guilt, remind yourself that you are human, and that all humans are fallible. Treat yourself with kindness and take your time, but do everything you can to face the pain.
  4. Know that there is a path to a better place. The more you accept support and face your pain, the more clearly you will see your path.
  5. Put one foot in front of the other. Inch forward.

One step at a time.

The 7 Rules for Texting in Relationships

6. Don’t let a committee interpret your partner’s text.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

While waiting for a table at a busy restaurant the other day, I witnessed a man angrily banging away on his phone. This well-dressed man in a charming suit had a grimace on his face and would pause to look at his phone and then proceed to angrily type, pausing again to look at his phone and then bitterly typing again—with each interval increasing in visual upset. It appeared that he was involved in a text war.

The bigger question behind text wars is the question of whether such arguments would occur if the people were face-to-face. A repeated citation is that 85% of communication is nonverbal. Additional citations have increased that percentage to 90%, with 60% of nonverbal communication coming from facial cues and 40% from tone of voice. Albert Mehrabian increased the percentage to 93% of communication as nonverbal—with 55% coming from body language, 38% from tone of voice, and only 7% of communication relying on the actual words used.


That means that when these texts start escalating our frustration, we are basing our reaction on limited—very limited—information. Worse, people tend to dig their heels about what they’ve interpreted because they read the actual words written. This tendency makes repairing a misunderstanding next to impossible if the person isn’t open to realizing that misunderstandings occur.

So, this is first thing that anyone who texts needs to understand—misunderstandings occur in text. In fact, text is probably the worst form of communication to rely on when building a relationship.

Which brings me to Rule #1 for textingDon’t rely on texting as your main communication vehicle in your relationship. Let it augment and support your relationship, but don’t let it be the main form.

If your relationship begins to get out of balance because you’ve only been texting, then immediately plan some face time. This is true for professional as well as intimate relationships. (Note: If you are dating and begin a relationship with text, getting very deep before recognizing that a relationship in person may need to develop as well, don’t be surprised if you could be close when texting but feel awkward in person.)

2. The moment a clash becomes evident in texting, try to stop and ask if both of you can talk in person (or on phone if that’s the only option).

Share that you’re concerned a misunderstanding is occurring. Of course, sometimes people don’t want to talk. They’re too upset or embroiled in the heat of the moment. Their defensiveness is on high alert, so a text war ensues. Hopefully the relationship is strong enough that it can stand up to a few hiccups from inevitable text disputes.


It’s not a good way to test your relationship’s resilience, though—because the small crack of mistrust that breeds in such heated exchanges can eventually grow and sink the whole relationship.

3. Avoid defensiveness.

When you start defending yourself and/or your actions, the relationship is in danger. Seek understanding and attempt to have a conversation that allows for mutual understanding. Defensiveness usually indicates that we feel threatened and have a level of mistrust; the words that leave us in defensive moments generally tend to put up such a wall that the other person becomes just as defensive. I compare it to pulling out the ego defense guns. Once we pull ours out, the other person tends to do the same. In such a stand-off, someone must stop the escalation and put up the white flag to enable repair. (Putting up the peaceful surrender flag in this situation is actually a sign of maturity, not losing.)

4. Avoid blaming and criticism.

John Gottman refers to the four horseman of the apocalypse for relationships—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This holds true even more so when texting. Ego defense guns are firing the minute blaming and criticizing begin. Most likely, the other person will shoot back when shot at—which escalates the exchange into the worst of the defensive maneuvers—silent treatment, or the end of the relationship.

5. Don’t let too much time pass before repairing a disruption.

Misunderstandings aren’t necessarily bad on their own; it’s all about how people repair them. A relationship is in danger when the silent treatment follows a text war. Sometimes a healthy and strong relationship can handle a time-out, but ignoring someone altogether turns a crack into an irreparable hole.

6. Avoid committee interpretation of texts.

As stated above, most communication relies on nonverbal cues—facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Context is crucial and most people outside of a relationship do not have intimate knowledge of the other person and your personal relationship. They also can’t see the person or understand their personal context, so they are liable to misinterpret their message as well—leading to multiple people infiltrating the relationship with biased points of view and potentially leading the person farther from critical relationship repair.

7. When all else fails, try to find humor and light in all exchanges.

Don’t over-focus on meaning and intent. Instead, err on the side of humor and give the benefit of the doubt.

In the words of the Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Sometimes love is stronger than a man’s convictions…(and)…[t]he waste basket is a writer’s best friend.”

-Kimberly Kay

Changing (Stages of Change)

If you are struggling with an active addiction, you know what the shame feels like when you are not meeting other peoples’ expectations, you are losing relationships and jobs and health. Often, you feel extreme pressure to be changed but you may feel like you are drowning, instead. How do I get from here to there, you ask?

It is important to know how people change because then you can have realistic expectations, start to communicate better with those around you and start making changes in your addictions and other areas of your life!!!

There are various “stages of change:”

The first stage is Pre-Contemplation: this is the stage where a person doesn’t think he/she has a problem. Other people around them may think they have a HUGE problem but don’t see it. In this stage of change it isn’t going to help to push or pull the person and there can be a lot of conflict with those around you.

Contemplation stage of change comes next and is an important turning point. You start to think, “maybe they are right. Maybe something is wrong here.” “ Why have I lost all these things?” This is when the door opens for the possibility of change.

Preparation stage of change is when you have accepted there is a problem and start to think about how you want to go about changing it. At this point, you start to take other people’s suggestions into consideration.

Action stage of change is when you are actively involved in recovery activities, you are no longer alone, fighting to keep it all out. You start to go to 12-step groups maybe, or a church recovery group, engage with a Talkspace therapist, the options are many.

Maintenance stage of change is when you have reaped some of the reward of your difficult road. You have clean and sober friends, clean places to go, ways to celebrate that don’t include substances. Relationships are mended. Is it still difficult at times, absolutely, but you have resources and supports to get you through!

Relapse can come at any point. It is important to know it is often part of the cycle of change. If you relapse, you don’t lose all the wisdom you gained down your road of change. You need to hop back in and do what works, call out every supportive person and resource you have.

-Marie Turco, LCSW, CCPD_D