Can a Leopard Change It’s Spots: What do Do When Others Won’t Believe You’ve Changed

You’ve made a really big change. Not a little “hey, I think might start eating healthier” type of change;  a really big, core-level change. The kind of change fostered by traveling through the desert of your soul and being transformed. You are a new person!

What do you mean your friends and family aren’t buying it?

How do you convince others that this really is the new you and that you aren’t that old you they seem to remember so readily when this new you stands so eagerly before them?It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I mean, if you really have made a core-level change and really want to stop an old behavior, shouldn’t that desire and declaration be enough? Well, if the shoe was on the other foot, would it be for you? If you had a history with a family member who behaved for years in one way, and they came back from a seminar proclaiming how different they were, wouldn’t you want to see some proof?

The fact of the matter is that trust is a 2-way street. You can only do your part by creating a track-record of trustworthiness over time. If your family members have any sense of self-worth, boundaries, and discernment, they will require this before they do their part. Their part is to watch you and then at some point known only to them, make the decision to RISK and trust you again. After all, you may fail them, so it is a risk. You can only prove your trustworthiness quietly and consistently, again and again, over time. You might slip up, but over time, people need to be able to see that your words,  “I’ve changed” aren’t just empty words.

How long will this process take? It really depends upon your character prior to your big change.

In his book Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up In Order to Move Forward, Dr. Henry Cloud writes that a person’s character gives you the most accurate prediction of how that person will behave in the future. He talks about three categories of people: 1) The Wise Person, 2) The Foolish Person, and 3) The Evil Person.

Instruct the wise, and they will be even wiser.
Teach the righteous, and they will learn even more.

Proverbs 9:9 NLT

The “Wise Person,” he writes, learns from experience and changes his negative behavior. In order to learn from a “failure,” you have to first: be open to hearing the truth, acknowledge and own your problems without blaming others, show remorse, and then find ways to correct yourself and so do better in the future. Even though “Wise People” are, of course, human and not likely succeed the first time they try to change, they also don’t allow these failures to happen over and over and become ingrained patterns. If your family knows from previous experience that you are a “wise person,” then they have a history that tells them that you really are likely to change, and they will probably trust you more readily.

If you reason with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face;
confront bad behavior and get a kick in the shins.
So don’t waste your time on a scoffer;
all you’ll get for your pains is abuse… Proverbs 7-12 MSG

On the other hand, according to Cloud, “Foolish People” reject true and authentic feedback. They resist it, they have excuses for why they did what they did, and they don’t actually change their behavior. Try to give a “Foolish Person” constructive feedback and you’ll likely get back: defensiveness, rationalization, a barrage of blame pointed back at you, and a strong emotional response like anger at being called on their behavior rather than remorse. They tend to see themselves as the victim and are unaware of how much pain their behavior has caused others. If you have the history of being a “foolish person,” then unless your family has no boundaries or is in denial, they are smart to not trust you…at least not without some consistent, trustworthy action on your part.

Talking about how much you’ve changed is not showing consistent action. In fact, Cloud says, talking to a foolish person is really a waste of time because it does not help the problem and usually only results in drama. If you are really changing your character but have been a “foolish person” in the past, you can’t reasonably expect people to believe you immediately. You will have to show them with consistent, mature action over a very long period of time before people believe will believe that this leopard has “changed its spots,” so to speak.

“Evil People,” finally, are those Cloud defines as people whose desire is truly to hurt others and do destructive things. There is no reasoning with “evil people,” and Cloud suggests you use resources to protect yourself from these people. This includes restraining orders, calling lawyers and avoiding any further contact with them. “Evil people” don’t change; they change tactics to further manipulate you to get what they want.

So unless you are truly one of the “evil people,” others in your life have the right to want to see consistent change before believing you and taking the risk to trust you. You really may have changed something fundamental about your character, but to expect others to believe it without time to see it proven out is unrealistic and immature. Truly making your “yes” mean “yes,” your “no” mean “no” and being consistent is your job. It’s all about character.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
― Maya Angelou