Can a leopard change its spots?

January 9, 2012 by
Filed under: Spinewave Bulletin 

Forget your new year’s resolutions. People don’t change. Or can they?

When asked on The Today Show how he cured himself of his addiction, ex Two and a Half Men sitcom star Charlie Sheen replied, “I closed my eyes and made it so with the power of my mind.”

A prevailing view of substance abuse, supported by both the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Alcoholics Anonymous, is the “disease model of addiction”. The model attributes addiction largely to changes in brain structure and function. Because these changes make it much harder for the addict to control substance use, health experts recommend professional treatment and complete abstinence. However, the fact is a large proportion of people “cure” themselves all on their own.


Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus observed 2,500 years ago: “You never step twice into the same river.” Things will change, with or without you. Maybe that’s what Bono meant?

From where I stand, I see the difference in clients who succeed at Spinewave, and those who don’t. There’s a fundamental difference in their approach [to life]. Some of them have a fire in their belly about getting better, while others just want to be “fixed”, as the idle passenger in the process. The latter rarely succeed – or if they do, the fix is temporary. I realised after quite some time that people’s success has very little to do with me.

Many health practitioners invest massive amounts of energy “educating” patients to value their health, “scaring” patients into placing a higher value on their health, “nagging” patients into taking greater responsibility and a host of manipulative strategies that are often justified as being in the patient’s best interests (Esteb, 2011). But the reality of true change only occurs in the light of “an event”.

I’ve lost count of the number times a wife has sent an unwilling husband into the practice to be sorted out… once and for all! They don’t last long. The psychology behind this is intriguing, yet easy to pick in the first five minutes of conversation.

People want change though, otherwise new year’s resolutions wouldn’t be so popular each year. But for the way most brains are wired, resolutions don’t stick. Our leopard spots don’t change. Everyone knows it takes more or less 30 days to kick a habit, but it’s more than that. Beneath the soft-wiring of our personality and psychological make-up, run belief systems that are never challenged in the absence of some cataclysmic, catalytic life event. That’s only when we really stop and go, damn, that’s not good.

How do people stop their addictive behaviour on their own?

Things happen. Change can often be traced to moments you could never choreograph (or wish to). Something happens and we decide to turn over a new leaf, abandon a bad habit or embrace a new one. It’s these life-changing events, like a health scare, that can often prompt someone to sharply rearrange their priorities. People have to be motivated though. It takes the realisation that their family, their future, their employment – or all these things – are becoming severely compromised. The subtext isn’t that they just “walk away” from the addiction or behaviour. Something seriously catalyses them and no amount of push or pull from family or practitioners can initiate the horse to drink the water. For example, a six-year-old says, “Why don’t you ever come to my games anymore, Daddy?” This then prompts a crisis of identity causing the individual to ask himself, “Is this the type of father I really want to be?”

The fact is you can only be there for people after something happens. So be patient.

There isn’t always a major cataclysmic event, so the momentum to change the brain can be quite difficult to muster. People want it though; they know it’s good for them! But the underlying belief systems (some conscious and some subconscious) are too strong. A belief system is like a table top being supported by legs of “causation” one put there over the years. For example: if you believe that you’re good at something, there must be some reasons that caused you to generate this perception. It’s only when these legs are kicked out one by one that a person’s belief system will change and they’ll be motivated to do something.

A common mistake when you want to help someone change is to insist that it happens on your schedule, the way you want it to happen. This is actually unhelpful and self-centred. A better approach would be to show up accepting, non-judgemental and inspire them to be the change you’d like to see – just as Gandhi said!

Esteb (2011) goes on to say, if you want to be an inspiration to others, you must start with yourself. And not only in the mental and spiritual dimensions of being fully engaged and pursuing your dreams, but by being healthy in the physical and emotional realms as well. Not so you can show up “holier than thou,” but so you’re valid and others are inspired to want for themselves what you are so obviously enjoying. Then when you’re on fire, people will come from far and wide to watch you burn!

© Dr Neil Bossenger 2012


Esteb, W. 7 Ways to motivate people. Patient Media, Inc. 2011

Bai, N. Can you cure yourself of drug addiction? Scientific American. March, 2011.

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