Is It Really Possible For A Person To ‘Change’?

Can a leopard really ever change its spots?

via Cottonbro studio

Cancel culture – the idea of culturally blocking someone from having a public platform or career – is nows mainstream. The public dragging, the implications, but the concept seems to be gaining more and more traction.

Remember the popularity of the YouTube apology video? Shane Dawson, James Charles, Jenna Marbles, they’re just a drop in the cancelled ocean who have made their best attempts at salvaging their reputations by sharing a video apologising for their problematic past behaviour.

These days, the notes app apology seems to be more prevalent, as celebs and people of note screenshot their sorrys, address their wrongdoings, and promise to be better.

In no way am I defending problematic actions, but there is always a tiny part of me who wants to believe this remorse. Maybe we should take these words as sincere and their actions as heartfelt, because maybe a leopard really can change his spots?

Psychologist Dr. Katie Baird tells me that cancel culture and a deep desire to belong are intrinsically entwined. “Cancel culture is related to how much we, as an evolved species, need to belong. We like to feel that the group we belong to reflects what is important to us, and we like the feeling of security that comes with feeling we are part of the “right” group.”

This raises an important point however, that at its core, the concept of cancel culture isn’t actually all bad. Yes, like many things in life it may have gone too far, with a mob mentality quickly emerging, but really, it’s supposed to be about holding people in power responsible for their wrongdoings.

“Cancel culture also seems to reflect empowerment of the individual – a chance for people who might have been hurt, or might be vulnerable, to reclaim space and say clearly “this isn’t right!” Katie says. While the term ‘cancel culture’ itself is fairly new, the act of ostracising someone isn’t, “Humans have used public shaming as a way to control behaviour for centuries.”

So, can we continue to grow and improve as a society, letting people know when they’re wrong without turning the situation into a witch hunt? Katie believes that differentiating between what is practical and what is harmful in cancel culture is a good step in reclaiming the concept for all the right reasons, “It’s not about viewing cancel culture as either healthy or unhealthy, but what about it is healthy and useful as a society, and what about it is destructive. Because our human minds are capable of being both compassionate and also very destructive.”

So, putting some of that compassion to practise, should we start believing not only online personalities when they admit they are sorry for something, but ourselves too? Knowing that we are not only willing, but also perfectly capable of change. A quick Google search of ‘can people really change?’ brings up around 3 million results, so if we’re all wondering the same thing, why are we so unconvinced of others when they admit their wrongdoings?

Psychologist Katie believes that people, celebrities or otherwise, do in fact have the ability to change, “We are incredibly adaptive species, we change all the time as we adapt to a changing environment”. “I can change, please give me a second chance” is often one of the first things you hear from someone’s mouth after they’ve just broken your heart. Maybe they’ve cheated on you, or told you a lie. 31-year-old Shauna* found herself in this exact situation when her then boyfriend of 4 years admitted he had slept with someone else in the early stages of their relationship.

“My friend came to me and told me that she had heard rumours of my boyfriend cheating on me when we were less than 4 months together. I straight away assumed it wasn’t true because my boyfriend would never do that to me, but when I approached him about it he told me that it wasn’t a lie and that it had happened.” Understandably heartbroken, Shauna initially wanted to end the relationship, putting an immediate halt to their romance and telling her boyfriend that she needed time alone.

“I couldn’t even look at him,” Shauna tells STELLAR, “I was more hurt that he had lied to me for almost 4 years than the actual cheating. I always told myself that if I was cheated on I would leave that person and never get back with them, no matter what.” After taking some time alone to heal, Shauna said that her boyfriend never gave up on fixing their relationship, believing his promise to change, Shauna opened up her heart to Brian* again, granting him one chance to prove he’s sorry.

“I broke my rule of never getting back together, because I knew how sorry he was about what had happened. He constantly stayed in contact with me, telling me every single day how much he has changed and would never hurt me that way again.” After attending a number of couples counselling sessions, Shauna says that she and Brian’s relationship is stronger than ever.

Having regained the trust that was once lost Shauna believes that Brian is a totally different person to the one he was when he cheated and believes that sometimes, people do deserve second chances. “I knew we had something special together, I told him it would take time for me to trust him again but I was willing to put in the work if he was too. We’re back together 2 years now and things are finally back on track. Brian has proved to me that he’s a completely different person to the one he was 7 years ago and I’m so glad that I broke my rule of never giving second-chances.”

In the wake of increased scrutiny, we know that change is needed more than ever. Confident that we all possess the ability to change, Katie believes that cancel culture could cause more harm than good if taken too far, “If we feel too afraid of being shamed by others, or “cancelled” by them, we are likely to hide our thoughts and behaviours (possibly even from ourselves).”

Instead, Katie believes that compassion and patience is the key to changing ourselves and those around us too, as Shauna and Brian demonstrated in fixing their relationship, ”Research has shown that when we feel a sense of internal shame and regret, we can be motivated to change. When we are encouraged and supported to change, then it is likely that our motivation will lead to change.”

This change can come about through a number of ways, “Change can be the result of education and exposure to new ideas or people, psychotherapy, or being forced to change in order to hang on to something we value (or to survive).” Of course, unlearning established thoughts and behaviours won’t happen with the click of a finger but with effort and patience, it’s clear that we can all become the people that we want to be.