Celebrating the Ability to Change

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We might feel our hearts swell and even wipe away a trickling tear as our favourite villain turns a corner and becomes a good 'un. Like when the Grinch embraces the Christmas spirit and sings, holding hands with the villagers around the Whoville Christmas Tree. Or when Scrooge leans out of the window and buys The Cratchits that huge turkey for their Christmas dinner. 

But how often do we give people a second chance in the real world?

Photo by Shawn Ang on Unsplash

Phrases like: 'once a cheater, always a cheater', or bitter, life-long feuds ignited and kept alive by the resentment of one single wrongdoing decades ago. Can people really change in real life? 

The quick answer is yes.
The long answer is this: 

Throughout our lives we change in many ways. We constantly evaluate the things that are important to us, our goals, the things we choose to care about and what we allow to affect or upset us. I doubt, if you're honest with yourself, that you're the same person now that you were a decade ago. You've probably even changed - at least a little bit - from the person you were last week. It's quite possible then, that you could have taken actions in the past that you wouldn't take now. At the time, it might even have seemed like the right thing to do - and yet you cringe about it twenty years later. 

Believe it or not, there is no basis in general terms for phrases like 'once a cheater, always a cheater'. There are plenty of people who have made terrible decisions who, every day, regret their actions and resolve never to make the same mistakes again. Of course, not everyone does, but there are many that do. 

Events in a person's life could also contribute to how a person holds themselves and the types of decisions they make. It's hard to know how to navigate a healthy, loving relationship if you've never known one. Mental health can also cause overreactions to events. A person who has been burgled could be considered, on the outside, a nosy neighbour. But after they've healed and overcome their fear, should they still be isolated and labelled that same 'curtain-twitcher'? 

I don't think so.  

About ten years ago, I was very different to who I am now. I decided to (inefficiently) blanket childhood trauma with an exaggerated sense of what I thought was 'right' and 'wrong'.It was a safety mechanism and I became obsessed with trying to create a world that was fair. I reported cars parked on yellow lines. I wrote letters off to MPs, complaining about the way things worked and trying to make the world 'fairer'. I rubbed people up the wrong way and, unsurprisingly, had few friends. While all this sounds terrible to me today, at the time I thought I was being helpful by speaking up. But my keen sense of moral 'rightness' took over and I started to mix with people that had similar views to me, which fuelled and validated my behaviour even more. I ended up pouting out of the window at neighbours dumping rubbish or people blocking our driveway more often than I spent playing with my kids. I was the typical nosy neighbour. The curtain-twitching busy-body. 

And then something changed. 

As you'd probably expect, all this frustration and anger eventually got the better of me. I cracked. I ended up deeply depressed. And I found myself bawling my eyes out, perched on the edge of a leather sofa in a therapist's office in town. 

I've had therapy three separate times since then, and after each one I've emerged a softer, more forgiving person as layers of resentment, anger and low self esteem were gently peeled away. I developed a forgiveness and compassion for myself and others. Now, if I hear a car outside on my driveway I don't really care unless someone rings my doorbell. Park on yellow lines, I don't care about that either, as long as I can get around you at a junction. I gradually learned that somewhere in that previous version of me was a frightened, panicked 10-year old who desperately wanted a safer, fairer world than the one she had known. But fixing that was never my job. 

I'm not proud of the things I did back then, and the way I came across to people. I think about those times often, with a flitter of butterflies that bubble up in my stomach. But I take comfort in the fact that I've changed. I have more friends, I look after myself and do favours for others. Every day I choose to try to be a better person than I was the day before. I'm actually grateful. Imagine still living like that and thinking it was normal for me. It wasn't. And let me tell you, it was exhausting.

So, back to the short answer. 

Yes, people can change. But they have to really change. That might involve therapy, deep self-evaluation or just a real, genuine desire to improve. You don't give people ten (or even two) chances at a friendship, if they've hurt you and show no remorse, or just keep doing it again. But some of us really do change for the better. And I think there also needs to be some compassion in there somewhere. It's no good retweeting or sharing a message of 'Be Kind' and then turning from your keyboard to slag off the nosy neighbour or the socially awkward girl that lives up the road. 

A way of life, a change in your opinions or goals - or a mistake you make doesn't have to define you for the rest of your life - it's not a prison sentence, and it shouldn't feel like one. That's not good for anyone. Like I say in my book, Love Life, Less Stress, you get the chance every day to choose how you're going to be. You can always start again. 

And yes, that can involve tiny steps towards big changes. 

You can find out more about my book Love Life, Less Stress at Amazon.