Actually, A Leopard Can Change Its Spots

by Daniel Fryer
28th Aug 2018

Idioms are useful things; it’s always nice to have a colourful expression or two on hand to help you explain yourself more creatively. And while most of them make complete sense (take ‘actions speak louder than words,’ for instance), some of them are a little more difficult to deduce (as in ‘Bob’s your uncle’). But some of them, well, some of them are just plain wrong: ‘a leopard can’t change its spots,’ for instance, is downright misleading.

I’m sure you all know what the expression means, namely, that a person can’t change who they are, that their basic character is immutable.

The idiom itself comes from the bible (Jeremiah 13:23), so it’s been knocking around for a while, but it’s complete rubbish when you think about it.

I bet you can name at least one or two people in your lives, people who have changed aspects of their character or, even, done a complete about face personality-wise.

An actual leopard cannot change its actual spots because their spots are an indelible pattern on its coat. If a person’s character were equally indelible, how would you explain the changes that people can make in therapy, or a person’s rehabilitation in prison?

'Ben Affleck is going through it right now. Drink, sex addicton, or the basic inability to cope with life situations, such as handling money or even not being selfish, tht most poeple find easy, some people struggle with. But it's behavioural. With the right help - and God knows Ben is lucky to have an ex like Jennifer Garner! - it is possible to revise these habits and get back on track.'

If you look at it, the Charles Dickens story ‘Scrooge’ is entirely predicated, metaphorically speaking, on a leopard’s ability to change its spots as the titular character moves from miserly to generous.

Change can occur due to external influences and major life experiences. Tragedy can change you for the worse, whilst the birth of a child can change you for the better.

But, people can take themselves off to therapy and deliberately target their character for change. They can swap anxiety-provoking thoughts for calming ones and depressing-thoughts for more cheery ones.

In fact, in cognitive behaviour therapy and other therapies like it, that process is known as cognitive restructuring: changing your thoughts to bring about a change in mood or behaviour.

And, just sometimes, people wake up, simply resolve to be kinder, or more generous or more confident, and just get on with it.

'Other high profile examples include George Clooney, Russell Brand, Simon Cowell and Robbie Williams, all with different vices and mindsets, then one day they decided to change. Why? Because they wanted to'.

Being told by someone that you can’t change yourself for the better just because of some silly, old, out-of-touch idiom could be a real downer. It could put someone of from even trying.

So, the next time you are tempted to use the leopard/spots idiom to describe someone or, more importantly, what they’ve done or not done, just stop; take a step back and think. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt or, better still, work out how you can help them to change?

You might be surprised at the results.

By the by, you can also teach an old dog new tricks but, that’s another story.

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