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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Do people change?

Edit - why is blogger taking out my paragraphs!!!!!????? SO annoying...

Do people really change throughout their life? Is it possible to change, truly change? Can change occur without a concentrated, focused effort on change, followed by constant diligence?

I’ve come to believe through both reading and observation (I know – all 26 years of it right?) that true character change either happens rarely or to no significant degree after a person turns 16 years old or so. The change that does occur after 16 is usually the result of a focused effort that can be extremely hard and painful for the individual.

This is a bit hard for me to internalize – after all I tend to be the eternal optimist. I make resolutions every new years, and intend to keep them. When I go to bed at night, I always *know* tomorrow will be a better day and just right for a fresh start. I love new beginnings. Having trouble with a certain diet? Or exercise regimen? No problem! Tomorrow….or the start of the week….or the start of a new month are all good excuses to re-resolve myself to the task at hand, to continue to mold myself and my life to what I want it to look like. The concept that true change in how I act and behave could be harder than me just willing it to be so, is....hard for me to swallow. But, I like consistency in what I believe, and thus it's impossible for me to believe that change is hard for everyone....except me. So, I need to take an honest look at myself and examine the question of change. Either change is not as hard as I think and not as rare in other people, OR I'm fooling myself to think that I can positively change myself without aboslute dedication.

The other day my SO and I checked out the off leash dog park in town and took both dogs. As I watched them run around, I realized that even with time and training, both dogs are still essentially what they were at 8 and 10 weeks of age. Yes, the rough edges have been taken off – Harley (GSD) is better behaved, not quite a whirling tornado – but she’s still an anxious dog who still finds it very hard to behave and can’t help testing and retesting the boundaries on a daily basis. Reed (Golden Retriever) started off as a naturally well behaved, laid back puppy, and now, 9 months later is still well behaved laid back adolescent, who seems to soak up training effortlessly. He was an easy puppy, and now he’s an easy dog.

Dogs don’t change. With consistent training, they can be better citizens – they become more obedient, but the nature of the dog doesn’t change.

I’m beginning to think horses don’t change radically either. Farley was a horse I could put a beginner on at 7 years of age. Farley at 12 is still a horse I could put a beginner on. (albeit she now has a LOT more buttons – but she’s still safe for one on a trail ride etc.). Minx (got her at 8) got better trained and stop trying to kill me on a daily basis, BUT she was NEVER going to be a beginner’s horse Farley is. Ever (For new readers, Minx died at 11 in April 2008). I know plenty of piss and vinegar geriatrics that were piss and vinegar youngsters. And most of those steady eddies I know that are 15, were steady eddies at 7 too. Not being a breeder or particularly interested in youngsters, I don’t know how much is applicable to horses under 5 or 6. But suffice to say, based on my experience, I would NOT purchase a horse that I wanted to be a “packer” in 7 years, if it wasn’t close to being a “packer” right now.

But again, training means a lot with horses. But can nurture override nature to a significant degree? In general I like 7 year olds as opposed to 3 year olds. Life experience will change a horse – but I think the base reaction, the personality, the nature of the horse doesn’t change. Change may be learned, obedient behavior – but the anxious horse is not likely to become your laid back one even when marinated in time. When looking at prospects, the hard part is sometimes differentiating between animals that have undesirable characteristics that are part of their character, from those that have had some bad training experiences that will likely be able to be “undone”. I think that we can be quick to blame nurture and “abuse” for some horses quirks that may or may not have developed, even under more ideal circumstances. For as many horses that can be pointed at that have “undesirable charactertics” because of adverse circumstances, so can we point to horses that seem to have escaped unscathed. (same with humans).

Back to the humans. The hardest thing about being successful (at anything, not just horses or endurance) is that to get that last iota from yourself, that will probably require significant change in YOURSELF. And we’ve just established that such change is difficult, and not probable. We can get by for a while with learned behaviors and obedience and habit and be successful……but sooner or later, if you want to “be the best”, you will either be naturally born and suited for a task, OR you will have to engage in some serious self reflection. And likely, you will have to practice constant diligence to make sure you don’t slip back into your old habits. Even harder if it’s a trait you consider a “character trait”. When it’s become so much a part of you, that it IS you. Change is possible – but it’s not easy.

I know several “sober alcoholics”. An alcoholic that has quit drinking seems to undergo a similar process as someone trying to affect a serious character change. It takes dedication, constant persistence, and it helps to have support and honesty from those around you.

What’s my real world application right now?

1. I don’t care what the puppy looks like, I want a specific temperament from the get go. One that will naturally want to go the direction that I’m planning for the dog’s lifestyle.

2. To prove to myself that it really is possible to change, I’m going to try and break one of my most longstanding and physically detrimental habits. Tearing my cuticles off. It looks bad (both when I’m ripping them off with my fingers and teeth, and the resulting appearance of my fingers) and it leaves open wounds/blood on my fingers that could harbor infection. Under stress the habit gets worse, and I’ll be experiencing a lot of stress in vet school. I know it sounds trivial, but I can’t imagine not tearing off flaps of hanging skin etc. on my hands. Not doing it is going to be extremely difficult. In the beginning I can rely on probs such as bandaids etc, but eventually I will have to just let my fingers alone. This is beyond a bad habit that will take the 14-21 days to "break myself of". It is part of who I am. If I can do this, then I will tackle something else that could be more of a "character trait" than "really really really bad, ingrained habit.

3. In my relationships with other people, accept that they will not significantly change. Accept that or move on. On that same thread, don’t give any unasked for advice – even though it may seem “life altering” from my perspective, chances are it will be lost on them and that energy is better spent affecting character change in myself for the better.

4. Chose my horses carefully. Like my dog, make sure they are suited to my chosen sport. I’m going to make mistakes, so make sure it’s a horse with a personality that forgives. Understand that whatever personality they come with , they will probably keep.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of nature. You don't always start with a blank slate. Minimizing and maximizing is easier than eliminating or creating.

Obviously I don't have all the answers to my questions and philosophical ramblings. I've taken a lot of psychology, I've read a lot, I've seen a lot of studies. I listened to a LOT of ancedotals (can't spell this word, and spell checker isn't picking it up - sorry). I can think of ancedotals that support both conclusions - especially in the horse world. Unfortunately, although ancedotals carry the most emotional weight, I'm not sure how much they actually contribute to furthing my understanding or opinions. I didn't mean for this post to turn into "nature vs. nurture", but it was inevitable as the topic marched on. I would love to hear your thoughts on change - whether it be in humans, dogs, or horses (or anything else for that matter).


  1. Love your post! I too have the same tearing off my cuticles on my fingers. I had been doing it since 2nd grade. I finally have gotten a bit better about it. I can't say I've cured myself. But I am about 99%. I have to be super careful every day about it, and especially stressful times or when I am just plain bored.

    I heard a vet who did some dog rescue say she used to believe that alot of the dogs she got that shyed away from people if you raised your hand or a broom or anything (not even at them) must have been abused by their past owners. But then after having some puppies herself that she never abused, exhibited the same behavior, she came to realize it was just the natural character of some dogs. She said there couldn't have been that many different dog beaters out there in the world. I believe the same is true of horses. Some are just flightier than others and spook a lot easier. Some just love to run and go fast. Some would rather go slower. You can make the horse do what you want by good training but it's a lot easier if you have the horse that has the character that you want in the first place so that they are truly enjoying what they do. The cow horse people recognize this. They breed horses that have that "cow" instict or character naturally to get the best cutting horse.

  2. Great post! A couple of years ago, I probably would have mostly agreed that the base character of a person/animal doesn't change much over its lifetime. But in the face of an overwhelming tragedy or life altering event, I now absolutely believe that a person can become pretty much unrecognisable from what they once were. Happened to me - I got cancer a couple of years ago, and as a result of pretty barbaric surgery, everything I used to be disappeared. I went from being super active (never liked sitting around at home when I could be doing something more interesting/productive), ambitious, outgoing, adventurous to a complete introvert pretty much over night. It wasn't the cancer - I could have handled that - it was the fact that the surgeon basically mutilated my body so much that it now disgusts me every single waking moment. Anyway, that's my pathetic story!

  3. Interesting post (and comments).

    I accept basic premise, that people (and animals) don't change much. The key word, however, is much .

    In dog training, we used to say that the dog you have after a year is the dog you deserve. When we said that, we meant that you will eradicate the habits you cannot abide within a year, and you will have accepted everything else, even if you don't like some behaviors.

    With horses, I think the timeline is closer to two years, but it's the same basic idea: after that time, the horse will have a CLEAR understanding about where the lines are and what happens when they are crossed. And the horse absolutely knows which behaviors you will not tolerate. In my horse's case: kicking people, and biting or kicking anything is absolutely forbidden. We are still working to reduce her impulses to kick horses and dogs...stay tuned.

    With people, ahhhh. I'm a little vaguer on people, having never trained one successfully. However, I think that you can establish rules and boundaries for yourself in the same way you teach your dog or horse: you decide what is good, what is acceptable, and what will absolutely not be tolerated. You decide what you will do to yourself (if anything) should you cross the line. And you, like a dog or horse, choose to stay within the line or cross it...or allow anybody else to cross it.

    Does that make sense, or do I need to drink another cup of tea before writing more words?

  4. Agreed. Successfully changing habits or personality is very, very difficult.

    One of my high school teachers asked us to use three words to describe ourselves as an icebreaker. One of my words was "easy-going". I guess it was wishful thinking, because I am definitely not easy-going. At the time, I thought being easy-going was a desirable character trait, so I tried. I now understand my lack of "easy-going-ness" and I think that it can be an asset to my profession, but I still try to soften the edges of my personality by choosing to be "easy-going" about things that do not matter. Time and perspective have made this easier, but my expressions often give me away if I am trying to keep my "not-easy-going" opinions to myself. Oh yes, and I also chew my fingers, hopelessly.

    As for my horse, he's the sensitive type, too. He has some wonderful talents and I adore riding him, but he is no show horse. He lacks cruise control in the sense that he responds to anything that I do in the saddle and tries to guess what I might ask next. This has helped my riding tremendously and has led to some seriously awesome breakthroughs (like when he offers flying changes under saddle), but makes it very difficult to ride a consistent dressage test. Fortunately, I did not purchase him with the hopes of making him into a show horse; I was more interested in his energy and enthusiasm, which make him the ideal riding partner for me!

  5. Well...I agree to a point. I think the basic "type" of person you are (ie. nervous, anxious, calm, loving, etc) is pretty much who you are. But I see that as a framework. I have changed so much over the past twenty years that I hardly recognize myself as that person anymore. I find myself less likely to make snap judgements, to be more forgiving and understanding, to love and forgive myself a little more, all good stuff that life past twenty-years of age has taught me. The old me is under there still, but I find I have a much softer edge than in my youth.

    I see it much the same with horses. You have the underlying hors-a-nality but it can be molded to a sweeter thing with love, patience, and training. Maybe the explosive horse becomes less explosive, the lazy horse learns a work ethic, and the fearful horse learns to trust their person's leadership.

    I fully agree after my experiences with Phebes that if I were going to ever get another horse I'd follow your sound advice to look for the characteristics I'm wanting in the first place. Just easier, and you start enjoying that horse right away (rather than 7 years later). ~E.G.

  6. Great comments everyone. Most if the people that I know that have changed did so because of something really really head in thier life - like cancer. It wasn't because they suddenly realized that they were destroying the relationships around them or they were the reason they weren't fulfilling their dreams-it wa because of something like cancer or an accident or something else totally debilitating. Almost like to effect change your first "self" has to be torn down FIRST to make room for the new. It seems brutal and it seems hard-but most people I know that have gone through something like that seem to like their new self. Maybe it goes the other way to? A perfectly enjoyable person turns into an awful person to be around?


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