Can you teach an old dog new tricks?


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change.  I’m not talking about the sixty-seven cents that I have in my wallet, but the kind of change that transforms someone.  The kind of long-lasting, sustained change that reverses our self narrative, that alters our perspectives and improves our lives.  I’m talking about heart-change.  Do we humans have the capacity to change those parts of us that make us sick, hold us back, or limit our happiness?  Does it ever happen?  Can we take what makes us “bad” in the eyes of others or ourselves, and mold it into something “good”?

My immediate response to those questions is yes, of course people can change.   I see it all the time in meetings – people who once were down and out, drinking alcoholically, losing all of the things that were important to them, incapable of living life on life’s terms, now sober with new, richer lives in which they not only don’t regret their pasts, they use their own experiences to help others.   But then I see it.  Or hear it.  Someone says or does something that is inappropriate, hurtful, or insulting to someone else at the meeting and I start to wonder…have they really changed from who they were before?  Or have they just changed some of their behaviors, like choosing not to drink anymore?  Is their motivation for living a life of sobriety a desire to avoid the negative consequences that their active drinking caused, or have they truly had a heart-change?

I guess that’s where the waters get a little bit muddy for me.  I really do think that people have the capacity to change, I’ve seen it and lived it myself.  When I look back at the me of 5 years ago, it is drastically different from the me of today.  Not  just my behaviors and actions, but also my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values.  I honestly believe that I have had a heart-change about a number of things, and that those changes have gotten me to where I am today, which is a much healthier, happier place.  Even so, at times, I still feel my old ways of thinking trying to worm their way into my head.  I have to consciously speak my new truths to myself, otherwise I would be right back where I was before.  It would be so easy.  Is that what happens to the people who I see in meetings acting like dry drunks?  Maybe.  I don’t know.  I guess we’re all on our own paths.  Whether that path leads to real, meaningful and sustained recovery is up to each individual.

I’ve heard it said that the two reasons that people really change are:  they have learned enough to want to change, or they have been hurt enough to want to change.  When it comes to getting sober, for me it took both.  I had been so hurt by others, but more so by myself, that I had to change or I was going to drink myself to death.  I had also learned enough about sobriety and people living sober successfully, that I knew it was possible, if it worked for them, it might work for me.  Making the decision to change was the easy part though.  It took me a really long time to realize that just not drinking wasn’t going to be enough to make me happy and healthy.  I had to make some big changes, practice open-mindedness, and realize that my way of thinking wasn’t the only way.   It was hard at first.  When you go along living for almost 40 years, it feels impossible to let go of some of the things that you held onto as truth, even when you have evolved enough to know intellectually that they are false.  But, I guess that’s where the process begins.

And it is a process.

A long, long process.

But it’s a process worth undertaking.


8 thoughts on “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

  1. I hear you…I don’t know what to say about some of these dry drunks or at least those I perceive to be dry drunks because maybe they aren’t a spiritual giant like me? lol <—just kidding of course. I don't excuse the actions or words of others, and at the same time I don't accept them either. Rude is rude sometimes and I don't care who ya are. But can I comment on someone's heart changes? not sure – I am still dealing with mine. Best I can muster up is that I may not want to model myself after so-and-so. Stick with the healthier folks or the ones who have what I want.

    But heart changes – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, eh? But as long as we work for it, it comes. I am always in some state of transition I think, so perhaps it's just how it is. When I am stuck, I do get STUCK. But I do believe that it's never too late to change 🙂

  2. Great post! I used to wonder these things too. I believe that everyone can change if they have the will to and recognize that there is change to be made. I also think that sometimes you can’t see how people have changed unless we know them through their own journey. Like I am still controlling a times, but I know that I am way less controlling than I was, but someone might still think, wow she is so controlling! Lol! So for me it’s hard to say who is or isn’t working on change, since I can’t see it. Maybe they are having a bad day who knows. But I can always learn from others no matter where they are on their journey!
    Thank you for sharing! Hugs!

  3. Thanks Maggie. You’re right about us not knowing where people are in their own journey. How could we? I need to remember that the next time I feel frustration at a meeting. 🙂

  4. Such a beautiful, heart-felt post! Two strong take aways for myself are the phrase “heart-change” and “make some big changes, practice open-mindedness, and realize that my way of thinking wasn’t the only way.” So much there to keep in mind while moving through days and weeks. Thank you for sharing these vital words.

  5. It certainly takes time. And often others will see/perceive the change in you long before you see it in yourself, esp in terms of it being changed behaviour.
    Sometimes I find myself having done something and I look back and suddenly think – “Woo, where did that behaviour come from that isn’t your default”… but it is now a new default that is the true result when you “intuitive handle situations that used to baffle”

  6. “You must learn a new way to think before you can master a new way to be” … Marianne

    In AA I hear “We cannot think our way into right action, we must act our way into right thinking” … I have found this to work for me ….

    I’ve also heard …gradual change with monumental set backs …

    I enjoyed this post … thank you

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