Can People Really Change? My Encounter with a Murderer

“The narrative of our lives can be rewritten,
revealing our potential for change and growth.”

I shook hands with a murderer. Let me take you back 15 years to a moment that changed my beliefs about personal transformation. At that time, I was working at an animal shelter managing the volunteer program. During the volunteer orientation I explained that one of our policies was that felons couldn’t join our program.

One Saturday, at the end of an orientation, a guy—let’s call him David—approached me. He wanted to schedule an interview and said he wanted to discuss something personal with me in the interview. The next day, we sat down, I extended my hand for a handshake, and he dropped a bombshell: “I served 18 years in prison for murder.”

As he told his story, I learned about his past, filled with bad choices and the tragic incident. At 17, he got tangled up in an inner-city gang, a decision that ended in a fatal act. He was charged as an adult, landing him a 25-year prison sentence. He got out in 2008, after 18 years, for good behavior.

The gang had been his family, in a twisted way, during those years. However, he felt deep remorse for his actions as a teenager. He hated who he’d been at 17 and after he was sentenced, he was determined to change. Astonishingly, he’d thrived in prison, becoming part of a unique program where inmates trained service dogs. This job was reserved for those with exceptional behavior, and David proved himself, eventually becoming the program’s top dog trainer.

David—35 at the time—came to the animal shelter six months after being released from prison, hoping to volunteer with dogs because it was what he knew. It was 1990 when he entered prison and he was a bit of a technophobe, not knowing his way around computers, he didn’t have an email address and had only heard of Facebook—but he loved dogs and was passionate about training them! Sadly, due to some organizational limitations, I couldn’t place David into our program.

However, his honesty and vulnerability left a profound impact on me, and I found some resources to help him keep moving forward with his passion of working with dogs.

So, David did a terrible thing, right? No doubt about it. Can he turn back the clock and change his past? Absolutely not. But did David change as a person? You bet. Eighteen years in a challenging environment led to profound introspection and personal growth. His transformation even extended to writing a heartfelt apology letter to the victim’s family, which surprisingly received a response expressing hope for his reconciliation with God. Did they forgive him I don’t know, but forgiveness, that is an entirely other blog!

Now, let’s get to the big question: Can people change? Well, it’s a complex interplay of biology, self-awareness, reflection, and willpower. While some aspects of our personalities may be deeply ingrained, others are more open to change.

Science backs up the idea that personalities and traits can evolve over time. Research in the American Psychologist suggests that interventions can influence personality traits. They use an analogy: Personality is like climate and behaviors are weather. Weather fluctuates from date to day but the climate describes a regions weather on a long time scale…BUT, climate can also change!

I would like to note that not all individuals can easily change their behavior and/or personality traits. Conditions such as sociopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, and certain mental illnesses can present significant challenges. These conditions often have biological and neurological underpinnings that make change not impossible, but more challenging, and in some cases, medication—in addition to behavioral therapy—may be necessary.

My own transformation bears witness to the profound potential for change. There was a time when I clung to years of pent-up anger, an emotional baggage accumulated through the turmoil of a lonely marriage and a messy divorce.

However, I recognized the pressing need for change. I didn’t like that part of me. I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth, one that demanded unwavering commitment and relentless effort. I was determined to shed the anger that had enveloped me for far too long.

Today, I stand as a testament to the transformative power that lies within each of us. I am no longer the hot-tempered individual I once was, a change that my family can unequivocally vouch for. This change wasn’t a mere alteration of external behavior; it ran deep into the core of my being, reshaping my responses and reactions to life’s challenges.

In this personal journey, I found that change, when embraced with sincerity and persistence, can lead to profound and lasting transformation. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the boundless potential we all hold within ourselves to become better versions of who we once were.

But, transformation of change does take dedication and effort, techniques like neurolinguistic programming (NLP) are a perfect to kick-start a change!

What about changing someone else?

Trying to change someone else however, is tricky business. We can offer encouragement and support, but real change has to come from within. Be it a friend or a partner, the motivation for change should be self-driven. Furthermore, trying to change someone else isn’t our job. Instead, focus on inspiring, educating, and supporting them. Be mindful not to become trapped in relationships, whether they’re friendships or partnerships, hoping for someone to change. Waiting for transformation in another person can be a long and uncertain road.

While David might not be the most likable character in this story to some, his transformation from a troubled past to a path of redemption and personal growth serves as a compelling illustration of the incredible resilience inherent in the human spirit. Within him, he discovered the inner strength necessary to rewrite the narrative of his life.

So, can people change? Yes, but it’s not an overnight process; it requires time and patience. While some aspects of our nature may be rooted in biology, the parts we want to change are malleable with dedication and sustained effort.

Remember, You Got This!



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