How Do People Change?
By Susan Lee Bady, LCSW, BCD
How do people change? That is probably the major question therapists are asked and
that we ask ourselves daily as we watch and help people go through the amazing
process of self exploration and growth.
People seek out therapists for many reasons -- marital problems, lack of
assertiveness, depression, anxiety, etc. The underlying goal is always the same,
however -- to feel more content with who they are and the way their life is going.
The underlying questions are always the same too. Will all this therapy do any good?
Can I really change? How do I do it?
It's an important question. Change is easy to talk about and easy to write about. It is
only the doing of it that has any real meaning, however.
Therapists know through our daily work that people can really change. Research on
psychotherapy outcome backs up our individual experience. The way it happens is
very varied, however, because there are so many different methods of
psychotherapy and because each person responds differently. There are, however,
some general principles about the healing process in psychotherapy that are useful
Whatever form therapy eventually takes, change always begins with the individual's
recognition that something is wrong. Sometimes the person has a specific problem in
mind. Other times he or she has just a vague sense that things are not quite right.
This awareness may be accompanied by a confusion or unhappiness so painful that
the person tries to block it out. If, however, you can acknowledge your problems you
are ready to move to the next step -- the vision of a better life and, more important,
the decision to try and achieve it.
This decision is the most crucial step of the process. It is a move from despair to
optimism. It is a statement of self-esteem that your life is valuable, that you deserve
happiness and that you have what it takes to get it. There are many different names
to this decision -- a sense of volition, an act of will, a statement of hope. Whatever
we call it, it is expressed through the action of the person who seeks out therapy and
it is the most vital part of the psychotherapy process.
Some people feel it is unnecessary or an admission of weakness to contact a
therapist, believing that they should be able to solve their own problems. But most
non-medical persons do not expect themselves to extract their own teeth or treat
their own heart attacks. Psychic problems can be just as complex as medical ones
and need the same degree of skilled help.
Once a person starts therapy the process varies according to the problems, the
method of therapy and the personalities of the therapist and client. However, in all
cases you form a trusting relationship with your therapist where you feel understood
and accepted and which enables you to look at your life patterns and experience
ideas and feelings perhaps never shared with another person -- perhaps not even
recognized previously by yourself. Sometimes they are things you rather avoid
altogether. Yet you can also find a tremendous relief to make important discoveries
and to share your thoughts with another. As you continue, you will let go of
maladaptive behavior patterns and try out new and better ones. You may make
mistakes, experience setbacks and feel confused and upset, but this is a part of the
growth. How can anyone change without confusion and mistakes at times?
More often, as you re-affirm your decision to change, you will experience a sense of
adventure and excitement as you discover within yourself strengths, talents and
possibilities never felt possible before. Your life will continue to have problems -- that
is impossible to end. But you will come to view them less as "problems," and more
as opportunities for growth and your daily activities will become more enjoyable as
new worlds open up in work, personal relationships, and general satisfaction.
The Park Slope Shopper, 1987