Several years ago a woman came to my office asking for help in dealing with an extramarital affair that she was having, unbeknownst to her husband. In an attempt to help her sort it out I began talking with her about why, when, how; her own feelings and needs, her marriage, and her family history. We had a number of meetings in which I continually tried to help her figure out what to do about it, and how she might handle ending the affair and beginning to repair her marriage (which is what she said she wanted).
Over time, though, I started to see that our work was not producing any relief or help to her. My questions did not spur further thinking on her part, and my suggestions seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Finally, after about six visits, she said something very telling to me which stopped the treatment cold. She said, “People don’t change.”
Further exploration of her comment revealed that she was extremely entrenched in this notion. She wanted to come see me to vent and for support; she did not see that she had the ability to change herself or her situation.
Since that time I have encountered many people who resist the idea that they can actually change themselves. Here are the Five Elements of Change, as I see them:
1. Awareness: seeing the problem. For example, “I have a problem with my temper.”
2. Commitment: making a clear decision that you want to change. For example, “I’m going to improve my temper.”
3. Identifying the Steps. For example, a) become more aware of my anger; b) learn how to control my anger; c) learn how to express anger in a healthy way.
4. Doing the Work. While changing ourselves is definitely possible, it is usually not easy. That’s why awareness, commitment and breaking it down into steps become so vital.
5. Asking for help, from spouse, friend, family or a therapist.
Here is a tiny sampling of the myriad ways that I have seen people change themselves:
1. A woman gets her defenses down and is able to receive feedback from her husband, and act upon it, on a regular basis.
2. A teenager vows to stop smoking pot and makes it happen.
3. A man stops himself from yelling at his children by learning new parenting skills and using those instead.
4. A woman learns how to express her feelings and needs, and starts speaking up for herself with her husband, family and friends.
5. A man decides he is tired of feeling anxious. He explores its sources in his life, and learns new anxiety management techniques. As a result, he becomes more sociable and outgoing and more willing to take risks at work.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The possibilities are endless. True, some things are more difficult to change than others. And some people have more difficulty changing themselves than others. For example, a personality or temperament issue will be difficult to change in a different way than a habit.
But in my experience from working with many hundreds of people to change many hundreds of issues, I can tell you without a doubt that the two biggest factors in whether you can change are: really, really wanting it; and believing that it’s possible.