One of the dirtiest words in therapy…

Our entire profession is based around helping and sometimes lovingly pushing clients towards it. There are models and stages focused specifically on attempting to understand it. Clients come to us hoping to grasp it or being told by someone else that they need it. It is especially relevant this time of year as people make resolutions for themselves to achieve it. That seemingly simple, yet incredibly powerful word is change. What does that look like and how do we define it?

Change for the purposes of this discussion can be defined as, “the act or instance of making or becoming different”. Seems fair enough, right? Here’s the issue that I have run into: when applied to a human being this term can actually impede progress. There is the implication that if one changes then maybe they were inadequate before. Their very state of being was “wrong” or “not good enough”. It reinforces all or nothing thinking, I’m either the same or different, which is something we actually spend a lot of time trying to teach clients not to do. I would like to pose the idea that in some ways using the term “change” with clients can actually get in the way of growth.

Case in point, the work I have done with juvenile delinquents. They were repeat offenders who were put into a residential facility and told by every authority figure under the sun that they needed to change. Guess what they absolutely didn’t want to do? They dug their heels in deep and told me time and time again that they didn’t want to change. They liked who they were and no one was going to tell them who to be. This was when I started to see the power of language unfold before me. Adolescents are black and white thinkers to begin with, and then when you tell them to “stop being you” they’re going to meet you with a wall of defenses, plus or minus some choice expletives.

The more I thought about their resistance, the more I realized that they were kind of right. Upon taking the time to get to know them, they were so much more than their poor choices. I didn’t meet a single kid who I felt needed to change the core of who they were. They did however need to reinvent their perception of themselves and their role in society.

So, one day I led a group and explored this topic with them. I gave them the example of a phone. Phones have been reinvented many times throughout history. From the old school rotary phone to the latest smart phone, they have come a long way. Each reinvention of the phone has improved upon it’s predecessor, but one thing has always remained constant: they’re all still phones. They didn’t change into something else, rather they became better versions of themselves.

It was at this point that I began to see lightbulbs going off with the kids. The fact that I was giving them permission to still be who they were and grow at the same time seemed to be such a relief for them. Honestly, isn’t this the crux of the adolescent experience anyway? It is a time marked by self-exploration and fine-tuning, not a journey to turn into a completely different person.

What is the alternative to change anyway? If you don’t do it then you fail? How is that helpful? A sense of failure can bring up such strong feelings of guilt and shame that any remaining motivation goes down the drain. So here we are back at square one. Repeat this sequence a time or two or ten, and you almost can’t blame someone for saying to hell with the whole thing.

So if you’re reading this, I encourage you to think about yourself, your goals, and your life as a perpetual work in progress. It’s the idea that you’re doing the best you can, and you also want to do better. Reinvention is a continuous process, and in my humble opinion that will never change 😉

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