Michael Bader: The real reasons people change
October 17, 2016
Insight isn't enough to enable people to change attitudes and behaviors that get in the way of their ambitions and happiness. That's why Freudian approaches that rely exclusively on insight have shown themselves to be of limited use. Knowing something, while important, recruits one part of the brain; doing something about it quite another.
What does produce change? Knowing how your mind works is a start because it helps you observe yourself from a bit of a distance and thus be able to be objective and less identified with the problem you're experiencing. For example, this can help you acknowledge that you might have feelings of depression but are not an essentially and terminally depressed human being. Insight gives you an increased sense of control and, further, it enables you to feel greater self-compassion.
But insight alone won't cut it. What is missing is experimenting with new, healthier behaviors. Such experimentation, such new experience, is the linchpin of successful personal change. Talking the talk is OK, but walking the walk is what matters. The combination of insight and new behavior is the magic formula for all psychological change.
A patient of mine — I'll call her Susan — was anxious about asserting herself everywhere in her life, including in her marriage, with her kids, and at work with her colleagues and boss. We worked to identify a hidden mindset that had always been there that predicted that if she were strong and assertive, she would hurt others who would then retaliate by criticizing or withdrawing from her. This insight was powerful in that she was able to see the pattern as it was occurring. She learned that she could step back and view this belief with compassion and curiosity. She had a painful belief; the belief didn't have her. Investigating this mindset even brought up memories of her childhood, of her relationships with her parents who were so constantly stressed and unhappy that Susan had to be compliant and "good" all the time, lest — in her mind, at least — she add to their burdens.
Knowing that this was an ancient mindset, however, wasn't enough to provide the freedom Susan needed to stand up for herself. With my encouragement, she very gradually began to say "no" to her children's demands for her time and money, and experimented at work with speaking up at certain meetings. We meticulously reviewed the outcomes of these experiments in self-assertion and Susan was able to see that, while unhappy, her kids were none the worse for wear when she set limits and that, at work, her boss complimented her several times for her contributions.
Susan's comfort zone for asserting herself gradually expanded. She became less constricted and compliant. She was learning that her belief that other people were invariably provoked by her if she set boundaries or spoke up about her thoughts and feelings was irrational and she gradually was able to give it up. As she tested her old inhibitions, she experienced corrective experiences. The world did not confirm her worst fears. She sometimes noticed that when others did, at times, become ruffled by Susan pushing her point of view, she didn't immediately need to make a big deal about it, but learned to take it in stride and know that eventually things would be okay. She learned, in other words, that she had capacities as an adult that she lacked as a child.
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Personal change can take a long time because the mindsets and beliefs that need changing are usually lifelong ones that have been reinforced in the course of growing up. They need to be understood, but — more important — they need to be corrected by real experience in the real world. Practice, in this sense, makes perfect.
Michael Bader, DMH is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He an be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.