In Therapy, The Issue Of Change Is Both Complex And Essential
As a NYC therapist and a human who believes in growth, I can’t imagine an issue of more concern to me than change. My ideas about change can be broken down into a three-part thesis: People change. The world changes. People can change themselves and the world.
On the one hand, these seem like simple and self-apparent statements, but the nature of change is one of the oldest points of inquiry in philosophy. In the 5th century BC, Heraclitus famously said, “The only constant is change.” This was a literally paradigm shifting statement. Besides philosophy, the notion change enters into my NYC therapy practice frequently.
Do You Believe In Change?
Patients come to therapy for both change and development. But, change and development are two different things–development is progressive while change is arbitrary in its vector. In order to believe in development, though, one has to believe in change, meaning we must believe it’s a thing humans can do.
A belief in change is at the core of progressivism (in regards to progressive art, progressive science, and also, yes, progressive politics, as juxtaposed against conservative politics).The belief that people cannot change or the structure of the world cannot change (Don’t bother with your revolution–it won’t matter anyway) is a profoundly conservatizing force. In order for progressives to believe things can and should change as a part of making the world better, they must first believe things can and do change. So too for ourselves.
The Nature Versus Nurture Debate
It’s worth noting the current winning streak that nature has in the nature versus nurture debate. We are in the midst of a period of great discovery relative to gene science, fMIR’s. There’s something of a fixation with the idea that most of who we are is fixed at birth including our intelligence, personality and disorders like depression or anxiety. People are, the story goes, more prone to depression, smarter, or less smart, etc.
It’s a bit tough to take the “both” position in the nature versus nurture argument, but it’s my position and one I think is important. I do suspect that some people are genetically, “naturally” disposed in one way or another. Of course, it’s true that we have traits we are born with that we, more or less, inherit from our parents. Some people are more shy, while others are more free-spirited.
The role of nurture, though, is underappreciated. I’ve seen the influence of trauma and neglect, as well as caring and nurturing. I’ve seen kids with dyslexia become phenomenal spellers and adults with depression become truly happy. Nurture matters.
Yes, People Can Change, But It’s A Matter Of Influence
What about the whole “people don’t change” statement we frequently hear? I’ll be honest, it’s a phrase I know to be troubling philosophically and yet, I find myself using it on occasion. The best assessment is it’s simply imprecise. Perhaps it would be better to say, “There are people in the world who are not interested in changing,” or “There are people in the world who aren’t going to change on the timeline or manner we want them to.” Or simply, “Your bonehead boss isn’t going to stop being a bonehead.” There are things we can influence and things we cannot. Learning the difference is as close of a definition of wisdom as I’ve got.
The question of influence here is critical. We can influence people by authority and they’ll change. We can also influence them by winning them over and they’ll change. The difference between the two is important: in order to affect change, you’ve got to have one of two things present: either the authority to make it happen or a party that is interested in change. Simply, we can’t change others who aren’t interested in being changed by us, short of whatever authority we may have. This is also true for ourselves.
Just Because Change Is Possible Doesn’t Mean You Have To Want It
Plenty of people don’t want to change–change is hard and uncomfortable. I think we, in thinking about change, also have to make it more okay to not want to change. Maybe you’re not interested in dropping 30lbs or getting a more competitive job. I hate the idea of people not changing by virtue of believing that they cannot change and change isn’t possible. But, it’s important to make the distinction that wanting to and being able to are two different things.
Change is often freaking hard and it can be painful. It has to be okay for someone to decide not to go through all of that right now. And we have to respect that fight. We can present our wish that the people we care about change as a real choice. Otherwise, we end up demanding that people change and dragging them through the process, making ourselves miserable along the way.