Making change is the essence of counseling. Whether it’s venting to feel heard, or recovering from an addiction, counseling offers the opportunity to focus on changing for the better. In this article I’d like to share one of the lessons I’ve learned about how people change. Change is more about “being” than it is about “doing.” Making changes is a complicated process, so I’m always looking for ways to break it down to it’s most essential characteristics. I realize that discussing “being” vs “doing” might seem a bit esoteric, but I think it is one of the key elements to lasting change: One does not “do” change, rather for change to be long term one must “be” change.
There is a common saying in recovery circles: Are you a “human-being” or a “human-doing?” A "doing" approach is a going-through-the-motions attempt at change, and is certain to fail. It is an attempt at changing externally, without a commitment to internally becoming different. It is short lived because it lacks the internal energy that says, "I'll become whatever it takes to make this change.” A doing approach to change has an external motivation rather than an internal personal desire to live life differently. "My wife wants me to attend counseling, so I go,” or "I came to AA because I'll get fired if I don’t," or "I stopped smoking because my doctor told me to." These external reasons can become internal, but until then real and lasting change is not likely.
On the other hand a "being" approach lives the plan. "I want counseling to help me change," or "I want sober living," or "I want to improve my health,” are all internal motivations that are more likely to result in not just a singular habit changed, but a changed way of living. At a deep gut motivation it says,”I want to be . . .” healthy, sober, sane, smarter, connected, etc. Why is it that so many diets work in the short term, but the weight came back in the long run? Or that people start an exercise routine, but don't stay with it? Or make a commitment to read more but don't maintain this? These changes don't stick because the desired behavior never made it to the internal, or into the "being." Real change occurs when there is an internal connection with the external goal. Externally the message may be, drive safe, stay healthy, exercise more, challenge your brain, but if the seed of this message does not take root in the heart, or the will or the emotions, true change will not occur.
I have a friend who runs a group home located in the Bronx, NY, for men who have hit bottom with various problems including homelessness, drug addiction, incarceration, devastated relationships, etc. I have heard him say “Change is a matter of the heart.” Sure it involves changing many external things; residence, friends, activities, but more than anything else there must be a change of heart. The mind, emotions and will must believe, “I do not want that old life, I want a new life, with a new way of living. A heart change, from the inside out. Not just changing geography, or residence, or jobs, but a change of heart.
All of the approaches to personal change are in agreement with the notion that effective change is heart change. Let’s examine several different approaches to change: 1) The cognitive behavioral approach basic message is: change the way you think, and you will change the way you feel, and act; 2) The 12 Steps of AA start off with “I came to believe . . .”; 3) The psychodynamic model examines the internal working of defense mechanisms, subconscious, and inner motivations for behavior. I could go on, there are countless examples of this. Effective change starts within and the major approaches to counseling affirm this.
Let’s now look at some objections that could be raised to the idea that real change occurs internally.
There is another popular saying used in recovery groups: “Fake it till you make it.” Above I said external change can become internal, and this saying captures it in a nutshell; even if you don’t feel like it’s real, keep at it. As a drummer I know that physical tension is the enemy of technical skill. Tension anywhere in your body degrades your sound, prevents increasing technical skill and will eventually result in an injury. As a young man taking lessons my instructor noticed some tension in my hands, so she made some adjustments in my posture, shoulders and right down to the curve in my pinky finger. The change she suggested at first felt very unnatural, I was used to playing in a tense position. Being a strong minded woman she insisted I make this change, so I tried it and at first I took a step toward sounding worse, and it felt terrible, and I just went through the motions, but eventually I saw the wisdom and grew more motivated to follow through with her suggestion. At the point that I “saw the wisdom” the change became internal, I was converted to a new way of playing my instrument, and because of this change became a better player. I “faked it” or went through the motions, and as I did something inside changed, I became convinced, I changed starting on the outside, but really only once it was secure on the inside.
One might argue that often a person will change after facing a crisis, like the saying “hitting bottom;” it got so bad the person was motivated by those (external) circumstances to change, and since the crisis is external, the conclusion is that the motivation to change was external. The reason I don’t agree is that many times people “hit bottom,” and experience bad circumstances and still refuse to change. Take the alcoholic who loses his job because of his drinking, yet continues to drink. Or the cigarette smoker in the hospital for lung disease sneaks a smoke. The consequence (loss of job, or disease) does not always result in change for the better. When the smoker or the drinker makes that internal connection that joins the pain of the consequence to the problem, then they have the chance for real change.
But how does one accomplish this kind of change? It’s almost never easy, and most of the time complicated. If you are reading this, and you want someone else to change, then please read my article on Co-dependency. This article will help outline common mistakes people make when trying to help, and suggestions for having the best chance to get through to someone who needs to change. If you need change, then “take this message to heart:” Change happens from the inside out, it happens when people take personal responsibility. And here is some good news! If you are a Christian, you are not alone, so go to God who really does help, from the inside out!