What’s up with people who say they want to change but don’t? This is the question that often plagues not only those in the helping professions but anybody who cares about other people. It is often very difficult for us to see what others need to do and not understand why they don’t do it, even though we’ve told them what they need to do over and over again. So what’s up with that?
As usual, choice theory psychology tells us exactly why any of us adopts a pattern of behavior – it fulfills our basic needs in some way. You will recall that we all have five basic needs, four psychological needs (belonging, recognition, freedom and fun) and the physiological need of survival. Everything we do in this life is an attempt to meet those needs. Those things that we do that fulfill those needs, we keep doing (precisely because they fulfill our needs). Those things that don’t fulfill our needs, we don’t repeat. All patterns of behavior, from brushing our teeth in the morning to serial murder, fulfill our needs in some way.
Remember that whatever pattern of behavior we adopt doesn’t have to be good for us. Survival is only one of the five needs. Substance abuse isn’t good for us, but we may continue to do it, even when the deleterious effects become obvious, because the act fulfills our needs in some way. Eventually, it may kill us (the progression for addiction is jails, institutions and death), but we will continue to do it because it fulfills our needs (or fools the brain into thinking it fulfills our needs).
Same thing for other behaviors, such as staying with abusive partners or engaging in high-risk sexual activities or any behavior that falls within the pages of personality disorders in the DSM-IV-TR (many of which I’ve previously written about and you can find in back articles).
We do these things and continue to do these things because they meet our basic needs in some way. Are these the best things we could be doing? No, most certainly not. That’s where therapy comes into play. Through the therapeutic process, we learn new ways of thinking and doing that help us meet our needs in ways that don’t harm us or other people. This is what therapy is all about.
Between the time when we give up our old, destructive behaviors and the time we learn the new, healthy behaviors, however, we may suffer. Misery is the affective indicator that our needs aren’t being met (just as pleasure is the affective indicator that our needs are being met).
The fact that we must suffer while learning new, effective behaviors is a major deterrent to change. Instant gratification has always been a problem with human beings. Suffering is seen as something that is unnecessary and to be avoided at all costs. Many times, this means continuing on a destructive path, such as staying in an abusive relationship or continuing to abuse alcohol and other drugs – including and especially prescription drugs, rather than face the short-term misery of the change process. We have a destructive tendency to prefer short-term pleasure to long-term happiness. Socrates dealt with this in his age, just as we do in ours.
The therapeutic process is one in which we attempt to work through the short-term misery while making long-term, positive changes. Those who make the choice to persevere in this, usually come out on the other side much the better for it. The research tells us that therapy is better than no therapy. It also tells us, increasingly, that talk therapy is as effective as drug therapy in dealing with affective change and it doesn’t have the side effects of medication. (For some of the side effects of psychiatric medications, see Dr. Peter Breggin’s new book, Medication Madness.)
People don’t change because what they are doing is meeting their needs. It may not be the best thing for them. It may eventually kill them. But it is always their choice. If you know someone on this path then suggest (don’t nag) that they may benefit from talk therapy (as opposed to pharmacotherapy). Talk therapy can’t hurt them and it might help them. Ultimately. All therapy is self-therapy. People will follow the suggestions provided by the therapist or they won’t. The choice is always up to them.
If you would like to know more about choice theory psychology, talk to the people at Knoxville Center for Clinical Hypnosis. They are choice theory and reality therapy certified and will be happy to explain choice theory to you.
Experiment with life. Nurture those you love.