If you think about it, we humans are a pretty dissatisfied bunch…and that has done a world of good for civilization. Can you imagine what the world would be like if our ancestors remained satisfied with the harsher conditions of life that we’ve averted today? The human propensity toward change has favored the world we have now, replete with advancements in medicine, technology, and commerce. Eventually, we gained enough mastery over outer change to turn our attention toward inner change. The focus on change within the self has brought a whole new host of challenges.
In this post, I outline how cultural conditions (especially economics) has responded to our personal focuses on inner change, and how such conditions have obscured what change means to so many of us. In a sense, I suggest that media and marketing strategies have inculcated our unconscious minds with the idea that change can be purchased, instant, simple, and done for you by someone or something else. So while cultural conditions have favored a lot of outer change, our notions of internal change may still be catching up.
Just like in our efforts toward outer change, where when we create cars, we also create car crashes; so too in our efforts toward internal change do things get messy.
WE’RE ALWAYS IN SEARCH OF THE GOOD LIFE
Humans have facilitated change so we can put our attention and thoughts elsewhere – community, family, and entertainment, for example. The “good life.” But a new dissatisfaction eventually arose. Instead of our attention being focused on the outer conditions of living, our focus became increasingly focused on the internal experience of living. “How can I feel more satisfaction in life?” “How can I become a better person?” “How can I achieve more success?”
Exploring who we are and trying to understand the world can be a rewarding journey, but every day, we are bombarded with messages of how we can be more through buying more. The newest iPhone, clothes, flat screen television, automobiles, computers and other gadgets, are advertised and sold with the message that these possessions mark social status, attractiveness, accomplishment, and respect – the answers to our longings. We frequently make such purchases unconsciously (or even consciously) believing such items will change us to be more desirable, more likeable, more content. Of course, the feeling of change and satisfaction is transient; it never lasts, and so our minds latch onto the next advertisement that connects with our longings and promises eternal internal bliss, and of course, social approval.
When possessions were no longer enough, entire industries emerged, devoted to helping people change the way they felt. In the 1960’s, a new movement known as the Human Potential Movement took ground. People began flocking in droves to seminars, buying self-help books, and hiring personal coaches. Even psychotherapists began to note that around this time, more people were coming into therapy not to understand their lives, but with an agenda to perfect their lives.
With more competition between businesses for people’s money, many of the self-help movements began looking for ways to promote promises of change with as little time required as possible (even certain brands of psychotherapy have attempted to do this as well in conjunction with pressures from managed care systems to save their bottom line). If you’ve spent any time in a bookstore or browsing the internet, surely you have seen such promises and have been enticed by them. Who doesn’t want to know the 7 easy ways to instantly change their life? If it can be purchased for $19.99 and only take two weeks to read… or if the answers to your problems can be revealed in a blog post in 10 minutes, and your life will be instantly changed, just click (Spoiler alert: this blog post will not make your biggest problems disappear).
WHAT WE THINK CHANGE IS VS. WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS
As a therapist, I receive business because people want change. Because people are inundated daily with promises of a quick fix, I frequently encounter clients who expect that change will be swift – three weeks, maybe three months at most. People are hopeful that I have “the answer” for them, like an astrologist who appears to have some kind of magic. Sometimes, people are even explicit in saying that they want to change the people and world around them, not themselves. “I’m fine; it’s everyone else who has the problem.”
Our views about what changing ourselves actually entails can be pretty distorted, and it’s not our fault. Our ancestors knew, and even many of our grandparents knew, that the truth about change is not pretty. Maybe it was because of the harsher conditions of life, as well as the lack of entertainment to fill up leisure time, that people had to create their lives from within slowly over time. At least in contemporary western culture, it seems that people are flooded with too many options for entertainment, too many options for relationships, and believe that change can be created in an instant through purchases and edits in technology.
I am sympathetic to the ways in which supposed solutions are packaged and marketed to the masses for the sake of a dollar. My own interest in self-development began 20 years ago by the same belief that whatever change I wanted could be digested with minimal time and expense (thanks internet!). I read a lot of interesting books, attended weekend seminar workshops, purchased heresy advice from ‘experts,’ and I experimented with some pretty unusual techniques (look up Neurolinguistic Programming). Sometimes it seemed like I found “the answers” to whatever I was looking for, but time and again, the feeling of change faded and I was searching still for an answer – just as people cure loneliness for a time by browsing Facebook and Instagram but find that pretty soon they still feel on edge and alone.
Like many others, I eventually learned that true lasting change was a lot of work – usually way more work than any person would be up for, even if they immensely desired change. I completely understand now why buying a product or program that promises change for a cheap price in little time is way more appealing to the masses than something more arduous, ongoing, and dedicated, such as long-term psychotherapy or deep investment in some spiritual or religious practice. And while I regularly assist clients with coping tools to start using right now to get some relief from suffering, it’s just that – coping tools for temporary amelioration of discomfort. But coping skills alone is frequently not synonymous with change. Coping and fundamental change are not identical.
What you are really buying when you purchase a product that promises rapid personal fulfillment is a feeling of change – not actual change.
Just like with any other purchase (iPhone, clothes, car), you are buying a feeling when you purchase a product that promises instant answers and change. If you don’t believe me that people make everyday purchases with the perception that it will fix their life, do a Google search on how marketers influence buying behavior. This is part of how a capitalist economy does business, and you and I are hooked into it more than we’d like to admit. Unfortunately, the reality is that what works for sustaining business is frequently not what works for sustaining change and personal fulfillment.
When I’m working with clients in therapy, at some point, they start to realize that they can only change themselves, that there are no easy and quick answers, and that the reasons why therapy works when it does doesn’t always feel good. This realization is typically when clients either bail or strengthen their commitment to growth, and even when clients do commit, it is common that they will periodically reassess whether the journey is “worth it.” After all, there is an entire world that tells them that change can come quicker and cheaper, and technology has only furthered the feeling that life can at least temporarily be edited, deleted. Even entirely new self-images have been (at least) virtually created.
When therapists are doing business within a culture that promises instant gratification and quick fixes, we know that we will lose business sometimes because people may be more likely to go after purchasing promises of change that either don’t work or don’t last, rather than commit to a long and uncertain process – perhaps the only process that can sustain change; that is because the truth about change is that change is a process, not an end. And process is hard… really, really hard.
WHAT IT TAKES TO TRULY CHANGE
True internal change doesn’t feel very good, at least not at first. True internal change requires that people become conscious, be honest, surrender control, practice acceptance, and commit to an ongoing process. Looks look at each of these with a bit more detail.
Becoming Conscious. Becoming conscious means having to acknowledge things in ourselves that we don’t want to – things that worked for a time but no longer work. For example, when we find ourselves in conflict with romantic partners or friends, the parts of them we feel the most frustrated with are often the parts of ourselves that we have denied and projected onto them. The person who says their partner is too emotional may be a person who has denied their own emotional expression ever since they were a child, because minimizing emotions was safer for surviving in their family than actually expressing yourself honestly. Becoming conscious of these issues doesn’t feel good at first, but as you expand upon your way of experiencing and responding over time, it becomes quite empowering. You stop reacting unconsciously in the way you’re used to, and you discover new options.
Being Honest. True change requires honesty. Honesty with ourselves and with others. Honesty means that you sincerely attempt to acknowledge what you experience in each moment, because the long-term pain of being dishonest is often greater than the short-term pain of actually being honest. We all project a false self into the world that is based on what culture and our families tell us is acceptable and not acceptable. In the process of growing up, we learn to become dishonest with ourselves about (and lose touch with) who we are. Honesty facilitates change, not only in you, but in those around you. When we are vulnerable, it gives others permission to do the same.
Surrendering Control. True change means surrendering control. It’s no coincidence that the first step in all of the twelve-step recovery programs advocate that the individual admits they are not in control. Especially in western and individualistic cultures, people believe in self-determinism – the notion that people individually govern their own actions. However, scientists estimate that between 95 to 99 percent of our minds operate unconsciously, which means we are nowhere even close to being as in-control as we’d like to think. Once we acknowledge that we are not in control, we become curious about what else is motivating our everyday experiences – for example, why we repeat the same relationship patterns, and what we can do to rewire our relationship patterns.
Practice Acceptance. True change means acceptance – acceptance of what can and cannot be changed – in others, in ourselves, in our past, and even in our future. Strangely enough, when we learn to practice acceptance, we do actually change over time. We change because we no longer suffer from holding ourselves and others to unrealistic expectations. We change, not in an instant, but in a slow back-and-forth of acceptance and resistance. We change because we become more flexible in how we respond to conflict. We stop exerting all of our energy on frivolous pursuits. We start to appreciate life in ways that are whole, imperfect, and beautiful.
Commit to an Ongoing Process. Above all else, real change means committing to a process. It’s one thing to read interesting information somewhere and get that temporary “a-ha” moment, and it’s something else entirely to actually sustain change over a long period of time. The truth about change is that it takes a long time…like, a really long time. Think about how many years you have been alive, how many years you have been repeating some pattern or theme in your life. You are not going to undo all of those years in an instant, or even a short period.
You will change when you become self-aware, make some behavioral adjustments against your normal instincts, experience setbacks, become disillusioned by how your efforts toward change have still not made you “perfect,” then indefinitely commit yourself to the process of change, discover new areas for change that you were not aware of before, become disillusioned yet again as you continue feeling pulled by your “usual ways” of handling the world, then recommit to the process of change again, and slowly work in new patterns until they start to overshadow the old ways, and on and on.
But change is not a means to an end. Indeed, the only constant in the world is change itself. Ergo, change is not so much a fixed point but more like an ongoing process of evolution. Perhaps we would all fare a lot better if we stopped trying so hard to think of change as a fixed point that we need to get to, and more like an evolutionary process that we are already in the flow of right now.