I bumped into an old acquaintance the other day. We had both worked for a rather chaotic company years earlier. The so-called “survivors” met for dinner once a year to catch-up and share stories of our time in that company. He asked why I couldn’t attend the most recent dinner. I guessed that, because I’d changed my email address a while back, the invitations were being sent to an account that was no longer in service.
When I asked him how it went, he shrugged and smiled. He said: “Oh, you know, (x) is still high-strung. (y) is still gloomy. (z) still acts like everyone’s Mom.”
“People don’t change.” he said, shaking his head. It felt like a definitive statement for him.
We parted ways and his words echoed with me. After all, what’s my purpose as a therapist if that statement were true? I believe in change: I’ve experienced it myself and have seen it successfully expressed in the progress of my clients.
I realized there were two misconceptions in my friend’s statement. First, the people he used as examples of “not changing” were arguably people who, as far as I knew, hadn’t sought change to begin with. To this end, what if they didn’t have a problem with their behaviour to begin with?
Secondly, weighing more largely, what do we mean when we talk about change? When you get to a certain age, you’ve got a lot of “wiring” in place. If you come into my office as a 32 year-old bartender who was raised on a milk farm, I’m pretty sure you are going to walk out the same way. That said, we can still be the people we are and still address aspects of ourselves which are causing problems, which somehow don’t seem to “fit” us anymore.
It reminds me of when I quit smoking: would I be the same Matt Cahill on the other end of the process as I was going into it? The short answer is, yes, I was the same Matt Cahill – just a version of Matt Cahill who had learned to eliminate the need for cigarettes.
On a more interpersonal level, it works the same for people who, going into therapy, wonder if they are going to lose more than they gain: is the therapist going to make me feel bad about my temper tantrums? Force me to be artificially “happy” when I’m feeling depressed? No.
You can change without losing you. If anything, the person who undergoes therapy will come out of it a lot more knowledgeable about themselves than when they came in. You will have a better sense of yourself and, depending upon your reason for seeing a therapist, feel more in control of your life.