Why Some People Change, Others Don’t

I’m going to piggy-back off of Julia’s recent article in which she wrote about “striving to be the best version of you.” Reading it led me to think of the many first-time clients who, after pouring out their story of pain or longing, ask this question: Is change really possible? It’s a question mixed with hope and doubt. We want to believe in change, but our efforts to find it too often end with us returning back to our familiar, undesirable patterns.

My answer to that question shouldn’t be surprising. Yes, real change is possible. A counselor’s work would be deeply discouraging if that wasn’t true. However, I think there is a better question to ask. Why do some people change, while others don’t?

It is not due to a lack of desire. People participate in therapy because they long for change. I have yet to meet a single new client who tells me, “I just wanted to spend a little time and money to talk to you about how content I am.” (If there are any clients like that out there, my door is open to you!) But although every new client is looking for some kind of significant positive shift in their lives, not every client finds it. Even for those who are desperate for it, the desire for change does not guarantee its discovery. 

A person’s reason for change matters more than their want of it. In my experience, the most common motives are usually ineffective in sustaining long-term transformation. Let’s take a look at two of these motivations and consider why they are unstable.

Unstable Foundation for Change #1: Experiencing a Better Circumstance

Most clients, when asked about why they are coming to counseling and what they hope to change, will describe with their discontent over something or someone in their lives. They want to know how to make things better. They hang their hope for happiness on changes such as: finding someone who loves them, getting a better job, fixing their spouse, fixing their relationship, making parents happy, adjusting a child’s behavior, gaining the acceptance of others, or realizing success. They view the primary cause of their unhappiness as being something outside themselves and they want to know what can be done to assure a more desirable outcome.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of the goals mentioned above. At one time or another, I’ve wanted each of them myself. But they should never become a person’s primary foundation for contentment.

Why not? Because, despite our best efforts, we are not ultimately in control of any of these. A great job can be eliminate by a bad economy. A satisfying relationship can be destroyed by selfishness or betrayal. A child can choose a path of rebellion or addiction. The way to success can suddenly be blocked by illness or accident. When what we want most is taken from us, any further work on change seems pointless. We either shift to some new goal, or become angry and depressed.

Unstable Foundation for Change #2: Eliminating Shame

Some people are motivated out of a sense of guilt or unworthiness. Their desire for change is driven by a feeling of “badness” about themselves that originates from past deeds or from unmet expectations such as: a past failure, past sins, deep secrets, the rejection of peers, a parent’s abandonment, the displeasure of the church or God, a general sense of unworthiness, being assaulted or abused. 

Guilt and shame play an important role in our lives. If properly processed, they can move us toward positive change. If not, they become constant burdens. But when we are primarily motivated by our need for relief, we miss the point. Two problems are likely to occur. First, we will be hyper-sensitive to anything that touches our shame, resulting in exaggerated negative reactions. Second, any relief we experience results in a “goal accomplished” response which inhibits further efforts to grow.

It’s not enough to deal with the past; we have to know how to move toward a better future. Otherwise, we are likely to find ourselves falling back into familiar ruts. (In other words, the real work of grace is incomplete if it ends with forgiveness. Forgiveness is only a first step in the process of a transformed life.)

Stable Foundation for Change: Becoming a Better You

Individuals who experience a kind of change that continues through a lifetime are those who have developed a clear sense of the person they want to become. From a spiritual perspective, it is the person you were created and re-created to become. It is that unique you, unencumbered by brokenness, fully healthy and whole. The more clearly you can see that image of you and the more earnestly you desire to become that person, the more likely you are to move toward it, despite the hardships and disappointments in your life.

Consider the woman who desires to improve their relationship her husband. How would her foundation for change effect the outcome? Here are possible ways:

  1. If a better circumstance (an improved relationship) is her ultimate goal, then she will only invest in change as long as it seems reasonable to do so. It will be very difficult to remain dedicated to the process if her husband is not. His unwillingness to change leaves her stuck.
  2. If eliminating shame (due to her affair or his abuse, as examples) is her driving force, then she will be easliy knocked off course anytime she feels accused. And if she eventually gains some relief from the weight of her shame, she will likely be satisfied enough to ignore her underlying patterns that will eventually lead her back to discontent or despair.
  3. If becoming a healthier, whole woman is her motivation, then she will begin to clarify her vision of that person. She will search for insight into the thoughts and behaviors that keep pushing her in away from that vision. And when that vision becomes clear enough, her longing to become that woman can keep her on course even if her husband continues to disappoint her. Whether or not her circumstances change, she will become a woman who is more balanced, content, and capable of deeper intimacies.

This, by the way, is the full hope of the Gospel. It’s not just about being forgiven (eliminating shame) or being cared for (better circumstances), but the promise that we are being made into something new. 

Tim Tedder