It is often said that we therapists are in the business of change. People come to us because they want their life to be different: They want to fight less with their spouse, feel better about themselves, feel confident while giving a presentation, and lose weight. They want to CHANGE. It’s something that’s so obvious and banal to us that we often forget how important and how powerful change really is to the client.
When we ask the client what their goals for therapy are, they of course list a number of things in their life they want to change. Most of the time, these things are rational and very doable. It’s not until later on in therapy that the client reveals just how drastic things are. Typically we discover that the client wants to completely change their life, to have a “reboot” if you will. It’s in that moment that we realize that the list of goals presented to us in the first session was just a list that the client thought would “sound good” to the new therapist. What they really want is to change the people around them and perhaps become an different person completely.
This is what I call the fantasy of change. Yes, people can change, and people can change a lot. I think about just how much I myself have changed in the past 5 years and I am amazed. If you told me 5 years ago that I would be living the life I am now, I wouldn’t have believed you. Then again, it also took 5 years and a lot of hard work and really difficult moments. Change did not come easy, and it certainly didn’t come overnight. That’s the reality of change and it’s not something people want to hear, especially if they feel like they’re already just barely hanging on and don’t know how they’re going to make it another day, let alone another year.
As therapists, we have to contend with the fantasy of change. In fact, if you think about it, our economy is built on the fantasy of change. I even saw a billboard for a car dealer recently that implied that if you buy a new car your kids wont be embarrassed of you anymore. We’re just one product away from changing our life. But of course, if that really worked, we’d all be buying it. We would all be thin, beautiful, successful, and well-liked. The realty is that all of those things take work and often years of dedication to achieve.
What does his mean for us therapists? Well, I think it means that first we need to recognize that need for quick change in our clients. Most of our clients have been suffering for a long time and feel that they can’t wait any longer. What I do is I try to first focus on the goals that can be accomplished quickly by the client. Often these are the small goals, but I think there’s something really powerful in seeing change happen that can help motivate the client to stick it through the harder goals. Also, even small goals can have ripple effects throughout the client’s life. Next, I really try to work on expectations. Reality-testing can be important, but so long as it’s done with compassion and understanding.
Finally, we need to recognize that we therapists have some serious competition. We have psychics promising that all you have to do is light a candle at midnight and all will be fixed. Just take a pill and you’ll lose weight! Not to mention all the various get-rich-quick schemes. If a person is desperate, they’re going to chose the option that’s fastest and easiest, even if it doesn’t actually work.