People Change if they Want

Stanton Samenow writes in ‘The Myth of the ‘Out of Character’ Crime’: “No matter how grim the situation, no threat by an authority or anyone else can compel someone to change against his will. For meaningful and lasting change to occur, the offender eventually must develop motivation within himself to look in ‘the mirror’ and dislike what he sees. External leverage can assist in bringing him to this point, especially if he knows that he could have probation revoked, be subject to relocation to a different and perhaps worse facility, or experience the withdrawal of support by those who have stood by him. As I meet with an offender, I am asking that he do what no one likes to do — come face to face with his shortcomings. Part of my task is to help generate internal motivation, to help the offender become fed up with himself.”

It’s interesting. Everything Stanton Samenow writes about the criminal mindset applies to the non-criminal, as well — at least in this respect. It’s true there are differences between criminals and non-criminals. Criminals view their activity as a career. A criminal personality does not usually feel remorse for what he does, only regret if he gets caught or the crime is somehow botched. Non-criminals would obviously never consider the initiation of force or fraud that to criminals are just another day’s “work.”

But when it comes to changing, it’s true of everybody: Nobody will change against his or her own will. I sometimes think of the analogy of smoking. People who successfully quit smoking usually know months or years ahead that they should quit, and even want to quit. But only at a certain point do they actually follow through. Usually they’ll say something like, “I just got disgusted with myself. I was mad at myself for continuing to smoke, the habit was annoying me more than anyone else, and I decided that was it.” The same really applies to any behavioral habit requiring change, and the same also applies to any personality or character trait requiring change.

Coming “face to face” with your shortcomings implies looking at yourself objectively. This is difficult and sometimes painful, but it must be done. If you’re to advance your own interests in life, you owe it to yourself — not anyone else, but yourself — to be the best person you can be. While seeking help, training and input from reliable others is always welcome, it’s an absolutely necessary condition that you be your own life coach, therapist or consultant as well.

People go wrong when they look at loved ones and conclude, “He can change and he should change; therefore, he will.” The last doesn’t follow from the first. If he can and should change, he will, but only if he’s convinced it makes sense to do so, and only if he’s motivated to try against all odds. He has to be convinced with his OWN mind, and motivation is something only he can develop and sustain.

A surprising number of people have this mistaken idea that if it’s reasonable for someone to change, they will, if only with a little prodding. They put far too much faith in therapy as a means of cajoling or making the other person change his behavior or personality when he doesn’t see a problem. They put too much faith in government as another external agency to “force” change when none is wanted, or sometimes even needed, in the person’s attitude or behavior. Increasingly, we are a society of obnoxious do-gooders and it’s this error in reasoning from which the ‘do gooding’ springs.

Consider the criminal. Dr. Samenow writes that the only criminals who reform and change are the ones who look in the proverbial “mirror,” and intensely dislike what they see. This no doubt explains why so few criminals change. They’re not inclined to look at themselves objectively. If you get to a point where your character and psychology is so corrupted by the kind of mistaken thinking that leads to initiation of force or fraud against others, you’re probably too entrenched to reverse course. This is why government and the field of psychology have for the most part failed to “reform” criminals through either punishment or psychotherapy.

With criminals, Dr. Samenow’s task is to “help generate internal motivation” on the part of the criminal to become disgusted with himself — his whole self, since he’s a criminal. Keep this in mind as you watch friends or loved ones do self-defeating or self-destructive things. Lecturing won’t help. Logic might. “Is your course of action leading to what you want? Isn’t there a contradiction there?”

Thinking can lead to the sort of self-objectivity and even self-disgust (about a certain behavior or personality trait) that will encourage someone to change. It’s usually better to ask the person what he thinks of what he’s doing, or how he’s being, than not, because to not do so is to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

At the same time, don’t fool yourself into believing people will change against their will, or without the deeply held convictions — made by their OWN minds — that change must take place. Think of the smoker who quits, and it’s the same with anything else in life. People don’t change because they have to so much as because they want to.