Behavioral Change Is NOT the Same as Change of Mind

People will say you’re crazy when you make no sense. They’ll also call you crazy when you DO make sense, but they don’t like what you’re saying.

Consider Ted, who’s angry with his wife Suzy because he feels that she spends too much money. Rather than attempting to talk rationally with her on the subject, he tells her that she’s ‘crazy.’ He encourages her to ‘get help’ with what he considers to be a self-evident problem. Ted’s attitude sounds, on the surface, rational and even caring. But, in reality, he’s evading responsibility. With naivetand arrogance, he assumes that Suzy’s problem will be self-evident to any competent and objective health professional.

Suzy may or may not have a spending problem. There are people who live beyond their means, but in the majority of cases, it’s nothing more than a difference of opinion. What Ted is missing here is that if Suzy is to change her behavior—about spending, or anything else—she must first conclude, with her own mind, that such a change makes sense and is in her own interest. Ted evades that fact, not so much by suggesting outside help, but for summarily bypassing Suzy’s mind in favor of an outside authority.

Yes, there is such a thing as objective reality. Feelings are not necessarily facts. If Ted lays out the facts for Suzy to prove that they’re living beyond their means, and that their dispute over money is not merely a difference in opinion or priorities, it’s not authoritarian to say, ‘We have to face reality. Look, here’s the proof.’ If Suzy turns the other way and refuses to respond, then she’s the one evading reality. She may not be literally ‘crazy,’ but she’s on a path to what might be called craziness.

The key here is to understand the method by which people use their minds. Are they using reason in an honest and comprehensive way? Are they willing to look beyond their feelings and emotions, and carefully search for all the facts about a life situation—including ones that might lead to a different conclusion? This is what separates the rationalizers from the truly reality-oriented. There’s no question that the more reality-oriented you are, the more sane you are.

But your sanity is first defined by your method.

The purpose of life coaching, psychotherapy and the like is to help you improve your method, or perhaps to ensure that your method is thorough and honest. An objective outsider can ask you, ‘I understand you have considered A, B and C. Have you also considered D?’ In this sense, Ted is right to hope that Suzy will consider ‘D’ as well. But he has to understand that the purpose of Suzy’s therapy is to help her to not only consider ‘D,’ but also ‘E,’ and maybe even ‘F’ —and not to immediately or blindly agree with him. If he expects the latter, he’s going to be disappointed both in Suzy and her therapy.

In the former Soviet Union, as well as Fidel Castro’s Cuba, there is extensive documentation of psychiatric ‘care’ being forcibly imposed on political dissidents. Although I wouldn’t suggest that Ted is Fidel Castro, I am prepared to say that he might be operating on the same underlying premise. Castro does not care if his subjects agree or disagree with him; he only cares that they obey. If they refuse to obey, or express disagreement with him, he sends them for ‘psychiatric treatment.’ In short, he wants behavioral change, not a change of mind. Family members and spouses who want behavioral change will similarly ignore or overlook the initial need for mind change. Although they don’t stoop to the same level as a brutal political dictator, they do evade the responsibility of attempting to persuade the individual. Instead, they send him or her away to ‘change.’ Not everyone who encourages a loved one to seek psychotherapeutic or psychiatric help is guilty of this, but some surely are.

Philosophically, the issue has to do with the nature of the human mind. The human mind cannot change other than through its own reasoning process. To force or intimidate someone into ‘change’ is not to change them. This is why intelligent psychotherapists are always saying, ‘You can’t change others.’ Of course you can refuse to enable others, and you can work to persuade or reason with others—but even these methods only lead to behavioral change if some form of ‘mind change’ exists. The mind change has to come from the person, choosing to allow him- or herself to be influenced.

If someone changes behavior without first changing his or her own mind, then the behavioral change will be both meaningless and short-lived. Consider the people who initially do things like stop smoking, or drinking, because of the pressure of an employer or a loved one. After a while, they usually return to that behavior. Why? Because they never changed their own minds. They ‘did it for others’ rather than doing it for themselves. What this means is that they didn’t use their own minds to reach the conclusion that they should change a behavior.

It’s hard enough to modify certain behaviors even when you do make up your own mind. But it’s downright impossible when you haven’t even made up your mind to change. Psychotherapy, counseling, life coaching and the like can potentially do a tremendous amount of good. But they cannot do the impossible. They can’t do the thinking and the choosing for you.