Psychotherapists Can Change People: True or False?

You can’t change others. Neither can a psychotherapist, no matter how competent or insightful.

Isn’t it still possible to influence others, if not change them? Absolutely. But successful “influence” presupposes that somebody is open to being influenced. Or, more specifically: open to reason and rational persuasion.

You can help them change something about themselves if they sincerely and deeply want this to take place; but you can do so only with their consent.

There are moments when individuals can be irrational, or at least non-rational, about a certain subject. The classic example from psychology is the alcohol or drug addict “in denial.” All this phrase really means is that for a certain period of time (sometimes moments, sometimes years) an individual is closed to facts and rational argumentation regarding certain self-defeating behaviors. Denial can apply to any behavior or personality trait of any kind, and to any degree. Human beings possess the capacity to either think objectively or not; in some cases, they choose not to do so.

In psychology, we call the consequence of this development “denial.”

I am not suggesting that people should never try to influence others. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to let somebody you care about know that you see them on a self-destructive path. However, it’s best to do so in the context of: “Can I make a suggestion?” Or: “Can I be honest with you about something that is very important?”

If the other person values your input, he will almost certainly reply, “Yes, of course.” If he doesn’t value your input—or if he is closed to reason about the subject he knows you are likely to bring up—then you should not waste your breath, at least not at that particular point in time.

One of the major contexts where I see people inappropriately trying to change others is in marriage. After they become married, many individuals recognize that there are certain things about their spouse they’d like to change. It’s not merely that they want their partner to change a few habits, or forge a rational compromise agreeable to both sides. Rather, they seek a wholesale change in some aspect of their partner’s personality and psyche.

Sometimes this desire is conscious; more often it is subtle, and subconscious. Either way, it inevitably leads to frustration and sometimes total collapse in the morale of the relationship or marriage. In fact, my twenty-five-plus years as a therapist show me that this is, overwhelmingly, the number one error that I see people make in relationships and marriages. The same issue, and error, can apply to friendships and business relationships, though the emotions involved are not usually as intense.

Here’s an example, utilizing a question I received from a website visitor:

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My wife wants me to change, on a very deep level. But I really believe I’m just fine. She’s insisting I go to therapy by myself to change. I’m not opposed to therapy. I’ve even gone to a therapist from time to time. But I don’t see that I need to do anything differently from what I’m doing now. What should I do?

My answer:

At this point, your wife needs the therapy more than you do. She should figure out what she really wants, rather than trying to mold you into what she feels she wants right now.

You should face the fact that it’s a contradiction to be romantically involved with someone who wants you to change, at least to change “on a very deep level.” If you really should change—say, if you’re an alcoholic or a lazy moocher—then she can’t be in love with you, and shouldn’t be in love with you. Why? Because you have a serious, relationship-destroying flaw right now and must correct it before being involved with anyone. If you don’t necessarily need to change—say, if your personality style is not quite what she’d like, or your tone of voice is sometimes not what she’d prefer, or you have a hobby which is not destructive but she doesn’t like—then why make sacrifices for someone no matter how much you love them? You might not even be able to change what she wants you to change—assuming she can even define it.

The overwhelming majority of relationships that flounder do so because one or both partners want the other to change. Relationships based on one or both parties wanting the other to change do not work. I have witnessed this over and over again in my years as a therapist.

Love must be based upon actuality, not potentiality. Ask your wife to first “get help” for herself to understand this fact. Then perhaps more things will be possible for both of you.

The basic, ruling principle on the subject of changing versus influencing others is this one: Always be open for opportunities to influence somebody on an issue or behavior which is important to you. But when trying to influence others, make sure to approach them from their selfish interest point-of-view. Don’t ask people to change for your sake; rather, suggest they make a change for their own sakes. And mean it.

If somebody is not open to reason or discussion on a certain subject, then accept this fact and move on. I recognize this might mean moving on without people who were once important to you, at least in extreme cases.

But it’s better than acting out the psychological equivalent of banging your head against a wall, over and over again. Life is too short and too precious for that.

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