We Change ONLY If We Want To

Today’s endless publicity about criminal acts is inevitably accompanied by some of the victims commenting publicly that they “hope someone will put the criminal on a better track.” In fact, research over the years has exposed the fallacy of such statements. The reality is that the possibility of getting thugs to change their thinking is nothing short of nonexistent. This will certainly generate a slew of fawning emails telling me I’m “mean,” and all the other feel-good buzzwords – but facts are still facts.

In his critically acclaimed book, “The Myth of the ‘Out of Character’ Crime,” clinical psychologist and author Stanton Samenow, Ph.D., writes, “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 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.” Dr. Samenow arrived at this conclusion after countless hours of direct, clinical contact with criminals.

“Fed up.” I like that. And in this respect, Dr. Samenow’s words also apply to the non-criminal. Of course there are differences between criminals and non-criminals. Criminals view their activity as a career and don’t typically feel remorse, other than perhaps regret if they’re caught or the crime is bungled. Non-criminals would never consider the initiation of brutal force, but to a criminal it’s all in a day’s work.

Nobody can change against his or her own will. Consider the analogy of smoking. People who quit smoking usually know that they should stop, and even want to. But only at a certain point do they actually follow through. People who quit often tell me, “I just got disgusted and mad with myself. The habit was annoying me.” The same applies to any pattern that requires change.

Coming face to face with your shortcomings requires seeing yourself objectively. This can be difficult, and seeking help and input from reliable others can be effective. But first and foremost, YOU must be your own counselor or therapist.

It doesn’t make sense to look at a loved one and conclude, “He should change, therefore he will.” He will change only if he’s motivated to try. People put too much faith in counseling as a means of cajoling another person to change when he doesn’t see a problem. They put too much faith in government or some other external agency to “force” change when none is wanted. Because of this error in thinking, we have become a society of obnoxious do-gooders.

Dr. Samenow writes that the only criminals who reform are those who look in the proverbial “mirror” and dislike what they see. This explains why so few criminals change! If your psychology is so corrupted that you readily initiate force against others, you’re probably too entrenched to reverse course. This is why government, the courts and the mental health disciplines have overwhelmingly failed to “reform” criminals through punishment, forced psychotherapy or whatever.

Thinking objectively, and seeing one’s self as he or she sees others, can help bring on the self-disgust that can be the first step to change. It’s better to ask the person what he thinks of what he’s doing rather than pretending the problem doesn’t exist. At that point, the “helper” becomes an enabler and is now a part of the problem.

People will not change without first arriving at the conviction that change must take place. Think of the smoker who quits because he’s fed up. People don’t change because they have to. They do it because they want to.



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