Authentic Change and the Role of Choice

Authentic Change and the Role of Choice

Everywhere you look, in popular magazines and on media websites like the Huffington Post, there seem to be countless articles outlining the five or six essential steps to follow for some type of self-improvement. Americans are fixated on personal growth — becoming more effective in their professions, happier and more tranquil in their private lives, less depressed with higher self-esteem and a more satisfying sex life. The website on which you’re reading this post is devoted to promoting change. We all want to grow and change for the better.

In my experience, however, most people change very little over the course of their lives. They tend to become more the way they already are.

While there are exceptions, most people find change difficult for several reasons. We all want to think well of ourselves, to begin with. Despite our preoccupation with change and self-improvement, we tend not to acknowledge those parts of ourselves that could actually use improvement. Take another look at those articles that promote change; they promise to teach ways for achieving happiness but usually don’t tell you how to cope with the not-so-nice parts of your character. We’ve all got them and don’t like to admit it.

As much as they might long to change, many people tend to explain their difficulties, short-comings and failures by blaming somebody else. Look around you at the people you know. The co-worker who’s careless and lazy but blames her poor evaluations on an exacting boss, or colleagues who have it out for her. The cousin who gets under your skin because in every story he tells, he paints himself as a victim. Have you ever known anyone who told you, “I got fired because I was doing a lousy job,” or “A lot of bad things have happened in my life because I make so many poor choices”? Most people don’t fully accept that their own character traits and the choices they make are the main determinants of the quality of life they lead.

To face our faults, to feel regret for poor choices, to admit that aspects of our personalities need some work would be painful. “The truth hurts,” the old saying goes. And so we lie to ourselves. Not consciously, but through our reliance on psychological defense mechanisms that protect us from the truth. The psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer describes defense mechanisms as lies we tell ourselves to evade pain. In my new book Why Do I Do That?, I rely on this definition to explain the most common defenses (repression, denial, splitting, projection, etc.) and how they shield us from pain, but also prevent us from facing the hard truths that lead to genuine growth.

Last year, when my book was still under contract with New Harbinger Publications, I had to confront my own defense mechanisms at work when I received their editorial comments on my second batch of chapters. Upon reading their notes, I knew I couldn’t dumb down what I’d written and deliver the simplified CBT-type book they wanted; that I would have to withdraw from the contract seemed immediately clear. But in my thoughts, I felt full of scorn and contempt for their “idiotic” suggestions. I went on a long drawn-out internal tirade, full of scorn and mockery.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand contempt as one of the primary defenses against shame, so when I recognized this defense at work within me, I began to search for shame and found it. Although opting to withdraw and preserve the integrity of my book didn’t make me a “failure,” I nonetheless felt like one: that contract with a recognized and respected publisher had meant a lot to me. I came down off my high horse, returned to their notes and found many valuable suggestions, even if it didn’t change my mind about backing out of the contract. Contempt would have felt better in the short term, shielding me from shame and loss, but choosing to disarm that defense helped me to grow and benefit from those editorial notes.

In other words, even if you become aware of your defense mechanisms at work, through individual psychotherapy or the help of a book like mine, effecting change involves hard work and painful choices. Once you gain insight about your true nature, you then need to do something about it, over and over again. This is one of the most misunderstood issues for clients entering psychotherapy. Gaining insight into who you are means understanding traits and tendencies that will remain with you for life; with time, you can see them at work and try very hard to do something a little different, again and again.

Maybe you react badly to criticism, becoming defensive and contemptuous as I did. Hearing someone point out your shortcomings might stir up unbearable shame, which then triggers your defense mechanisms. Knowing this about yourself will allow you to see the process at work and, with great effort, stop the usual defensive attack. Over time, you may learn to face the underlying shame and what gives rise to it. This will be an ongoing challenge. Your automatic defensive reaction will never go away entirely, but over time, you might lessen its hold upon you.

That’s the reality of possible change: it requires a lot of hard work and the results are never the sort of ideal transformation we’re looking for.

Photo by martinak15

Dr. Joseph Burgo

Joseph Burgo, PhD writes a blog on shame for Psychology Today and is the creator of After Psychotherapy, a website where he writes about personal development issues from a psychodynamic perspective. In addition, he is the author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives.

Latest posts by Dr. Joseph Burgo (see all)

13 Comments

  1. This article really resonated with me. The introduction had me disagreeing at first, but by the end of it I see your point.

    Often times it’s difficult for anyone to admit their own faults because it’s just tough to realize you’re wrong or have something that are visible to others. Over the past few months, there have been some uncomfortable truths surfacing that I’d rather not find to be true. I struggle, resist, and pray that I haven’t been so blind.

    I hope that one day I can lessen the effects my defense mechanisms have on me and maybe I can react better to judgment and criticism. Thank you, Joseph.

    Reply
  2. Shame is a such a hard emotion to swallow and even harder to come face to face with. I agree with you, in both my own journey and with my clients( also a therapist) I have found that realty the journey is about returning to who you have also been with acceptance, compassion and love towards oneself; the good, the bad and the ugly. To find acceptance and understanding for our darkest traits and defence mechanisms. Once we know ourselves inside and out there is nothing to frighten us and once we accept that the defensive behaviour is there for a reason and forgive the reason is started in the first place we can become free of shames tight grip. Good luck with the book :)

    Reply
  3. Nonsense. People change all the time, often profoundly, radically and quickly. Developing the ability to notice those parts of ourselves that are trouble some and keep us in less than productive loops of behavior is not awfully difficult. Developing alternative strategies is also a simple straight forward process. What is required to one’s self is a commitment to life long self honesty and self examination. Does this have to be excruciatingly difficult? Not at all, what if it’s actually an interesting, helpful and enjoyable way of life. Do people “back slide”- sure. So what. One notices, forgives and moves on, simply returning to self honesty and practices that lead in the direction we wish to go.

    Reply
  4. Yes, shame–another element of self-pity. As I map the universe of poise in my own work at The :Poised Life, I realize that we must be warriors, at war with our own weaknesses. To be at war with our egos is a war we can learn to enjoy, because the only way to shrink the ego is to love. We’re all on this planet taking our initiation in love, as Florence Shinn said. The initiation requires that we reject our self-pity, victimhood, and bad explanations for what is happening in our life. Then, free of self-pity, we have our full powers at our disposal. What an incentive to change! Gary Stokes

    Reply
  5. I like your great description of the mind’s protective mechanisms. While Roman is right in saying that people do change all the time, I think you accurately point out that the great majority of us seldom change in a significant way. There is indeed hope for those of us who decide to question our innermost motives and to act on them when necessary.

    Reply
  6. As you have seen in the above comments, people are very resistant to the idea that genes and personality matter. And even worse, they are more powerful than our puny attempts to change or work with them. Try, we must. It is our only chance, but as you say it will be long and slow and difficult. But once we face this, we can begin to improve because we are working within the realm of reality.

    This is a truly refreshing article in the genre. Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Change always happens rapidly. It might take years to get to the point of being able to change, but the change itself is pretty quick. Often it is the equivalent of a getting hit with a bowling ball, because there needs to be some factor which has an emotional impact. It would be nice if you could consciously decide to do something, but often it’s a diagnosis, a loss, or a disaster that triggers the change. If you are lucky it is just an idea that you might not have thought of before that suddenly makes an impact, but this is the exception. The hard part of change is resisting the desire to get back to that steady state that you know so well. Change is a new territory and often means change in relationships, lifestyles, finances, or other life aspects. The challenge is figuring out how you fit into your life once change takes place.

    Reply
  8. As a recovering alcoholic in my 22nd year, I’ve changed a great deal by using AA’s program. The saying is “the person who first walked in these rooms will drink again”. Alcoholics have enormous self will, are self-centered in the extreme, enormous ego with low self esteem: “his majesty the child”. So there’s very strong motivation to do the hard work. Cognitive therapy was a huge help in changing and growing up. Yes, it’s hard to face your own demons but in my case I had no choice. Loved your posting.

    Reply
  9. There’s a lot here to think about, too much to say I wholesale agree or disagree (I do both depending on where I am in the post.) I agree more when you’re not talking in absolutes (“While there are exceptions, most people find change difficult for several reasons”), less so when you are (“Everywhere you look . . .”, “Americans are fixated on personal growth . . .”)

    I also understand that the devil is in the details of most everything we all say. For example, “In my experience, however, most people change very little over the course of their lives. They tend to become more the way they already are.”

    We all change albeit to varying degrees. For me the more interesting question is why do those who “tend to become more the way they already are” act as they do?

    I believe it is because they react to change passively, accepting what comes their way, rather than attempting to affect the outcome of events surrounding them. There life becomes one of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    And for those who agree with that the next question is why is that? Why do some aggressively attempt to guide and control their lives while so many others do not?

    Nature or nurture? I’m not sure.

    Reply
  10. The first thing I think about is the defense mechanism of denial when it comes to change. And that we all have blind spots that keep us from seeing what it is needed for change to occur. And we wonder why we get frustrated with ourselves when we try changing but end up failing.

    Many of us have had the experience of hearing a recording of our voices for the first time and then to quickly wanting to shut it off, because of how awful we think our voices sounded.

    But, if we see ourselves in an objective fashion, then maybe we can see clearly what it is that’s keeping change away.

    Like hearing the recording of our voices for the first was the most objective experience we had about learning the way our voices sounded.

    At first, it was painful to hear, but after hearing the recording repeatedly, the shock of the sound our voices dissipated.

    In the same way, if we see ourselves objectively on what it is that’s keeping change away, then there is a possibility for change. Sometimes it is useful to get the same reaction as when we first heard our voices on a recorder.

    Reply
  11. What a great article! It’s very insightful.

    This reminds me of dealing with rejection. When we are rejected, our defence mechanisms automatically kick in. “Who needs them anyways?” we might think, or “I’m better off without them!”. But, I found that when I am able to look past my defences, and initiate an honest friendly discussion, it is often possible to turn things around and sometimes, get rid of the rejection all together.

    Thanks again for the great discussion.

    Reply
  12. I agree with Dr Joseph. It is so difficult to change . There is inevitably resistance from my ego the moment someone suggests a flaw in me. I immediately move into defensive strategy justifying myself inwardly. There is a possibility for change only when I introspect honestly and admit my own fault (s). There has to be a desire for change for the better, of course. Despite medical advice, friends’ counselling, legal prohibitions, I have found it difficult to give up smoking. Unless the desire to give up the habit sinks deep in me with a resolve to change, I am likely to persist with the habit. If this so difficult to change a habit, which is harmful to my health,it is all the more difficult to re-orient one’s personality vis a vis others.. I am not, however, suggesting that change is not possible. It requires determination, will power and persistence provided I wish earnestly to change. ( These comments are more in the nature of soliloquy rather than addressed to any one ! ).

    Reply
  13. I’ve learned to create my own change. When I let others dictate to me how, why, when, and where I should change, I’m bound to fail. Why? Because they are not me and I am not them. Change is internal.

    Reply

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