Why Most People Don’t Really Change

Most people don’t change; they just become more the way they already are.

I must have said these words hundreds of times in my life — to clients, family and friends.  While there are exceptions, most people find change difficult for several reasons.  They don’t know themselves very well, to begin with.  Few people have an accurate view of who they are and therefore don’t recognize the aspects of themselves that could use improvement.  Most people want to believe they’re well-balanced and even exceptional in many ways:  how many of your friends would describe themselves as creative, talented or intelligent?  Do you know anyone who would say to you, I’m just average?  We all want to think of ourselves as special and gifted.

Then there is the human propensity to explain one’s 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 impulsive bad choices?”  Few people are willing to accept that their own character traits and choices are the main determinants of the kind of life they lead.

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Psychological Defensiveness and Self-Deception


Almost everyone understands the basic concept of psychological defense mechanisms.  At one time or another, we’ve all said (or been told), “Stop being so defensive!” We understand that the defensive person is protesting a little too strongly against something he or she doesn’t want to admit is true. Take that dynamic inside the mind and you have an internal defense.

One of my favorite theorists, Roger Money-Kyrle, looked back over his long career as a therapist and the different ways he had conceived of defenses; in the end, he came to think of them as lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings.  What makes them so difficult for us to recognize ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain.  It’s much easier to identify someone else’s defenses than our own.

If you think about your friends and family, I’ll bet you can identify someone with a defense that you and others around him can easily see but he can’t.  For example, I have an acquaintance who regularly falls out with her other friends and becomes indignant about the insensitive ways they treat her.  The other person is always to blame for the disagreement.  She isn’t my client, and I’ve never talked to her about this pattern, but I’m fairly confident she suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness.  She can’t face those emotions and wards them off with an indignant sense that others have treated her badly.

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About Neediness

I’ve never dealt with a client in psychotherapy who didn’t have trouble tolerating neediness in one way or another. In graduate school, the readings on this subject were fairly dry and theoretical, with talk about “feeding relationships,” or “good breasts” and “bad breasts” and how early frustration leads to particular defensive structures; but the bottom line is that the way we navigate that early experience of need often forms the basis for some enduring character traits throughout life.  We humans tend to generalize from one kind of need to another, so that those early encounters with deprivation might affect, for example, our love relationships in later life.

Here’s an example from my practice, and one that will likely remind you of other people you’ve known.  One of my clients came from a fairly chaotic background; the details aren’t as important as the fear of abandonment he grew up with.  As an adult, he found it impossible to sustain a relationship with a woman of any length.  He preferred Internet pornography and masturbation, forms of desire where he didn’t have to depend upon another person to satisfy him.  His attitude toward women was largely remote and contemptuous.  Nobody was good enough; women only wanted to use him him to get what they wanted from him.

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The First Step

Each of the posts on this site addresses a psychological conflict or emotional fact I’ve come to regard as central to the human experience.  I try to illustrate these issues with examples from my own psychotherapy practice or personal life.  At the end of each post, the section Finding Your Own Way contains some suggestions for how to use these ideas to further your journey of personal growth.

If you’ve had some therapy before, begin by accepting that the issues you dealt with are more than likely still active in one way or another.  My own therapist told me on many occasions that we can never get rid of any part of our psyche; we can only hope to grow and develop other aspects of ourselves to cope with the problem areas.  As you wander through this site, begin with the same assumption:  you can’t unload any of your baggage along the journey, but enlarging self-awareness and growing new emotional capacities will make the load much easier to carry.

Unlike most other self-help resources, this site aims to help you confront feelings and conflicts outside of awareness, not to conquer a familiar issue.  I’m less interested in teaching techniques for how to manage anxiety, say, than to show how disowned emotions can lead to panic attacks, and to help visitors move closer to those feelings — as any good therapist would do.  In order to make use of this site, you’ll have to do most of the work, of course, just as you’d have to do if you were in face-to-face psychotherapy.  I often remind my clients of the obvious:  “I’m here with you for 50 minutes each week; the rest of the time you’re on your own.”  The challenges contained in these posts are be integrated into your daily life and into your ongoing practice of self-reflection.  Find the ones that resonate with your experience and see how far they can take you along the road.