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“Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German dramatist, novelist, poet, & scientist (1749 - 1832)
It’s hard to change ourselves. We end up in therapy because we’re trying to change, but we’re stuck. We can’t feel happier, our anxiety is beyond our control, our relationship is consumed with quarrels, or perhaps we find our minds hijacked by food, drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, porn and so on.
Yet once in therapy, somehow, almost magically, things begin to change. Sometimes the simple relief of being able to tell our deepest secrets to another human is enough. Other times it’s finding out that we’re not the bad person we feared that unlocks our ability to change. Or it might be that we’ve been offered another way of looking at our problem, or been asked to experiment with new thoughts and behaviors.
And then sometimes it's because of optimism and hope. We are generally pretty negative about ourselves, and given half a chance will look at our own behavior through dark colored glasses. A good therapist sees the upside of what we’re doing and feeling, and provides that alternative interpretation to balance out our negativity.
Some examples from my practice (with details modified for confidentiality):
Alcohol had ruined David’s life, and was going to kill him if he didn’t stop. Within a year, David had quit four times, but had only managed to stay sober for two weeks at the most. He saw himself as weak, lacking willpower, and doomed, and the few family members who still spoke to him agreed. I suggested a different interpretation of his behavior. I told David that giving up alcohol was extremely painful both physically and emotionally, and yet he’d been able to do that four times in a year. Each time he began the process, he knew how he was going to suffer, and he was aware that the chances of staying sober were limited, and yet he still tried. The fact that he kept coming back and trying again demonstrated an abundance of strength and willpower.
A childhood filled with abandonment had left Anne isolated from her family and with only the most superficial of relationships with friends. Loneliness was the key theme in her life. She had decided to try to get closer to her mother, but after a difficult conversation had decided to end the attempt and resigned herself to a limited relationship. She and I were both disappointed and I was considering urging her to try again, when she told me that she had just shared some very personal details with a friend, something she’d never done before. I suggested that this failure with her mother actually showed her determination to change: when she found she couldn’t become more intimate with her mother, she immediately turned to a friend and deepened the intimacy there.
Some might ask: What is the truth in both these situations? Is David really just weak because he can’t stay sober, or is he strong because he keeps trying to quit? Is Anne giving up on her mother at the first sign of trouble, or is she brave and resourceful in finding another possible way to solve her unhappiness?
I would suggest that when it comes to human relationships and behavior, there is no absolute truth. We can look at David and Anne from either a critical or a positive perspective. And whatever perspective David and Anne choose will become the truth.
If David believes that his therapist sees him as weak and doomed, it is likely that he will agree. Any thoughts of becoming sober will be short circuited by the knowledge that he’s so flawed that it’s hopeless. But if knows that his therapist sees him as having willpower and a strong character, he is more likely to see himself that way and try again to stay sober. He will be less discouraged by failures, and more willing to try again, staying sober for longer and longer period, and perhaps, eventually, for the rest of his life. And if Anne were to believe that she failed at getting closer to her mother, she will feel discouraged and hopeless about relationships and cease trying, resigning herself to a life of loneliness. But if her therapist celebrates her determination and creativity in connecting to others, she will be more likely to accelerate her efforts with friends, and perhaps return to her mother in the future.
Skeptics will say that this is mollycoddling, and that if change is to happen, we need to be held accountable, to see our faults and mistakes clearly and admit to the error of our ways. Perhaps. But the research shows that punishment, shame and guilt are not effective motivators of human change. (If they were effective, there wouldn’t be any alcoholics or drug abusers.) Which teacher, coach or mentor was effective in your life: the one who was relentless in pointing out your faults, or the one who celebrated and encouraged your successes? Goethe was right: treating others as what they potentially could be leads them to become what they should be.
One last caveat: in the therapy room, as in our daily life with others, we cannot be so blindly optimistic that we ignore facts. People are not stupid: they can see when others are faking optimism in order to encourage, and they ignore such input. Facts must be acknowledged, but if we think broadly, we can almost always find an alternative view of those facts, one that provides hope and self respect, rather than shame and despair.