A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

The Secret Ingredients to Lasting Change

Because we all want to make changes that last

As a psychoanalyst, I am in the change business. People come to me for support, yes. They come to me because they need a listening ear, to be sure. They come to me because they want to better understand what troubles them, true. But, fundamentally, at the core, they come to me because they want to change.

But the fact is that change is not a straightforward project. While we seek change, we also resist it. At some level, we all intuitively feel that change threatens our sense of safety and security. And so—out of an often unconscious and misguided effort to protect ourselves—we cling to and even perpetuate the very problems that we wish to change. In the haunting lyrics of the songwriter Jewel, we lend strength to that which we wish to be free from.

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To illustrate this dynamic, one of my patients once told me of a sculpture of Sisyphus, pushing his boulder up the mountain, just as the story goes. But this sculpture added a new dimension to the image. There, on the other side of the boulder, was another Sisyphus, pushing the same boulder back down the mountain. We work against ourselves.

So what is the secret, then, to overcoming these resistances and making changes that last?

In February of 2006, I had the good fortune to attend a worship service celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, my alma mater. Dr. John Ortberg, also an alumnus, preached a moving sermon about the essential aspects of growing. To an audience of Christian therapists, he spoke poetically and pointedly about the joys and frustrations of helping people change, about how meaningful it is to be part of their healing process, and how difficult the work can be. His sermon was centered on three essential features of the growing process—a formula that he borrowed from another well-known Christian therapist, Dr. Henry Cloud.

Ortberg began by talking about the first two ingredients—grace and truth. He described grace in the traditional Christian way as “unmerited favor,” and by this he meant that we human beings really need to have an engaged, nonjudgmental support team available if we are to do the hard work of growing. We need family, friends, and wise guides to listen to our struggles and take them seriously. We need understanding of how scary it is to change, encouragement when we fail, and recognition when we try.

But Ortberg went on to say that grace alone is not sufficient; we also must engage with the truth. He used the concept of truth in the same way that psychoanalysts use the concept of reality. We must face the truth about ourselves; we must deal with reality as it is. As a thinking Christian, I love that he promoted the idea that God is fundamentally on the side of the truth. I prefer to picture God not as a magician taking us away from the problems of the world but as a parent who lovingly holds us accountable to facing the truth about ourselves. Ortberg went on to say that the combination of grace and truth is essential. Grace without truth would never lead to substantial change; and truth is nearly impossible to face without grace, for it is too hard and too painful, and so we would otherwise do all we could to avoid it.

I would have been quite satisfied if Ortberg had stopped there. I would have left the worship service feeling like he had spoken about something substantial in the psychological and spiritual journey. I would have felt that he had validated an approach that I had understood and tried to practice in my life and work. But he went one step further. The next step was such a wonderful surprise, it made me gasp. I’m not kidding. He said that there are three essential ingredients to lasting change and growth: grace, truth, and...time.

I exclaimed to myself silently, “Time!” That’s the ingredient we so often wish to leave out. That’s the bit that cannot be left out. It’s the secret to yeast, to a good marinade, to fine wine. It is the key to making a lasting and deep love relationship, to fighting an illness, to grieving the loss of a loved one, to maturing in faith, to making peace, and to growing up. Time is essential to change.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein said that psychological change happens slowly over time—step by step, bit by bit. Like learning to walk, we fall down and get up, fall down and get up again. By patiently giving ourselves new experiences, it becomes possible to make an internal psychological shift. We give ourselves the opportunity to learn that change is not disastrous. Through successive experiences of both failure and success, we learn that we can survive.

In this way, the change process involves re-wiring our whole belief system. Through the experience of surviving small changes, we come to believe something new about life and about ourselves. We come to see life as less dangerous. We come to see ourselves as more capable. And that combination—seeing the world as less dangerous and ourselves as more capable—is a whole new ballgame. It allows us to face change with less fear and resistance. It allows us to see change as something good and desirable. In this new mindset, change can become a lifelong process to be embraced rather than avoided. And that mindset is the real key to making changes that last.

Copyright 2014 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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To learn more about making changes that last, check out Jennifer’s newly released book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out

Jennifer will be signing her new book at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, NV on Saturday, June 28th, 1 to 3 pm.

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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