Working From the Inside Out: A Key to Unlocking Lasting Change

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi

It’s one of those unique qualities of being human — even if it doesn’t always look like this to others: The majority of us have a deeply-rooted desire to improve, to get better at something, to transform an area of our lives. Whether it’s related to work, relationships or our health, there’s almost invariably some things we need to stop doing and some things we want to start doing. Change is one of the key ingredients that allows us to grow and mature.

It’s only taken me about 20 years to get that idea settled into my life. I’m embarrassed to admit what I originally thought about change when I first started working with people as a therapist: I actually thought that if someone took the time out of their schedule and paid me to talk about the difficult things in their lives, that meant they were ready to change. I began to realize over time that seeing a therapist (meaning me) actually told me very little about their desire to change, their motivation to change or even their belief about the possibility of change.

I’ve learned a few things about the process of change from therapy and research (I’ll share more about that in the blogs to come). But the first thing that needs to happen if we want to change, in big ways or small, is that we need to be more honest with ourselves. We have to start the process of change with where we are, not where we think we should be. Take, for instance, New Year’s resolutions. A lot of people think they need to get healthy at the start of a new year, in part because of the excessive eating and lack of exercise during the holidays. So every January, every health club is packed. But most of those newcomers at the gym don’t really want to change; they just feel bad about the choices they made over the previous couple of weeks (or even the previous months or year). Rather than over-committing to work out, say, five times a week for an hour at a time, it would be better if they started walking or jogging for a short time once a week.


Compliance vs. Change

It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between compliance and change. Usually, compliance is somebody trying to change us. I often joke, “I’m not sure where in the city my wife is right now, but if she’s talking to a friend about something that she thinks I need to change, I can feel that conversation 20 miles away and I’ll start my resistance.”

People hate being forced to change, and compliance — giving in, agreeing to do what’s asked of us — is simply a strategy we’ve all used to get someone to quit talking to us about what they think we should do. But the truth is, if I’m open to change and if I’m the one doing the work, then I just might end up starting a change process that lasts. So compliance and change are two very different things. While compliance usually originates from someone else or something else, change, on the other hand, must become personal to us if it is grow. Put another way, for lasting change to happen, at some point there has to be something that happens internally, not just externally.

Even though therapists and researchers are well-versed on the subject how change happens, it’s still both fascinating and mysterious to not only observe the process in others, but to experience it first-hand. If you’re willing to risk changing yourself from the inside out then you will never be, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “a cold and timid soul that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

–Written by Kevin Gilliland, PsyD for the Addiction.com website. For more from their expert bloggers, please follow this link.