Therapy has traditionally been a mind-over-matter enterprise. It has assumed that if you change the way you think and feel you will naturally change the way you conduct your life.
Therapists have believed so strongly in the power of mind that they have tended, until relatively recently, to downplay the possibility that you can change behavior without knowing why.
All of the talk about root causes has told people that they will never make any real change until they discover why they keep getting things wrong.
Again, it’s all mind-over-matter.
Remember the old therapy joke: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?
The answer is: one, but only if it really wants to change.
Saying that people have to want to change is a way to rationalize clinical failures: if you’re not getting better it’s because you do not want it badly enough.
So, a therapy patient has to want to change and has to delay changing his life until he has gained the proper insight into why he has his problems in the first place.
Once he has gained that insight and gotten in touch with his feelings he can consciously choose to follow his bliss… even if it leads him off of a cliff.
This seems to be true even in the more sophisticated theoretical models. As reported last week by David Brooks (see my commentary), they want you to arrive at the point where your conscious choices align perfectly with your tastes.
As Brooks puts it, you should enthusiastically choose the cloudberry gelato because you really enjoy cloudberry gelato.
I questioned this principle before, on the ground that you might be diabetic and you might not be able reasonably to afford the object you are lusting after. Now, I will add, what if you develop a taste, not for peach sorbet, but for your neighbor’s wife? Ought you to choose to follow your strong inclination, regardless of the consequences.
To see life in terms of choosing the right flavor of ice cream is too simplified to be useful.
How does therapy want to help a patient deal with his bad habits? It assumes that if he understands where they are coming from he will gain enough self-control to overcome them.
For decades now, this paradigm has been under question. To take the most obvious example, 12 step programs have asserted that, when it comes to addictions like alcoholism, banking on your self-control is a very bad idea.
It may seem too obvious to belabor, but AA has always believed that you can stop drinking without knowing why you are drinking. If you insist that you need to uncover the root cause, you are, essentially, giving yourself permission to keep on drinking in the meantime.
For alcoholics the first step to changing their lives is to stop drinking. The first step toward overcoming this bad habit is to stop it.
But you cannot just rely on your self-control The only effective way to get rid of bad habits, as Aristotle says, is to replace them with good ones.
The other day business coach Tony Schwartz addressed these questions in an excellent article entitled, “Six Keys to Changing Almost Anything.” Link here.
He, as I, follows Aristotle, in seeing that most of what we do in life is habit. We perform habitual behaviors automatically, as though they are not being generated or directed by thought.
Reporting on recent research, Schwartz says that 95% of our actions are performed by rote.
Think about walking down the street. Your conscious mind is not giving each muscle group a continuous stream of instructions, ordering it to expand or contract, to move this way or that.
Your walking is automatic; it’s almost as though your body has a mind of its own. If you were to decide to take conscious control over all of the actions that constitute a good walk, you will probably trip over yourself and reduce a three mile hike to a hundred yard stumble.
In order to get into the flow of any action, you need to overcome the impulse to control it with your conscious mind.
Schwartz quotes philosopher Alfred North Whitehead on the topic: "It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
Why would this be so? Perhaps, it is because habitual actions require less effort and energy. They are more economical.
Once an action becomes habitual, we are inclined to repeat it because it is the path of least resistance.
Which is well and good if you have good habits. It is not so good if you have a number of bad habits.
And yet, replacing them with good ones, as Schwartz explains, is a lot easier said than done. A long-standing bad habit is like an old friend: familiar, reliable, and effortless.
If you try to change the habit, you will be embarking on a journey toward something strange and uncertain. And you will have to replace effortless activity with something that feels like very hard work.
Happily enough, Schwartz offers us some useful guidelines.
One of them seems like a page out of the 12 step playbook: if you are tempted by chocolate or big Macs or alcohol, do your best to avoid them.
Do not imagine that your self-control will keep you from consuming the forbidden fruit. The bad habit will, as the 12 step program says, eventually overwhelm your self-control.
Increased exposure to alcohol does not strengthen the alcoholic’s self-control It wears it out. After a while, you will do an ergonomic analysis and decide that it is more economical to take a drink.
But it does not suffice for an alcoholic to avoid bars. He must also develop the new habit of replacing the daily trip to the local bar with daily attendance at an AA meeting.
The more often he goes to a meeting, the more it will become habitual. As Schwartz explains: “Put simply, the more behaviors are ritualized and routinized — in the form of a deliberate practice — the less energy they require to launch, and the more they recur automatically.”
How else can you go about effecting real change in your life? The first one Schwartz chooses seems obvious, but it is so obvious that we usually do not think about it.
You’ve probably heard it before, but it bears repeating. Set specific goals!
If you need to start an exercise regimen, don’t just tell yourself that you are going to exercise more. Join a gym, make a specific schedule of when you are going to be there, for how long, on which piece of equipment.
For some people, having a trainer or joining a class works to specify the time and place when they will exercise.
The second piece of advice is also sound: take on one habit at a time. While you are hard at work making exercise a routine, don‘t also try to make other changes in your lifestyle. Only after exercise has become routine should you think about that healthier diet.
If you try to do everything at once, you will be disrupting so many of your routines that you will no longer feel like you recognize yourself. This, in itself, will draw you back into your old habits.
If it is wrong to do to much at once, Schwartz adds that it is also a bad idea to take up a challenge that feels too small.
By that he means, if replacing your bad habit with a good one does not feel stressful, if you do not feel that you are struggling against resistance, then you are probably not addressing it correctly.
If you decide that you need to exercise, it is not sufficient to say that you are going to add a leisurely stroll to your daily routine.
If you are not working to establish a constructive new habit, then you will not feel that it is your habit. You need to earn new habits in order to feel that they are yours.
And then, Schwartz adds, there is perseverance. You will need to persevere because you are very likely to fail in your first attempts. The key to successful change lies in getting back up when you feel that you have been knocked off course.
Think of an alcoholic doing a 12 step program who falls off the wagon. He will only be able to succeed in the program if he picks himself up and starts again on the road to sobriety.
Perseverance will lead him to success. Not because he wants to but because he knows that he has to.