Sunday, October 18, 2009

Do You Really, Really Want to Change?

Ever since Freud proclaimed that all dreams fulfill wishes psychotherapy has been mired in the problem of desire.

Freud was proposing that we do not know what we really want-- we are afraid of the truth-- but that our true desire expresses itself nonetheless-- in dreams, among other places-- in disguised or encrypted form.

This was an eminently marketable fiction. It spawned imitators and gave rise to numerous variations. It began with Freud's basic notion that women do not know what they want and then moved on to the more pedestrian concept that you have to want to be cured before you can undergo psychoanalysis. Finally it alighted on the idea that your children will not be happy and fulfilled unless you really, really want them. The world is full of strange applications of Freud's notion.

Most of them do not do anyone very proud.

I recalled these thoughts after reading Marshall Goldsmith's recent post about whether or not his coaching clients really want to change. Goldsmith was telling coaches that if they encounter clients who do not really want to change, they should not waste their time. It sounds harsh, probably because Goldsmith did not find the most felicitous way to express his thought. More than that, the concept is confusing. Link here.

You know as well as I do that there is no way to measure how much anyone wants to change, how badly anyone wants a job or how much anyone wants to be cured. There is no thermometer that takes the temperature of your desire and there is no barometer that measures your desire's atmospheric pressure.

Some people act as though they want something when they really do not. Some people do not really know what they want. And some people mistake desperation for desire. When you are desperate to be with a person, that does not necessarily mean that you desire them.

Twelve step programs often say that people can only truly engage in treatment after they have hit rock bottom. But when you have lost everything, you are likely to be in a state of despair. Despair and desire are not the same thing.

Might you engage in a treatment program out of despair? Surely, you might. It might even work for you. AA meetings do not care whether you want to be there or not. They care that you are there. The same applies to all of the twelve steps.

Most important, however, is this. Whether or not you really, really want to change, you must feel that you should change, that you have to change. Your sense of an ethical obligation to work on your treatment will carry you much further than will an immeasurable desire.

If I may share a pet peeve, I believe that the message about hitting rock bottom might even be suggesting to some alcoholics that they can keep on drinking until they reach a desolate extreme. Would it not be better to tell alcoholics that they do not have to hit rock bottom before starting treatment, and that it is better start when they have something to preserve than when they have lost everything?

Goldsmith's notion has often bee applied to psychotherapy. There it becomes self-serving. Given the Freudian axiom that we do not really know what we want, it was not very difficult for therapists to decide that when their patients did not get better the fault lay in insufficient desire. If they got better then they had sufficient desire.

Nothing about the treatment, nothing about the technique could overcome the fact that some people just did not want to get better. If this sounds like a rather clever way to blame the patient and to absolve therapists for all responsibility, that is because it is.

Many people come to therapists and coaches fully intending to change. If you ask them they will tell you that they are consumed by a yearning for change. Some of them are telling the truth and some of them think they are telling the truth. Some people know their own minds; some do not.

Without being a mind reader how is a coach to tell the difference?

I think I know what Goldsmith was getting at, but I would express it differently. In my coaching practice clients seem to distinguish themselves according to whether they want to work with me or work against me. Some clients happily take advice; some take advice grudgingly; others do not take it at all. Some clients cooperate; others want to contend with me.

Were I to compare the relative success of these two classes of clients, I would say that the cooperative group does far better than the contentious group.

But is this a reason to reject people who do not accept my advice? Do we want to consign them to decades of psychotherapy where they will have the honor and privilege of trying to discover why they do not feel enough of the right kind of desire?

I hope not.

If a football coach signs an exceptionally talented but erratic player who does not take direction well, he does not immediately think that he should cut the player. He does not think that the work he does to improve the player's attitude is wasted. Not at all. He will try to figure out a way to motivate the player, how to bring out his best.

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. But I doubt that anyone is going to be motivated to change by hearing a threat that if he does not really, really want it, you are going to show him the door.

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