7.4 Regarding change

I have mixed feelings about the human capacity to change. On one hand, I believe that most adult problems of the kind I will face as a future therapist are, to a large degree, changeable. Bad habits, maladaptive patterns of thought or feeling: we can’t transform these things completely, but we can help effect change in ways that at least make life more manageable for people.

On the other hand, I believe there is a critical, early period in childhood during which certain relational and temperamental patterns get set in place, and these patterns essentially never change. Not because they’re impossible to change, theoretically, but just that there aren't enough days in a single lifetime to get the job done.

Take attachment patterns, for instance. Let’s say your childhood was what it was and you never learned to securely attach in intimate relationships. I certainly believe you can learn to navigate your attachment patterns to forge healthier bonds in adulthood. But you will always have to correct against your own tendencies in this regard. You can raise your consciousness around them, and choose different ways of behaving in relationships as a result, but I don’t believe you can fundamentally change your attachment patterns, because they were set in place too early. They’re part of your basic apparatus. You will be working with, around, and against them your whole life. And that this fact is true for everyone helps relax me into compassion, both about myself and others. We’re all just children, craving each other’s love and approval, bracing ourselves against hurts that actually stopped happening a long time ago.

I heard Steven Hayes make the point that there is no such process as unlearning in human psychology. Even if the association between two stimuli is reduced to nearly zero strength, it will always be more readily re-learned under the right conditions. And this is just what I mean about change: maybe your basic patterning cannot be unlearned, but its network of associations and related behaviors can be expanded and complicated in ways that make life infinitely more satisfying. This is what therapy is so good at helping people with.

Mark