Individual Counseling

Believing Someone Can Change Versus Trying To Make Them Change

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More therapists should take heed of the classic idiom “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” But they don’t. They try through sheer force of will to make their clients change, considering themselves to be successes if it happens and failures if it doesn’t.

This is narcissism at its finest, and the problem with the outlook is that it robs those people of personal responsibility who are most in need of increasing personal responsibility. Whether they succeed or fail, clients apparently have their therapists to thank, not themselves.

But clients do take important cues from their therapists. The relationship is pedagogical in the sense that clients are there to learn how to think and behave in ways that are more conducive to their mental health. If clients sense that their therapists don’t believe in them, that they don’t think they’re capable of improvement, the endeavor is sure to end in failure.

What it comes down to then is believing someone can change versus trying to make them change. The first attitude is more conducive to success than the second because it treats clients as adults on a more or less equal footing. It assumes that under the proper conditions and with the adequate knowledge they can and will change for the better and that this change will originate within them rather than being a mechanical response to outside pressure and influence.

The loss of the sense of autonomy in life is, at bottom, what brings people into therapy in the first place. It makes the most sense to help them regain it by letting them be in charge of their change, fully believing that they can do it and giving them the tools rather than trying to take over the job for them.