Individual Counseling

Clients Have To Want To Change

By  | 

You may have heard this joke:

Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One. But the light bulb has to really want to change.

It actually exposes a fundamental underlying truth of the therapeutic endeavor, which is that clients must be fully invested in the process of change or nothing of import is going to happen. Their lives will remain basically the same as they were before and they will have wasted all that time and money. This might sound self-evident but many people who seek outside help have different unconscious motivations.

For the people we have in mind getting outside help is a way to be able to shift the locus of control to the therapist, to be able to actually wash their hands of their problems, not take greater responsibility for them. It becomes the therapist’s job to find and apply the cure, the therapist whose success or failure hangs in the balance. Clients get some psychic relief by becoming observers, they no longer feel responsible for their dysfunctional situations.

That’s a heavy psychological burden to do away with and it’s the main draw of continuing on in therapy even as, practically speaking, not much movement is occurring. But if shifting the locus of control is mainly an unconscious mechanism then how can we be sure it has happened? After all, these types of clients are likely to show up on time every week, likely to pay for all their sessions without complaining, likely to say and even believe that they’re fully invested in the process.

The answer is simple enough. Regardless of the pursuit in question, if you’re fully invested in what you’re doing it’s going to be on your mind all the time, you’re constantly going to be working, practicing, reveling in your successes while isolating and then trying to improve upon your failures. When you come across someone purported to be an expert in your area of interest you’ll be brimming with questions and ideas, you’ll have loads to talk about, both from the theoretical and practical standpoints.

There’s no reason why a therapy session should be any different, the only difference is that the subject in question is the art of living. Clients who are thinking about their lives during the week, actively taking ideas and insights from past sessions and applying them to their concrete situations, are likely to be brimming with questions and ideas during the therapeutic encounter.

We could call the above an active attitude, and obviously it contrasts sharply with a receptive attitude, whereby the therapist is made responsible for change and growth. If clients show up to sessions without having much to say, if they haven’t been actively implementing ideas, trying on different ways of being and relating, it’s a huge red flag. If they’re not bursting at the seams during most sessions then their change is not that important to them, regardless of what they tell themselves, simple as that.

There are obviously myriad factors other than shifting the locus of control that keep people from fully engaging in the therapeutic process, and there’s no question that incompetent professionals are to blame for many bad outcomes. But regardless of how talented a professional is no substantial change is going to occur unless the client wants things to change and acts as the primary mover.