Responsibility For Change
Most clients come to therapy with the stated intent of changing some aspect of their lives, but when push comes to shove they often secretly desire something else. All of us have the uncanny ability to place the responsibility for our problems on other people or on factors outside of our control. Sometimes to truly believe this ourselves though we need others to agree with us, and this is where the unwitting therapist comes in. What some clients really hope to get out of therapy is an ally who will validate their interpretation of events, letting them off the hook for having to do the very hard work of change.
This strategy has a high success rate because all of our lives are a mixture of things we can control, what we could term free will, and things we can’t control, what we could term destiny. If we take a higher power out of the equation and situate the problem in this world then the following words encapsulate a good philosophical approach to helping clients deal with the conflict between free will and destiny. “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Therapy can never be a vehicle for change unless insight is gained about where responsibility lies for problems. Without this piece, at best a therapist can be a trusted confidant, someone willing to listen without judgment and sympathize with a client’s plight.
I read about a great strategy that Irvin Yalom uses to help clients take their first tentative steps towards change, channeled through his character Friedrich in the book ‘The Spinoza Problem’. The therapist simply asks the client to report what percentage of responsibility for the stated problem lies outside of him. Is it 20%? 50%? 90%? Whatever percentage is left over is the place to start, the place to explore, because logically this is the only area where any personal movement can take place.
A client is trapped into facing his own responsibility in this paradigm since if he says that 100% of the problem is due to forces outside of himself, the therapist will respond that in that case he can be obviously be of no help. But if there is even a 1% stated personal responsibility we have an inroad that, although seemingly insignificant, can open up an entire universe. The subjective stated percentages really don’t matter; if it makes you feel better to say 90% of the problem is outside of you, even if in reality it might only be 20%, so what? You have still taken on responsibility for 10%, and down the road you will probably come to realize on your own that 10% was actually 80%.
What we are really trying to do is get a verbal agreement, freely chosen, to work on the aspects of life that can be influenced. Although at first the strategy might make a client feel cornered, the end result is always feeling more powerful since naturally problems outside of your control make you utterly powerless. Any conversation that moves us towards authenticity, personal responsibility, and growth is a good thing.