‘A leopard can’t change its spots’. ‘You are who you are’. These are familiar adages that appeared in a recent article on an American psychology web page entitled ‘Can People Really Change?’ The same article, which was promoting positive change, also quoted Mohammed Ali as having once said that a man who viewed the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty ‘has wasted thirty years of his life’.
These quotes from both sides of the fence seem authoritarian and off-the-cuff, and their tone reflects strongly held beliefs about whether change is desirable, or even possible. It is a question that many potential counselling clients may ask themselves when considering therapy, often accompanied by concerns about losing identity, about the amount of effort that would be required to become ‘different’, and whether change for the better is even achievable.
People who come for counselling certainly want something in their lives to change.
But what is change? And does it really involve becoming someone fundamentally different to the person you are now? What underlies the feeling that we need to change anyway?
These are understandable questions, but there is another way of looking at this. The distinguished psychologist Carl Rogers, who is regarded as the originator of client-centered therapy, described a number of ways in which clients in counselling were seen to change positively, to change in a way that enabled them to achieve personal growth.
Rogers observed that over the course of counselling clients moved away from living in a way that had been shaped by external expectations; away from living according to values that had become so instilled that, to the client, such values seemed to have originated from within him/herself. Progress was also seen in how clients gradually became more oriented towards their own goals, becoming more open to their own experiencing and developing deeper self-trust.
Positive, growthful change does not mean having to fundamentally change who you are – in fact quite the opposite. Change of this kind is more in the nature of a gradual shifting of unhelpful obstacles that have come between the client and their genuine self.
Mearns and Thorne** describe this process of self-acceptance as ‘the releasing of emotional blocks which have locked the client, perhaps for years, in a negative view of himself’. This can happen by way of a major shift following a gradual, unconscious building up of pressure to change. Or it can happen so gradually that the client eventually experiences the feeling that, as Mearns and Thorne put it, ‘nothing has changed, yet everything is different’.
Whichever way this occurs, what has happened is that the client has become more the person they are, and less the person they are not.
*‘On Becoming a Person’, Carl Rogers, 1961
**‘Person-Centred Counselling in Action’, Dave Mearns & Brian Thorne, 1999