One of the main points I make in my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing (I also discuss this issue from a somewhat different perspective in The Judas Syndrome), is that change – legitimate, genuine, potentially lasting change – always manifests itself in the here-and-now moment. It’s not an empty promise to be better but a here-and-now decision to do differently. And over the years, I’ve had the blessing and privilege to witness some of the most impaired characters make significant changes in their lives. Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered many persons extremely resistant to change – even among those who vociferously protested that they were a different person. This begets the question of how you know someone is really making changes, especially when they’re involved in the therapeutic process.
People working toward genuine change have a distinctive character about them and display some readily observable signs that they truly mean business. Folks who are all talk and no action are also easy to spot, especially if you know what to look for. Here’s an example based on a real case (with certain details altered to ensure anonymity). It’s a portion of an interview I did with an individual who’d had repeated problems with the law and was facing incarceration for the first time:
Q: Why are you here today?
A: They told me if I get some counseling I’ll have a better shot at getting some justice.
Q: And who is “they?”
A: My lawyer.
Q: Okay. So, in what way do you think I might be able to help you?
A: To tell you the truth, I don’t really need no help. I seen someone before. Lots of times. Didn’t do no good, though. But I got my act together now. I ain’t gonna do those things that got me in so much trouble no more.
Q: You’ve had therapy before?
A: Yeh, I seen lots of doctors and everything, and my momma…, she put me in one of those places one time and the judge said they was gonna help me get over what they said was my depression and stuff.
Q: Were you depressed?
A: I was when I got there!
Q: What had you done that your mom and the Judge thought you needed that kind of treatment?
A: Man, they was makin’ it out like I was some kind of criminal or something. I had missed a little school, but I was going to get me a job. And they got me for havin’ some “weed” in my car, but I wasn’t gonna sell it like they said, and besides, who doesn’t sell a little weed or get a little high sometimes.
Q: Were there other problems?
A: Well, my momma says I pushed her down, but I didn’t really, she tripped. And she was in my face, just like she does a lot. I told her to back off but she wouldn’t. And they’re calling it assault and battery. But I’m tellin’ you, I’m a changed man now. I even go to church sometimes and everything. All this other stuff they’re saying about me is just bull^&*&^!
Q: If I were to decide to work with you, you’d have to show me some degree of willingness to really change.
A: But I am changed. I already done told you that.
Q: Saying you’ve changed is one thing. Showing that it’s true is quite another. And in just the few minutes you’ve been with me, whenever you had the opportunity to accept responsibility, instead you minimized the seriousness and criminality of your misbehavior, you rationalized and made excuses, and you blamed others for your situation. And you made no attempt to stop yourself. Instead, you did the very same things right here today that you’ve done for a long time and that got you to the point of facing the consequences you’re now facing. So, from my standpoint, I’m not seeing that you have actually done much changing or that you’ve even given much attention to the task. And if I were to take you on as a patient, my job would be to encourage and reward you for doing things very differently. Your job would be to catch and correct yourself whenever you’re tempted to engage in any of the tactics you typically try and which I have outlined on this thinking errors and manipulation tactics worksheet right here. And you can start by admitting that talk is cheap and that you haven’t really done all that much to change your ways of doing things.
A: I guess ya got me there, doc. What’s next?
Now, of course, this example only illustrates a start for potentially helpful therapeutic process. And suffice it to say that not all my encounters with disturbed characters have been anywhere near as promising as this one was at the start. Besides, even this case proved to be a very much up and down, backward and forward situation for quite some time. But I provided the example to help illustrate two things: 1) what to look for in the here-and-now that tells you whether someone is really changing in any meaningful way; and, 2) the very different character any therapeutic encounter with a disturbed character must have (I’ve addressed two other similar issues in this regard in some prior articles – see, for example: Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy and Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”). The most important thing to remember is that it’s always about the behavior. And once you know the specific behaviors to be mindful of, you’ll get a clearer picture in the moment about the status of someone’s character development.