As readers of my blog articles and books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome already know, I specialized in the assessment and treatment of personality and character disturbances for many years before retiring from active practice. But while dealing with character disturbance was a primary specialty area of mine and required me to develop a radically different treatment approach, I also did a fair amount of traditional insight-oriented psychotherapy with clients who were appropriate for that type of intervention. In the process I learned a lot about both the importance and limitations of insight when it comes to making important changes in a person’s life.
Traditional therapy approaches have always placed a premium on insight. That’s partly because the emotional conflicts believed to underlie a persons “neurosis” were presumed to be largely unconscious to them, so helping someone “see” what it was that was really at the root of their problems was the biggest part of relieving their distress. It has never ceased to amaze me how much insight a person can gain within the context of therapy. And helping someone finally “put all the pieces together” as to how they got to a certain place in life has always been both rewarding and constructive.
I had some really great psychotherapy clients and it was a pleasure to witness them having their proverbial “Aha!” moments. But these clients also taught me an important lesson (a lesson that has also been validated by ample research): most of the time, insight simply isn’t enough when it comes to changing one’s life. And sometimes, the very fact that someone has come to “see” clearly the origins of their self-defeating ways (generally caused by emotional scars from the past) yet continues have difficulty doing things differently can in itself be a source of significant distress. One client aptly put the dilemma: “I now know all-too-well the dumb things I do and why I do them. I even know what I probably should do instead. So why can’t I seem to make myself do those things? It makes me crazy!” To address that very concern, I began to rely on lessons I’d learned from my work with disturbed characters. Insight is great, I realized, but without challenging dysfunctional thinking and behavior patterns, and most especially, without reinforcing efforts to do things differently, most people will tend to stay “stuck” in old familiar patterns. They might feel better for the few moments they have the opportunity to “vent” during the therapy hour, but that doesn’t mean they experience the joy of truly being free of their past.
As I mention in my books (see, for example, Character Disturbance pp. 30-58) because, despite how it may outwardly appear, disturbed characters generally already have plenty of insight, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as opposed to insight-oriented approaches is the treatment of choice when it comes to character disturbance. But CBT principles also provide some real benefits for non-character impaired folks, especially those who are recovering from toxic relationships and want to address any issues that might make them vulnerable in the future.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be saying more about why insight – for all it’s value – is almost never enough when it comes to making genuine changes in your life. It’s natural for us to want to “understand,” and it’s sometimes quite satisfying to learn all about the “whys and the wherefores,” but it often takes doing things a whole lot differently and on a consistent basis to really grow in awareness, and that’s where some of the principles of CBT, properly applied, can make a big difference.
Character Matters on Sunday evening at 7 pm EDT, 4 pm PDT will again be a live broadcast, so I can take your calls.
I’ll be having more to say in the coming weeks about the upcoming “webinar” tentatively planned for September. Many of you have already used the “Contact Dr. Simon” feature to apprise me of your interest in attending and I’ve already put about half the minimum number of attendees we need on the notification list. So, thanks for that and stay tuned for more information.