I have been a therapist for 30-odd (with all the double meaning that implies) years now. During that time I have seen many changes in people. I am sure you have too, but my work is geared to that human endeavor, so probably I, like other practitioners in the healing field, get to see more of it. The question arises often, “How do people change?” and “What is the process and what does it look and feel like?”
I don’t know who first said it, but I have said it often since: Everything changes yet nothing has changed. Here is a summary of personal change in therapy. Let me say straight away that change is not only possible due to therapy, it is highly likely that when a person sees a therapist who is any good that it will occur, so long as they are motivated to bring it about.
This is an important first point: so long as they are motivated to bring it about, because most of us have an internal saboteur. This is a sub-personality who stands up for the status quo, for not rocking the boat, who cries “Be careful! Watch out!”, as well as “It’s not going to work, don’t be so gullible!” The saboteur expresses itself in cynicism, doubt, mistrust and irritation, as well as inner statements like “Don’t get above yourself”, “Who do you think you are?” and “Why should it work for you?” The pack mentality is sometimes all-powerful. The idea — even the beginning of the idea — of rising above the level of peer-group, family and friends is instinctively abhorrent to us. It seems to threaten our very survival. If you are not in touch with this, then get in touch with it. Racist, fatist, misogynistic, child-ist, physically-challenged prejudices are a collective, rather than purely personal, phenomena. This means that we must each of us take deep responsibility for prejudice and bigotry to bring about change.
The individual who has undergone change in the inner world is different from the rest. His or her transformation sets them apart because they are no longer a prey to conditioning, no longer acting out of emotional-behavioral patterns arising from early childhood training. In short, they are no longer conditioned.
So, we have an internal saboteur. What else? Well, there is ennui, a lazy part, an apathetic part, a child who thinks someone else should do it for him, a fearful part who doesn’t want to threaten the marriage or the relationship, their career and so on. But alongside all of these, and often possessing immense resilience, strength and courage (and these are the qualities needed now) is the wayfarer, the seeker, the inner explorer or adept. This part of us deeply yearns for truth, for reality, for authenticity and a vibrant love-filled, passionate life.
So long as the seeker follows this part of them willingly and with dedication the process of inner work will lead to personal change.
And what happens to the memories, to the abandonment, to the fears and insecurities, to the neurosis and impending psychosis — the madness of the inner life when we change? It is moved aside. It remains, but like a photograph album you can take it out and look if you choose, but it doesn’t waylay you anymore, or even vie for attention overmuch. It becomes a part of you that has died or left or been relegated to the past. And it doesn’t have the emotion, the emotional charge that it used to have.
One more thing: Nothing that happened to us happened for no reason. Everything that happened has a positive side. The direct pursuit of that positive payoff is, in my view, a mistake, because it can lead to deepening levels of delusion about oneself. But when and if you get there, you will notice the metamorphosis of negative memories, however painful and damaging they may have appeared to you at the time you experienced them. It is perhaps the real meaning of the word miracle.
I consider Hermann Hesse’s Magic Theatre at the end of his book Steppenwolf a most vivid and apt illustration of the maxim: Everything changes yet nothing has changed. The hero of the Hesse’s book walks down a long corridor looking to left and right, opening the doors to rooms and as he does so he sees himself in various positions ands circumstances, reflecting hidden and repressed, but nonetheless real, sides of his inner self. The conclusion is this: inside us we participate in all the tendencies, from glorious to base, of the human condition. What separates us from those others who act out is choice.