The Secret about How People Change

how people changeEver wonder how people change?


Right now, at this very moment, millions of people are in therapy hoping to get help changing their lives. What’s always fascinated me, however, is how so few people really understand what they’re buying when they sign up to see a therapist. They don’t really understand how people change—and how they can transform their lives with a therapist’s help.


Of course, most people aren’t terribly interested in how products or services they buy actually work. They buy because they want the desired results at the end. For instance, very few people who buy a car care to know how the engine works. They just want a car that will reliably get them around.


I’ve long thought, though, that psychotherapy is especially shrouded in mystery when it comes to how it actually works. Therapists, for our part, don’t generally do a great job of explaining how we help people change, especially because clients don’t often ask directly.


But they do ask indirectly. “What’s the next step?” one client asks me. “How do I know I’ve gotten to the root of my addiction?” another wonders. “What do you do to help?” an inquiring caller asks. I think that if therapists can answer questions like these, at least in part and without graduate-school-like lecture, we can greatly reduce our clients’ anxiety and confusion.


I’ve already described the process of change elsewhere, especially as it relates to addiction and recovery. I’d like to describe below one way to think about the degree to which we experience change as we move through that process. Before we begin, I need to credit Marty Farash, LMFT, who as far as I know created this useful way of thinking about the levels of change.


1) Unconscious Incompetency

“Feeling out of control of our environment with no cognitive connection as to how we participate in this process through passivity.”


Um, what? Let me explain what this means.


You’ll notice as we go along that each level has two operative words, in this case, “unconscious” and “incompetency.” The first is fairly straightforward to understand. We don’t know what we don’t know. With regard to change, we have no idea that we’re living our lives in ways that perpetuate our problems. Notice that at this level, how we participate in our lives is not in our awareness. “Incompetency” means that we’re doing the same ol’ same old.


In other words, unconscious incompetency means that we’re participating and behaving in our lives in ways that make a mess of our lives with no idea about what we’re doing or even that we could do it differently.


Examples of unconscious incompetency include:

  1. The husband who has no idea that his overinvolvement at work is a means of avoiding intimacy.
  2. The substance user who keeps using, having no awareness of how his use is creating problems in his life.
  3. The spouse who blames his partner for their relationship’s problems, with no understanding of his contribution to what’s not working in the  relationship.


2) Conscious Incompetency

“We are aware of what we are doing to feel out of control and choose it anyway, but act as if we have no choice.”


Conscious incompetency means that we are aware that what we are doing is creating problems in our lives but we have no idea what to do differently. Moreover, we act as if how we have been living is the only way we could live.


People who are in conscious incompetency are aware that there are changes that they need to make in their lives. The problem is that they do not see any other options for how to live and behave other than what they have been doing.


For this reason, I often encounter people’s psychological defenses and fears at this level. They’ll say all kinds of things:

  • “If only he/she would…”
  • “I wish…”
  • “I’d be afraid to…”
  • “I can’t think of a way to…”
  • “I don’t think I could do that.”


These fears and defenses are understandable. After all, trying something new is by definition unfamiliar. We humans are creatures of habit through and through. We prefer what is familiar, even if it causes us some pain. Ever hear of the phrase, “Better the devil you know”?


At this stage, we are conscious that we have problems we want to do something about, but our unconscious minds are still influencing our behavior. We cannot see other options for how to live and behave because we have no conscious understanding of what else is possible.


Examples of conscious incompetency include:

  1. The husband who realizes that he is avoiding intimacy in his marriage by working too much but justifies his time at the office: “You don’t understand, I can’t work less because…”
  2. The substance user who is aware of what his using is costing him but does nothing. “What else could I do?” he says to himself.
  3. The spouse who becomes aware of his blaming behavior and continues to blame his partner anyway, even when he tries to stop.


3) Conscious Competency

“Action that is different but solution oriented.  This will feel ‘unnatural,’ contrived, etc., but we do it anyway.  As we take positive solution-oriented action, no matter how ‘unnatural,’ this impacts our self-esteem in a positive way and implies we have ‘control’ over ourselves and our environment.”


Conscious competency is about identifying behaviors that will help to solve the problems we’re dealing with and taking action. When we do this, it’s a very conscious, intentional effort because it doesn’t feel natural. At all.


For the person struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors, it means finding alternative behaviors that help the individual feel good and cope with feelings differently. Journaling, meditation, exercise, spending time with supportive, safe people, and so on—doing these things are new for those starting in recovery. They often need help even thinking about what actions would help them take care of themselves. After all, so many of those starting recovery tell me that they’ve watched porn since they were teenagers. Here, then, they trade what is familiar for what is unfamiliar.


As one engages these conscious actions more and more, over time, they become habitual and they get better at incorporating these behaviors into their lives. They become competent as they increasingly take positive actions to address the issues in their lives. They’ve changed their behavior, though they themselves have not yet fully changed on the inside.


This is how people change—in taking these positive actions, they start to feel better about themselves. They also feel more empowered, because they realize they have choices about how to live.


Pretty cool, huh?


Examples of conscious competency:

  1. The husband who sets healthy boundaries with work and starts taking actions to create intimacy in his marriage.
  2. The substance user who reduces or stops his using and enters an employee assistance program, substance use treatment, stops seeing using friends and creates relationships with non-users.
  3. The spouse who learns to respond to his anger without blaming his partner and is instead vulnerable with her about what he feels and needs.


4) Unconscious Competency

“Our mind learns through repetition.  As behavior is repeated consistently over time, our mind and body integrate this behavior into our identity and now this way of being becomes more normal and ‘natural’ than what we used to do or how we used to feel and starts to impact on our self-concept.”


Remember what it felt like to learn to ride a bike?


I remember very methodically putting my feet on the pedals, pushing off, and getting nowhere for a long time. I cried out of frustration. A lot. But I kept trying because my dad and mom had taught me how to ride a bike. I knew that I was doing it right, I just had to keep trying.


This is the experience of conscious competency. We learn what we must do and we keep at it. It feels awkward and unnatural and all the things. But we keep trying. Like I did.


I can’t remember when it happened, of course. But one day, I was riding my bike without thinking about it anymore. What was painstaking and methodical was now second nature. I’d learned to ride a bike.


That’s unconscious competency. Over time, we teach ourselves a different way of living that becomes second nature, because we’ve changed on the inside. The actions we have taken and the results of those actions show us that we needn’t act out of shame, fear, or hurt anymore. That we can act in ways that reflect our now changed beliefs about ourselves. “I am loved and worthy of love.” “I am safe.” “I can value myself and my needs.”


In my conversations with Marty about this, who again is the source for these levels of change, he tells me that people can behave their way into change. I think it’s one helpful way to think about how people change, though it’s certainly not the only way.


Still, it’s especially helpful for those in early recovery to help them find ways of coping with urges to use or act out. Taking positive actions also helps those just starting in recovery to feel better about themselves, which is desperately needed as addiction is often fueled by toxic, chronic shame.


Examples of unconscious competency include:

  1. The husband who creates intimacy with his wife by planning dates, initiating sex, and directly communicating his feelings and comfortable doing so.
  2. The former substance user who has replaced his substance use habit with healthy activities and has worked through the emotional issues driving his use, so that he doesn’t think about using anymore.
  3. The spouse who shares openly with his partner about his feelings, feels confident in himself, resolves conflict in his marriage constructively, and accepts his wife as she is.


Final Thoughts on How People Change

If you’re recognizing yourself in this post, that’s a good thing. You may feel disheartened (“Oof, I’ve got some work to do!”). But change starts with awareness. Now that you’ve got the information, talk to someone who is safe for you about your next steps.


I ask this of clients all the time, especially those in recovery: What actions can you start taking today to help you feel good about yourself? What would help you take care of yourself?


Remember, awareness alone may not be enough to change your behavior. Identify positive actions (and for the love, make them specific), get out there, and do them! I promise you, it’ll help.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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