Monday, July 9, 2012

The Challenge to Find a Timeless Concept of Change

Understanding how people change should be a persistent pursuit for those of us who practice or are training others to become practitioners of psychological healing. I wonder about our paradigms of change though. I was taught in an era in which personality theories were very important. In fact, in my doctoral training program there were three required courses on personality theory and psychopathology, each from the perspective of a different personality theory. We didn’t talk about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM). This was before the multi-axis DSM-III. I suppose because I’ve experienced this shift in the conceptualization of psychological problems and movement away from identifying with personality theories, it may explain why I wonder if even now we truly understand change. Also, I have to wonder how people thought personal change happened before there were psychological theories. It seems we tend to think of our own time period as having the most advanced and accurate ideas. However, perhaps beyond current conceptualizations, there have always been common factors that most significantly account for change.

Including a Spiritual Perspective on Change

For Christians, psychological change is wed to spiritual change. Theologically, we know this as the character changing sanctification process. Is spiritual change the same as, correlated with, concurrent with, or in some other way connected to psychological change? In order to answer this question, we have to first understand change both spiritually and psychologically. We also must seek to understand the one who is changing and the One who changes.

Can we assume the Bible has something profound to say about change, without relegating its domain of influence to morality alone?  I assume that Christians who lived prior to modern psychological theories grew in character, but also experienced “psychological” problems and subsequent “psychological” change. How did they change psychologically without our modern understandings of psychological change? (McHough and Slavney, 1998)[i] Our vocabulary reflects our current psychological mindedness, with terms like unconscious, defenses, transference, conflicts, and dysfunction having become common language. These terms may reflect contemporary paradigms of change, but paradigms do not have to be prisons that keep us from further understanding.

A Composite Cluster of Common Factors in Change

On one level, in our time, we have to adopt a psychological perspective or model of change, and it needs to be one that our clients also believe in. This is the positive expectation inducing “myth” that is described in The Heart and Soul of Change.[ii] It is one of the common factors of change, along with the client, the therapist, and the therapeutic relationship. Yet it is not these specific ingredients by themselves, but that “they cause and are caused by each other, exerting their benefits through their joint and inseparable emergence over the course of therapy” (Duncan, Miller, Wampold, & Hubble, 2010, p. 35).

The challenge is to take hold of what is effective in the change process, without compartmentalizing and separating out the ingredients and overrating some - especially not overinflating the value a specific model of therapy. The factors for change need to then be understood as being a composite, but not a composite where impersonal models and techniques are deemed most important. Rather, change is most influenced by the individuals and their therapeutic relationship.

Timeless Relational Factors in Change 

What works today to bring about change has likely been true in the past as well. The positive significance of the “psychological” assistance one person provides for another has to be transmitted via a model that both believe in, but change actually progresses through the quality of the relationship between the two people who each offer their potential.

But what is the potential that each offers? Perhaps positive psychology is bringing us back to being able to define and include this potential, in the form of virtues.[iii] Could it be that the presence of well-developed virtue or character in one individual can enhance not only the quality of the relationship, but actually influence the other to change? Biblically we know from 1 Corinthians 15:33 that “bad company ruins good morals” (English Standard Version). We also know biblically that we are to encourage one another (I Thessalonians 5:11) and strengthen weak knees (Hebrews 12:12). This suggests the character of one person influencing the character of another, and as we also know, for believers, it is God who is the One who brings about the deepest changes that transform character into Christlikeness (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

A Timeless Concept of Change

Here is a challenge. Consider, as a timeless concept, a change process that is grounded in the character of the individuals who are in relationship, with the inspiring character of one person upon another. These individuals would need to be committed to a paradigm that provides an understanding of change - “a myth” for them to believe. Additionally, biblically we know of another Person in the paradigm of change for believers, another relationship, and the accompanying “myth” that we believe is true. Contrary to the one who searches the Scriptures to obtain eternal life without coming to One who is Life (John 5:39-40), a timeless Christian concept of change acknowledges and encourages coming to the One who is Life. His life transforms by the character of His pure and indestructible person. He is and has always been working (John 5:17), and He has graciously allowed us to join with Him in this work.

[i] McHugh and Slavney (1998) provide one interpretation historically of changing paradigms, traced back to the Enlightenment, when there was a shift “from diseases rather than moral failures or supernatural causes” (p. 20). McHugh, P. R., & Slavney, P. R. (1998). The perspectives of psychiatry (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
[ii] Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., Wampold, B. E., & Hubble, M. A. (Eds.). (2010). The heart & soul of change (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
[iii] Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.

Dennis Morgan, PsyD, MATS
Professor of Counseling
Columbia International University

No comments:

Post a Comment