Varieties of Change in Counseling Relationships

You are not the person you once were. Before long, you will no longer be the person you are now.

It all starts with being born. After that, it’s just one change after another, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s just how we’re made. You’re a complex, social organism progressing through your natural life cycle while embedded in a culture that is actively evolving. You may be someone who embraces change, or you may be someone who resists it, but either way, change is your birthright and your destiny. You have no choice but to keep changing.

You do have some choice, however, about how you change, and I suspect that some varieties of change are more desirable to you than others. For instance, would you rather:

  • get hurt, or heal from having been hurt?
  • rely on the same strategies and strengths you’ve always used to get by, or keep growing and developing new capacities?
  • accumulate unconscious beliefs that limit you, or expose such limiting beliefs and transcend them?
  • have your sense of power slowly eroded, or become more powerful in your ability to make the world how you know it ought to be?

Unfortunately, we have already gotten hurt; our growth and development have already been interfered with; we have already been conditioned to conform to limiting beliefs; and we have already been disempowered by the forces of oppression. It is for these reasons that counseling is so important. We are always changing, for worse or for better. The role of a counselor is to help someone gain influence over the eternal march of change, so that we may choose healing, growth, and liberation over their less desirable alternatives.

These are the four varieties of desirable change I think every counselor should be versed in: healing, development, and two different flavors of liberation. Let me briefly describe to you what I mean by each of these, showing how they differ and what they all have in common. Then I’ll give an example of a specific concern someone might bring to a counselor, and show how any one of these forms of change may be needed to address the exact same concern. Finally, I’ll say something about why well-rounded counselors need to incorporate all these varieties of change into the ways they support people.

Four Kinds of Obstacles and Four Kinds of Change

Start by picking one of life’s simple pleasures, something everyone should be able to enjoy. I’ll pick going for a morning stroll: encountering people and exploring the world, something I love being able to do. It’s not hard to imagine a number of obstacles that might interfere with someone being able to enjoy this, or any of life’s simple pleasures.

Say I sprain my ankle by tripping over a pothole on my morning stroll, or perhaps I get deliberately tripped by someone. Now I’ve lost some functionality. Walking is slower and more painful, and I may need to use crutches if the sprain is to heal. Healing, of course, is the kind of change I’ll need to be able to regain function and reduce pain. Healing repairs and restores a system that has been compromised by injury. My body has a built-in, natural capacity to heal, but all kinds of things I can do will either help healing happen or impede it. Even once I heal physically, however, I may remain afraid to walk down the street, knowing I might trip, or be tripped, again. It doesn’t do me much good to have a functioning ankle if I’m afraid to use it. Healing here means healing the emotional effects of having been hurt as well as the physical effects. But healing also means something more. If I return to my pre-hurt state, just the same as I was before, what’s to keep me from tripping over the same pothole, or getting tripped by the same person, again? True healing means I also learn from the experience, becoming more aware of the hazards, but without being paralyzed by them. I can once again enjoy my morning walks, but changed, less likely to sprain my ankle than I was before, because I’ve learned through the process of getting hurt.

Let’s imagine however, that injury is not the problem. What if I never learned to walk in the first place? Perhaps my family had some vested interest in my continuing to crawl, or I grew up in a series of low tunnels. Or, less far-fetched, perhaps I learned to walk, but never to freely explore my surroundings, or never to say hello to people I don’t know, converting strangers into friends. Exploring and being friendly to strangers may not seem like things we learn, but in fact, nearly every capacity you currently possess is one you didn’t have as an infant. You had to acquire all the abilities you take for granted bit by bit as you developed. If I can’t enjoy a morning stroll because I never fully developed the capacity to walk, or to explore, or to start conversations, then growth and development is the kind of change I’m most in need of. Development means more than just picking up new skills. It’s about learning new ways of making sense of the world and new ways of being in it. A person who’s learned to explore their surroundings relates differently to the world than someone who hasn’t. Someone who’s learned to interact with new people will not perceive them as “strangers” and will treat them differently as a result. Both of these forms of learning, or development, will provide a wider range of options to the people who develop them, and a richer experience of a morning stroll down the street.

Perhaps I grew up in a culture where nobody walked. Instead, everyone drove from place to place. Day after day, I only witnessed people getting to their destinations by driving, and eventually I became a driver myself, such that now if anyone asks me to go for a morning stroll I might say, “I’m a driver, not a walker.” Or maybe I used to really enjoy walking down the street, but then I moved to a community of self-identified drivers. Soon, even my closest friends, in subtle ways, were making fun of my morning walks. This didn’t effect me at first, but over time, without my realizing it, I began to think, “No one really walks anyway. It’s an inefficient and immature way to get around. My friends like me better when when I carpool with them.” In one of these scenarios, an unquestioned way of being a person was modeled for me over and over again, with no apparent alternative. In the other, I was subtly but repetitively punished for walking and rewarded for driving. In both of these scenarios, the kind of change I need if I am to enjoy walking is a kind of deconditioning: a revealing and stripping away of the beliefs I’ve been conditioned to hold about what kind of person I am and what my options are. Becoming liberated from these limiting beliefs does not mean that I will necessarily take morning strolls, or that I will always prefer walking to driving, but it means I will have real choice about whether, when, and how to walk.

A different kind of liberation might be needed if I live in a society where many people walk in the mornings, just not people “like me”. For instance, people with my skin color might be prohibited from walking in certain parts of town, or property owners will come out to watch and follow people with my skin color until we pass, or people might ignore us or cross the street to avoid us. Others who share my skin color know old stories of bad things that have happened to people like us walking down the street, so they discourage me from doing it. I wish I could take morning strolls, but I have come to accept that they are just not available for people like me, and I feel that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve been caught up in an oppressive system, so overcoming oppression is the kind of change I’ll need to be able to enjoy walking down the street. I’ll have to overcome the oppression I’ve internalized that makes me believe walking is not an option for me, and I’ll need to get empowered enough to confront the oppressive conditions in the society, so that they no longer constrain me. Of course, rather than skin color, walking down the street could be constrained for people of my economic class, my gender, my age, my religious background, etc.

So there are four different kinds of obstacles that might keep me from enjoying the simple pleasure of walking down the street, each requiring a different kind of change to clear the obstacle from my path. Healing is needed when something injurious happens, leaving me with the aftereffects of having been hurt. Development is needed when something beneficial fails to happen, leaving me weak in a capacity or resource I never developed. Liberation is needed when social forces that influence me day after day unnecessarily constrain or limit me. Liberation may mean a deconditioning of the limiting beliefs I have acquired or it may mean overcoming oppression that has left me feeling and acting powerlessly.

These four kinds of change have a lot in common. They all help to relieve suffering and promote well-being, leading to a greater enjoyment of life. They all promote flexibility over rigidity, so that a person has a greater range of options available to them after the change. They all tend to increase consciousness, allowing people to wake up, turn off the automatic pilot, and make deliberate choices about how to be a person. People will benefit in general from each of these change processes, but to help someone achieve a specific, desired gain, it helps to ascertain what kind of change they most need.

What Kind of Change Is Most Needed?

Let’s look at another example. Most people don’t come to a counselor asking for help to take more morning strolls, so let’s consider a concern someone is more likely to ask a counselor for help with. We’ll name our imaginary person in need of support Robin. Robin has been doing some binge eating, and she’s seeking support to stop. It may be a new behavior, or she may have been doing it for years. Perhaps she binges every day, perhaps intermittently. Binging for her may be a part of a pattern of bulimia, or just a pattern of plain old overeating. For our purposes, these details don’t matter. What we want to figure out is what kind of change she is most in need of.

First, let’s consider the possibility that Robin needs to heal some way she’s been hurt in order to stop needing to binge. Eating more than she requires for nutrition, or even for enjoyment, could be a way to “stuff” her feelings. Overeating can be an effective way to drown out overwhelming or intolerable emotions, emotions that derive from having been hurt. The hurt could have been abuse, humiliation, exclusion, prejudice. Something painful happened, and Robin never got a chance to heal. Though her feelings in the present may be evoked by current experiences, they are old feelings, left over from the past, that need to somehow be metabolized in order for her to stop being plagued by them. If the hurt involved her sense of herself in her body, this will only compound her urgency to cover over the feelings by doing something that numbs her physically. To heal, Robin needs help to face the emotional pain she can’t handle on her own. Telling the story about how she’s been hurt can be instrumental in moving the old feelings and helping her make new meaning out of old experiences. Knowing about what happened in the past, however, may not even be necessary. The main task of healing is to actively feel the emotions, to find a way for them to wash over her like waves and then recede like the tide. Ideally, as she heals, she’ll learn more sophisticated ways to work with her feelings, so that she has better options available than just avoiding them.

Next, let’s consider Robin is missing some internal resource that she needs to acquire in order to help her stop binging. One possibility is that she never learned to sense what it’s like to be full. Many of us take for granted that sensation we have while we’re eating that lets us know we’re satiated. If Robin grew up in a family that overfed her, or where people were expected to eat whatever they were given rather than determine how much they needed for themselves, she may never have developed the capacity to identify when she was full. To acquire this resource, she needs a kind of reparenting, someone to sit with her and ask her how hungry she is, what foods she most desires, how it feels to eat them, and, as she’s eating, at what point eating stops making her feel better and starts making her feel worse. Geneen Roth uses such a mindfulness-based approach to help women sense what’s happening in their bodies so their relationship to food can become more conscious as they attend more to their bodies’ needs and desires. Like all developmental resources, repetition is required for the resource to get stronger, so these questions about hunger need to be asked over and over again. After enough repetitions, Robin will internalize this resource and no longer need someone prompting her or teaching her how to pay attention to her body’s signals. She’ll be able to tell when she needs food; she’ll know how to get the need met; and she’ll be able to sense when she’s had enough.

Next, let’s consider Robin needs to get free of some self-limiting beliefs that lead, perhaps indirectly, to binging. Socializing young people into participating members of our communities involves conditioning them, rewarding them for behaving the ways we wish them to and punishing them for transgressing. Robin easily could have picked up conditioning that has her believe her life is to be lived for others, not for herself, or that being productive is far more important than experiencing pleasure or joy. She may have even been conditioned to seek pleasure and joy the ways everyone else does, not in ways that uniquely feed her. So she inhibits pleasure in general, but there is one way in which she secretly still allows herself to get some, and that’s from eating certain foods. When she’s eating them, she not only feels good, but she’s temporarily freed from the normal shoulds and shouldn’ts that run her most of the time. If eating those foods just produced pleasure and freedom, there would be no problem, but after each binge, Robin ends up feeling worse. There’s an addiction at work here, compounded by the number of addictive foods easily available to her. Like all addictions, this one helps Robin achieve a desirable state of being for a short period of time, but then produces an even less desirable state afterward than the one she started with. The goal here is to help Robin expose the beliefs that keep her boxed in, to help her find out more about what kind of human being she might be outside her conditioning. We know pleasure is important to her, because she seeks it through binging, but she needs support to find more holistic ways of incorporating pleasure into her life. Once she is sufficiently liberated to create a life more in alignment with her true nature, the addiction will no longer be necessary. Freedom and pleasure will come to suffuse Robin’s life. But the change doesn’t end there. Because the social forces that conditioned her in the first place will continue to be at work, she’ll need help finding a way to relate to those forces without reverting to old conditioning.

Finally, let’s consider that Robin needs to overcome the effects of oppression (sexism in particular) that have led to binge eating as an outcome. All forms of oppression divide people into two or more groups, where people in at least one of the groups are systematically mistreated. One of the ways sexism works is to make women feel as if their worth and value is tied to the ways their bodies look, and then to make them believe that there’s something wrong with their bodies. This keeps women preoccupied with their looks, and helps feed a highly profitable collection of industries that require women to feel bad about themselves in order to make money. Robin has been caught up in this system, and she does not love herself as she already is. Instead, she’s come to believe she needs to weigh less than she does in order to be desirable and worthy. To change her weight, she restricts her eating all throughout the day until, by day’s end, she’s so hungry that she stuffs herself. Binging, for her, is a natural consequence of self-imposed deprivation. Once she’s finally given herself the food she needs, however, she throws it up again, terrified that if she doesn’t, she’ll gain weight. This pattern of binging and purging has been found to be contagious in social environments like sorority houses, so she may have even learned it from her friends. To get free from the pattern, Robin will need help to overcome the effects of sexism. A good start is to learn that none of it is personal. It’s just a system of lies she was born into, lies that tell her her worth depends on her looks and that there’s something wrong with her body the way it is. To really get free of those lies will require strong allies, people who can help her apply her force of will to the task of refusing the lies and the oppression. She needs support to become powerful enough that, even if her body changes, and even if she finds herself criticized or ignored as a result, she’ll still be able to love and accept herself and her body as they already are.

Becoming a Change Artist

Don’t be fooled. Binge eating is not the same for everyone. Nor is depression, or addiction, or isolation, or shyness, or violence, or any of the multitude of concerns someone might wish for help with from someone acting as a counselor. In Robin’s case, we had to figure out, along with her, that she was stuffing painful emotions and needed healing, or that she was unable to determine when she was full and needed reparenting, or that she inhibited joy and pleasure in her life and needed deconditioning, or that she didn’t allow herself to eat because she thought there was something wrong with her body and need to overcome oppression.

As a counselor, it’s essential to have some familiarity with these different varieties of change. You need to have experienced each in your work on yourself, and you need to know something about how to facilitate this kind of change in the people you counsel. Once you learn something about healing and how it works, it can seem like everyone just needs healing. Once you learn about how to help people develop new resources, it seems like growth and development is what everyone needs most. Similarly, learning about how to help people get free from conditioning or oppression can lead you to see everyone through those lenses. Each form of change is so powerful that if you learn about just one, it will dominate the ways you counsel people. If you learn about all four, however, you become a real change artist. You can start to see the differences in what people need most, in how to best help them take charge of the ways they change.

(Of course healing, development, and liberation, in both flavors, interact with each other in important ways. That story, however, will have to wait for another blog entry.)

Everyone is changing. Everyone would prefer to change in ways that increase well-being, choice, and awareness. Counseling is the art of facilitating change. Anyone who helps facilitate desirable changes for others is a counselor.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.