Change Your Perception About Change Itself

Change our Perception about Change
What do we mean by “change” in psychotherapy or personal growth?

What I mean by “change,” as in “changing oneself,” differs significantly from what most therapists mean, and probably differs from what most people mean. When I say “change” I basically mean, “stay exactly who you are, but learn some new skills.” Learning new skills changes the context in which you function. Old behaviors may not go away, but they do less harm and more good, as defined by your own values system. And of course, so much of what we long to change in ourselves, has to do with the inevitable changes that happen constantly in the world around us.

To illustrate what I do and don’t mean by internal “change,” my superb webmaster Sean Cook engaged me in an email dialogue. What follows in this special blog post is the text of that dialogue. It’s admittedly kind of heady. I welcome comments and questions, as always.

What changes when we change?

Sean: Dr. Rhinewine, I would like to discuss with you the concept of changing the perception of change itself. In doing so, could you begin by explaining how we all take emotional triggers that get “in the way” of us dealing with the real truth of the present moment?

Dr. Rhinewine: I don’t mean to dodge your question, but I need to address a problem inherent in the question itself. The problem is in language — always. The “real truth” is just a concept in your mind, right now; it’s not something that really exists in a verifiable way, for practical purposes. All concepts turn out in the end to be just sounds we make either with our mouths or silently in our minds. That’s the “real truth” of what’s happening in the moment. So the moment includes sounds, including quiet ones you make with your mind, and little “movies” you make in your mind. They need not substantively “get in the way” of anything if you understand that and practice mindfulness frequently. Mindfulness gives us the freedom to choose which concepts we want to take seriously, and which ones we don’t. Concepts can’t harm or help us if we choose to view them as they are in this moment, which is just sounds and pictures in the mind, not the “real” things they pretend to be. They fool us a good bit of the time; this is what I mean when I use the term “fusion” or “entanglement” (one of the core processes of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT).

Sean: Do you believe that our past defines our present moment(s)?

Dr. Rhinewine: “Past” is conceptual; to the extent that we can only work with what is present, the “present” moment. This present moment is the only moment that we can actually live and function in. However, it itself INCLUDES much conceptual material that is “past”–those words and pictures in our minds that we call the past. So, to a limited extent, yes, the “present” is informed by the “past,” but this distinction is also conceptual. When the mind is clarified through mindfulness practice, the “past” is revealed to be memories (a kind of thinking) that are present here and now. So for example, therapy can and should explore the “past” at times because those stories can be present at times, and exploring them can reduce their believability as apparent obstacles in the “present.”

Sean: Yes, that is what I was getting at. The past defines how we “see” our present moment due to our learned perspectives. Can you now discuss how this relates to things that change in our lives and how we typically react to said changes? In other words, one person might see changes that are happening in someone’s life as a blessing in disguise while the people having the changes are frustrated and angry. Do you see where I am going here?

Should you try to change your views? Does that work?

Dr. Rhinewine:  I think I see where you’re going in terms of seeing things as “blessings in disguise” vs getting “frustrated and angry,” but that direction hints that we might want to ask people to cognitively reframe their experience. That’s the older, “oh, just think about it differently” kind of therapy that I don’t do anymore. The reason I switched from this traditional Cognitive Therapy (CT) model to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was that I noticed that about half of my clients had substantial difficulty with such reframing, often to the point that therapy was not helpful. I then learned that recent studies cast doubt as to whether the mechanism of action of Cognitive-type therapies is actually cognitive change.  I also learned that newer methods such as ACT focus on behavioral change, often in the absence of what we would normally think of as cognitive reframing or “changing thoughts/beliefs”.

I have abandoned trying to change how people think, per se, in favor of helping people change what they do.  I have found I am much more helpful in terms of getting people to change their behaviors through an approach that does not include challenging “irrational” or “dysfunctional” thinking, but rather emphasizes awareness (mindfulness) and values (that which is undeniably important to the individual).

What’s the alternative to trying to change viewpoints?

Sean: Interesting. Why don’t you explain using your chosen methods how each of us should approach change in our daily lives then?

Dr. Rhinewine:  I’m noticing that we’re switching back and forth here between external “change” that happens in our world, and internal “change,” meaning changing how we react to those external changes. I want to clarify that right now I’m addressing the latter, namely what changes in psychotherapy, our way of reacting to external changes.

To respond more skillfully to external changes, I help people develop mindfulness of thoughts, and assume that 98% of thoughts will not be helpful, or may be downright unhelpful.  I usually point out that that is the case for me, that most of my thoughts are unhelpful at best, usually just repetitious “static” that provides little by way of helpful suggestions.  The criterion as you see in this language is HELPFULNESS, not “negative” or “positive.” A “negative” thought could be helpful in some contexts, and many “positive” thoughts aren’t particularly helpful.

Now, “helpful” also needs unpacking… by “helpful” what I mean is, “facilitates valued living” or “moves me in the direction of my values,” “brings me into greater contact with my values,” or “moves me in valued directions.”  This language shouldn’t be confused with a goal orientation. Living for goals tends to promote a dry, empty life, because either:

1. We attain the goal and it disappears in being attained, or

2. We fail to attain the goal.

Either way the goal disappears. Rather, when goals are seen in the context of the values that they represent, they serve a useful purpose in keeping us going in our valued directions. Values are great because you can’t ever exhaust or achieve or “arrive” at them; they are like the North Star.  So we don’t “achieve” a value like “being kind to others,” we just sometimes are more or less in touch with the value, and also more or less congruent with it in terms of our behavior, in terms of to what extent we are “walking the walk” and acting on the value.

This is not a simple approach in some ways; it can take quite a few words to explain, as you can see.  For this reason, it’s an approach best done with a qualified therapist, or if that’s not feasible, then at least undertake the approach using a high-quality self-help book such as “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris. The good thing is that this approach has, in my view, the strongest empirical basis and support from the behavioral sciences.  It does not ask people to do what, for many individuals, is simply not workable, namely to stop thinking “negative” thoughts or otherwise attempt to manipulate their own thoughts and feelings.

Sean: Now we are at the center of what I am trying to get at. So let’s wrap this up in a summarizing fashion. You are saying: “Live a value-driven life ignoring your non-productive, destructive, or just idle thoughts, approaching changes in your life using your VALUES, not your moment-to-moment thoughts, as your guide.” You may ask yourself questions like: “Does this change teach me something about myself or others? How can I respond meaningfully to this change, so that it serves my values better? Do I have time to meditate before making any kind of decision about this change? Should I ignore these thoughts about the change since they do not serve me in any way?”

Dr. Rhinewine: Yes, that’s it: learning that skill-set is what I mean by inner change, the main goal of psychotherapy. Our task, should we choose to undertake it, is to keep repeatedly posing to ourselves questions like those you have listed, and steer our decision-making through life in this way. At the same time, our task is also to take our minds less seriously so that we can differentiate between what thoughts could lead to meaningful action, and what thoughts are unlikely to help us move our lives in the valued directions. By doing both of these practices, we can live, best as we can, as we choose to live.

What are your thoughts on how people can change themselves?

How have you changed your life in the past? How have you responded to changes happening around you?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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  • This was a great dialogue Joe! I do feel that change never ends so why not change the way we perceive change all together? Instead of putting everything into good vs bad, we need to step back & be more mindful of the big picture. Life is full of opportunities, so why not look at change the same way, an opportunity to perceive things in a more open & positive way. I like the value-driven life you mentioned. It takes the stress out of most situations/changes.

  • I agree Sean, it was fun! See, of course what you’re saying is logical. But if logic was going to fix people’s problems, I’d probably get a lot less work. Therapy based on logic is little more than a professional pep talk. But as you say, one of the most powerful things in my toolbox is values. A lot of folks who don’t go for mindfulness are moved powerfully by values-oriented interventions. Basically, most, if not all of us care deeply about something, or several things. This is our “secret weapon,” the source of our strength in life–but, ironically, it is precisely what we suffer about most. We suffer BECAUSE we value. So, the cure is the problem, when used skillfully.