People are unique and strangely similar all at the same time. By this I mean that although no two people are identical, the way in which individuals go about certain aspects of life are very much alike with other people. There seem to be patterns and clusters of options with how people respond to life. I especially see this with personal growth.
Having been working with individuals and families since 2000 and in private practice since 2007, I have had the opportunity to observe how people respond to and live past life events. I have noticed that people either fall on the side of giver or taker, that people either get better or bitter from significant stress and four distinct options have emerged when it comes to personal growth.
It always fascinates me as to why someone can go through horrendous events and yet come out of the experience a vastly improved version of themselves. They shine from having gone through the fire. While on the other side of the coin, another person can go through what would be perceived as less trauma inducing life events and they seem to have gained little to no personal growth from the experience. Why do some people pull themselves up by their boot straps and others in defeat lay down on the ground next to their boots? I think it has to do with the four levels of willingness to change that I have noticed in all people.
First Level: “Nothing is wrong with me”
It is exceptionally hard to change what we do not see as an issue. People at this first level might come into counseling, for just a few sessions, because a loved one externally motivated them to come in or they are coming to counseling by the order of a Judge. These types of folks are a counseling nightmare. They have no true interest in changing much, if anything, about themselves. They might throw out a few things they could see that they need to work on but quickly they rationalize away any need for personal growth. The extreme end of this level are the psycho/sociopaths and narcissists. They can not change because they do not authentically see anything in themselves to change. In their own minds they are the personification of perfection. I know. It’s startling to think that people actually roam the earth with this much arrogance but trust me, they are out there. A few have landed in my office and to know me is to know that I am kindly blunt. At least with me, first level folks never stay in counseling long. They might stay slightly longer with a counselor who is willing to do their perfection dance with them but eventually all counselors will need to get to actual growth and that’s when the first level folks will tap out of counseling.
Second Level: “I know I have some issues, but I won’t actually do anything to fix them. Ever”
These people are not necessarily narcissists but rather people who see areas of change and can talk about those areas but won’t actually do any work to change them or their life situations. You will hear these people say things like “I need therapy” and “I want to master my thoughts and actions better” but then they also say “I am exceptionally lazy.” In their laziness or lack of motivation to improve their lives, second level individuals will be living much the same today as they did ten years ago and ten years from now. The seasons change, the calendar changes but not second level folks. The saddest part is they know they need to improve their lot in life. They are keenly aware, and at times painfully aware, that healthy steps are needed. Yet, they talk about it but make no physical advancement towards doing anything about it. My heart goes out to the second level folks the most because it’s much like being in a cell but the door is open. They just won’t stand up and start to walk out.
Third Level: “I am going to see change in my life and I am excited! Until it gets hard”
Third level people are those that are willing to invest their time and resources into counseling and will see aspects of growth and that can be very exciting. Unfortunately, this level is where some people retreat and return to the second level. No one said change was easy. As the saying goes, if it was easy everyone would do it. Third level people often get hung up with fears, inconveniences and social pressures that tell them that change will cost them greatly in some area of life. For instance, I have seen clients who really wanted to improve their physical health and lose significant amounts of weight, but as they start walking towards their personal goal, people close to them start sabotaging their growth. The client has a dilemma to be faced and must decide to keep walking towards health or succumb to their environment and slip back into old habits. I also see this regarding wanting healthier relationships. Third level folks might be willing to make radical changes if the people around them don’t treat them better or engage in the relationship. As pressure gets put on the client to not want more out of the relationship, they are faced with a choice. Third level people see glimmers of personal growth but it is never lasting. Weight may be lost but it’s put back on, relationships don’t improve and they settle for what is or some other version of throwing in the towel on reaching their hopes and dreams.
However! Don’t loose hope yet. Some third level people will fluctuate from second to third and back to second but then sometimes jump over third to the fourth level!
Fourth Level: Lasting Change!!
Awe. Now this the level that as a therapist is the most rewarding. It’s where people go from the second level to the third and then ultimately to the fourth. If we look back over our own personal growth, we can see that we each were probably at all the levels at some point; including the dreaded level one. We have all been in denial about ourselves and the need for change (first level), we have wanted change but didn’t make the effort to make it happen (second level), we have tried a few things to change but didn’t see it happen quick enough or gave up at some point (third level) but then we miraculously started over and eventually made it to the fourth level of seeing real significant personal growth in ourselves. It’s so exciting when that happens! But believe me, it doesn’t come without a cost. All change requires us to give up things. It’s just a fact. Hopefully what we are letting go though will be far less valuable then what we are gaining.
Take some time and reflect on these four levels of personal growth. Be honest with yourself. Today, where are you? Happy with your level? If not, what are you planning to do about it? I truly believe in small incremental steps toward reaching our goals. Some of you know that my life story includes overcoming some major obstacles and I promise you that one step at a time truly does work. Today is a great day to get started towards your own hopes and dreams. I know you can do it if you want it bad enough.