The last chapter of Jeffrey Kottler’s book, “Change”, was one of the ones I was most looking forward to reading — “Why Changes Don’t Often Last”. The sobering statistics are quite common in pop psych — the huge numbers of people who set New Year’s resolutions but abandon them before the first week is out (often from trying for perfection in “Just Do It” mode rather than incremental chain-growth like the Seinfeld method mentioned earlier), and that 80% of those who join gyms stop going after the first few visits even though they keep paying for membership for much longer (the illusion of still being committed that would be shattered by formally quitting their membership).
Oddly enough, I was quite surprised at the beginning of the chapter that those who study change don’t have a firm grasp of why it fails. First and foremost, those who are heavy at work in the change industry — like therapists or weightloss consultants — don’t know what happens after the patient reaches a goal. There is the pop psych results, such as the fact that almost all of the contestants on the weightloss show “The Biggest Loser” end up gaining all the weight back later. But there is no ongoing follow-up in most clinical or therapeutic settings. And thus no info on if the patient/client relapsed or slipped. Secondly, change is often not a “point in time” measurement but a journey, and thus is quite complex and difficult to measure quantitatively, particularly for a moving target. Thirdly, the results are demoralizing — huge numbers of relapses. So studying it isn’t very satisfying or helpful to clinical treatments.
Nevertheless, Kottler does have a rudimentary list in the headings of why change doesn’t last:
- Limits of will…good intentions are not enough, and we don’t always have full control over our lives;
- Unrealistic expectations or lousy goal-setting;
- Dysfunctional beliefs…including defeatist attitudes, and, perhaps more importantly reasons NOT to change and stay stuck:
- You feel justified in self-pity;
- You can blame external factors or others for your problems;
- You have an excuse not to do it;
- You get sympathy;
- No reward but no risk of change;
- You can avoid addressing deeper issues;
- You can be a jerk and blame your condition;
Put a little differently, “you can remain miserable on your own terms” [pg. 305]. It’s heavily about control of what is familiar vs. risking loss of control with trying something new. In other words, flat out fear.
But you also may lack support (or have others who are enabling triggers for your old behaviour — there’s a reason why alcoholics and drug addicts are actively encouraged NOT to hang around their old friends and family members who may have not only introduced them to their addiction but also actively enabled it…it’s hard to leave port for a better world if you’re still weighed down by an anchor that ties you to your old habits); suffer from other traits or moods that are not conducive to the change (and might need addressing too); or have poor coping skills / preparation (or even just lack the knowledge of how to implement a change).
However, all of the previous chapters came down to pages 308 to 315 for me. I wanted to make one very large change in my life — lose weight — and I was stuck. So I was looking for an enhanced understanding of why I was stuck and how to overcome it. These 8 pages helped me craft a kind of “to do” list.
Success depends on:
- Conducting a fearless inventory of the costs, benefits, patterns and triggers of your “issue” (to make all the pieces clear to you, both in pulling you forward and in resisting change);
- Finding the right motivation (to allow you to commit in the first place);
- Substituting better or different habits to replace the previous ones (even if just to use the time differently);
- Building in consistent rewards (to gamify the journey);
- Committing wholeheartedly (to carry you through); and,
- Changing the narrative of your journey (to reinforce the change and oppose relapses).
The book, and this list, gave me a way forward. I’ve handled 3 of the 6, and I’m working on the remaining 3. Onward to the journey! (#50by50ish #50 – Lose weight – Part 1, the decision).
Jeffrey Kottler says he saved the most difficult subject for last in his book, “Change”, and it is addressed by Chapter 13, “Soliciting Support and Resolving Conflicts in Relationships”. He isn’t kidding. There are some really tough things in this chapter, often dealing with abusive spouses, parents with addictions, and family problems out the wazoo. It is both a problem in and of itself as well as an obstacle to other changes being accomplished. A list he includes of the types of changes you would like to make in relationships is an extremely powerful one, simply put:
- Changing the patterns of those that are frustrating, unsatisfying, or unfulfilling;
- Setting boundaries for relationships that aren’t meeting your needs or are taking a bite out of your soul;
- Reducing the level and intensity of conflicts with others, especially those locked into repetitive patterns;
- Ending relationships that don’t seem amenable to necessary changes;
- Enhancing intimacy with friends and loved ones;
- Feeling and expressing more love and caring in current relationships;
- Initiating and broadening new relationships that meet interests and needs that are currently unsatisfied;
- Experiencing more authentic, caring, honest, respectful, and fun exchanges with people on a daily basis;
- Processing and recovering from perceived slights and relational difficulties in the past;
- Practicing forgiveness to let some things go and move forward without lingering resentment; and,
- Learning from past mistakes, misjudgements, and relationship breaches in order to enhance future connections. [pp. 276-277]
If you’ve done any past soul-searching about relationships, you could likely read the above list and think, “Yes, please”. All of them sound good. I’ve certainly faced hard truths in the first four. In the end, it led me to one of my greatest insights and freedom from some avoidable pain…
I trust people to be who they are. Not who I want them to be, nor who I unrealistically expect they should be, but rather that they will be who they are. It’s stupid, I know, but it reminds me of a scene in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Small geek diversion…Data is about to do a war game against Riker, and is trying to postulate what Riker will do. He starts to tie himself into knots to wondering if Data thinks that Riker will do X, then Riker could change his behaviour by knowing that Data thinks what he’ll do (X) and therefore Riker will do Y. Except if Riker knows that Data knows that Riker knows, etc…In the end, Troi counsels him that Riker can’t avoid being who he is at the heart (a risk taker with a penchant for innovative solutions). A stupid geeky reminder, but one that I find strangely comforting.
And from that “truth bomb”, that I should expect people to be who they are, I found the basis for a much different relationship with my mother when I set some clear boundaries (such as games I would not let myself be tricked into playing) and changed the pattern of expectation and disappointment from what I thought/hoped she would do to simply what she did do. I expected (and loved) her to be herself for her last ten years, not the mother I wanted her to be or expected she should be. Just who she was. By contrast, another relationship had passed it’s healthy expiry date and had become consistently toxic, so I ended it. And with #6, I make sure that I tell my son every day how much I love him.
I’m still working on many of the other ideas from #5-11.
I am not sure how to review Chapter 12 of Jeffrey Kottler’s book “Change”. The chapter isn’t bad, and it focuses quite well on “Changing People’s Lives While Transforming Your Own”. The problem is that it is a bit narrowly-focused.
If the change you are looking for in life is that you are unhappy, I suspect it is a decent chapter. It deals with altruism vs. reciprocity, the “helper’s high”, being part of something bigger than yourself, paying back (altruism born of similar suffering), or even “my life is my message”. Namely living according to your principles, transformation through service. All laudable, good elements.
But if you are dealing with a problem like weightloss, or a specific addiction, but you are generally happy in your life, or you are already in a service mindset, it wouldn’t be a very helpful chapter. I’m not sure it is even worthy of being a separate chapter. I guess it depends if you are having more of an all-around existential crisis about your life or just want to change something specific.
Overall, I thought it was okay, just long and not very specific.
Chapter 11 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” is titled “Creating Meaning and Happiness” and I admit that it starts off pretty strong.
You don’t find happiness, but rather, you create it a little bit at a time. This is an active process of invention as much as discovery, one in which you shape the meaning of your own experiences in such a way that they inspire you to continue along the transformative path. […] It is estimated that about 50% of reported happiness is the result of genetics, and another 10% is influenced by particular situations and contexts. The good news is that this means that as much as 40% can be shaped, influenced, and controlled by strategic intentional actions. [pp. 235-236]
I’m not as thrilled a few pages later though when he shifts into the concept of those who move away from “happiness” as being too hard to define. I don’t disagree that it’s challenging, but I think most people understand intuitively what it means to be unhappy rather easily, and even what it means to be extremely happy. It’s just the whole middle ground. My real problem is that while difficult, I think happiness is WAY better than the counterpart terms “well-being” or “flourishing”. I think people start to throw stuff in there that are more “foundations for happiness”, not actual happiness. I suspect in part it is because true happiness is more an emotional or spiritual state (or both) than something that can be quantified.
Although I like his list of what social scientists have found that contributes to happiness i.e. the roots:
- Focus on positive feelings and try to make the best of those that are unpleasant;
- Hold onto an optimistic perspective, looking at the best in people and things whenever possible;
- Live in the present and honor those moments when you can;
- Do good work for which you feel proud;
- Spend quality time with those you love the most;
- Forgive those who have hurt you and let those resentments go;
- After you figure out what you love, make a habit of doing those things as often as possible. [pg. 244]
I find the list both compelling and repulsive. In the first instance, you could take any one of those phrases and, without turning a critical eye to what it says, think it is extremely profound. Optimism in the face of adversity, for instance, is an extremely powerful mental perspective. Living in the present, equally solid. Serving others. And so on.
But if you turn a truly critical eye towards the list, it all starts to run into, “If you want to be happy, be happy”, or more simply, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
On the worst days, does anyone really think “be positive” changes the outcomes? Will it drag the poor out of poverty? Will it put food on the table? Will it cure disease? It’s about as facile as saying, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right” to someone on the Titanic. No, everything will NOT be all right. Being positive doesn’t change your situation. It only changes your interpretation by being blind to reality, or being too simple-minded to understand what is really going on. I’d go so far as to say that might work for about 10% of the population and that’s about it. But, then again, being negative or pessimistic never helped anyone either. I think there’s a small piece in there, but exceedingly minor.
My favorite is the last one…on a classic note, it is the same as “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. Instead, the framing here is about the equivalent of “find things that make you happy and do that.” Really? That’s considered a profound element? Do more things that make you happy than make you sad and you’ll end up happier? Wow, let me write that down.
I’m also less thrilled when he talks about how it is all about relationships…great, more social capital stuff?
I’m okay though with thoughts about finding things to do that seem more meaningful or socially useful — it is a good way to feel a purpose in life, that you are contributing to society or at least a positive outcome for someone, and thus to feel better about your role in the universe (and thus be “happier”).
It’s at least a start towards something resembling “being happier”. And more therapeutic than the kindergarten advice, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
Chapter 10 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change” has the title of “Reducing Stress and Facing Fears” and talks about stress as both a catalyst and resistor to change. On the stress side, it isn’t the focus of the book, and I’ve read better materials. However, I do really like a quote when he’s talking about the benefits or costs of stress:
The key, then, is to kick in just enough of a stress reaction to help you perform at peak levels, but not enough to override the off switch once the crisis or events is over. [pg. 213]
Kind of “stress when you need it, peace when you don’t”. By contrast, if you can’t switch off, you start shifting towards maladaptive stress responses:
- Turning a blind eye;
- Deceiving yourself;
- Fears and phobias;
- Over-reliance on rituals to manage the day;
- Chronic anxiety;
And if you ask people how they manage the stress that surrounds change or that they use as the excuse to not change (i.e. I’m already too busy/stressed), the list they give is interesting too:
- Music — fully agree with this one;
- Exercise — I don’t get the highs people seem to, but maybe I’m just not at that level yet;
- Spending time with family — wait, I thought we were supposed to REDUCE stress??? Oh, my immediate family, sure, okay; 🙂
- Reading — absolutely, but for me this is more avoidance…I do this addictively when I’m stressed, almost binging my way into ignoring the problem;
- Watching TV — yes and no for me, as it is already an entertainment activity given that I like serialized story-telling generally (part of the reason I read series);
- Praying — nope;
- Playing video games — yes and no, it doesn’t distract me for long usually, and can actually be another source of addiction/binging;
- Taking a nap — ah, naps. I remember those;
- Enjoying a hobby — mostly writing for me, or already covered;
- Eating — obviously a problem cycle;
- Attending religious services — nope;
- Drinking alcohol — no, not by taste and just as well given family histories;
- Shopping — not really, although it is appealing at times to do some retail therapy;
- Smoking — nope;
- Getting a massage — usually I am doing it more therapeutically than as relaxation;
- Playing sports — not really;
- Meditating — not well.
The part that I found interesting, and was flagged by Kottler, is that very few identified seeing a counsellor or therapist in that list. I have someone that I see, often when the stress has overwhelmed me and I just want to talk it through with someone who is professionally trained — a shortcut to a mental tune-up. I find her very helpful, and have used her three times over the last six years.
Yet I also like the fact that Kottler identifies many of the barriers/constraints to change:
There are still many constraints placed on us by our culture, gender, socioeconomic class, geographic region, physical features, religion, race and sexual orientation. The culture of poverty presents a whole different set of stressors that are quite different from those who are privileged, including increased risk of violence, crime, overcrowding, chaos, and feelings of oppression and lack of choices. In so many ways, the change options available to us are programmed by the earliest training we received at home, school, and through media in our culture. [pg. 221]
But he also talks about common excuses, like “not having time” and that often we believe it when it isn’t really true. We feel stuck but it is more that the big parameters around our life seem “set”. For example, if you were worried you didn’t have enough free time, how many of us would consider quitting our full-time job to do something else? Seriously consider it, not just notionally. Yet that change might free up a lot of time. Instead, most of us will think something along the lines of, “Well, I work 9-5, and the commute pushes that to 8-6. I get up at 6:30, get ready, have breakfast, so no free time there, and when I get home, I have to get the kids dinner, ready for bed, clean up, and it’s 9:30. I need 8 hours sleep, so I have to be in bed by 10:30 at the latest. Which leaves me max an hour a day to clean the house, say hello to my spouse, walk the dog, pay bills, make lunches, etc. If I could only have two more hours each day, I’d come out even.”
Often that kind of time management leads to ridiculous compromises…for example, the writer who decides to get up earlier (Writer’s Block, Time Management, and Other Unicorns) to get that extra hour or two hours in the day, without really thinking about what the impact will be. You can’t just “add hours” to your day, regardless of what any time management system advertises. The only way is to make different choices about your priorities. If your day is full and you add something, something else has to drop as a result.
I’ve blogged before about time management and the Harvard case study. Basically the premise of the story was seeing a jar as a metaphor for time management. The professor fills it with rocks and asks if it is full, students say yes, but the professor adds smaller stones, and asks again, students say yes it’s full, and professor adds sand. So on with silt and water. Finally, the professor asks what this says about time management and students incorrectly suggest it means no matter how full your schedule is, you can add more. In reality, and the correct answer provided by the professor, is that if you don’t put the rocks in first, they don’t go in. So, decide what your rocks are and schedule them first.
Some people sacrifice fresh lunches several times a week for pre-prepared lunches that are easier to assemble, or they eat out once a week and free up some time that way. They’re substituting purchased fast food over meal prep time. You don’t want to do that all the time of course. Others might substitute having groceries delivered for going for groceries or getting a dishwasher over washing by hand. Others cut back their work hours.
For me, I’m pretty aware of my “time sucks” and where I have some free time in my schedule that I can substitute or shift. Some things I am willing to shift, others I’m not. But I know what most of my rocks are at any given time.
As I’m focusing on weight loss currently in my personal life, I was interested in a quote that Kottler had about the challenges for some to commit to regular exercise:
For one thing, you have to want this really, really badly — so much that you are willing to make it as much a habit as brushing your teeth every day. No missed promises. No negotiation. No excuses. You just “do it” as the Nike slogan says, without a single reason to avoid it. No matter what. Sure, it helps to have external structures in place — companions to join you, a class to attend with a regular schedule, a pattern that you follow without exception. But deep down inside you have to believe that it is so important to your health, welfare, and peace of mind, that you couldn’t possibly consider any other option except following through. [pg. 229]
It’s a pretty hard-core quote, and mostly I think he’s full of crap on it. After going through all the other bits, talking about how hard it is, how many obstacles there are, and the summation is “Just do it”? Really?
It’s not quite what he is saying, or at least, not all of what he is saying, but it undermines the real message — you have to want it and you have to commit. But I’m more of a Seinfeld method than Nike slogan carrier…with the Seinfeld method, the idea is that you commit to doing it for one day. And on day 2, you try to keep the chain going. Similarly for day 3. However, if you fail on day 3, you start on day 1 again. And start building your chain. Gamifying your journey to see if you can “beat your high score” of two days of success. Your commitment is to today, not to all the days that follow. You just need to do it today. And if you fail, you start over. Often the “just do it” crowd fail and their whole commitment can collapse — they were committed to everyday for the rest of their life and on day 3, they blew it. Oh well, might as well give up.
While that approach isn’t awesome, I could deal with it. And up until the end of this chapter, I was totally in love with the approach and elements. I was “all in”, as they say. Right up until the conclusion at the end of chapter 10 that there is something that determines your success or failure, a would-be panacea for everyone. Social capital, which Kottler defines in this instance as:
…the sum total of your close connections to family, friends and community.
In other words, if you are a socially-isolated introvert, you’re screwed. It’s also a frequently-hyped solution that is seen (as Kottler says) as a panacea that cures all ills. If you build up social capital, you’ll have more support to rely on, and you can make your change.
And I don’t doubt that it is a contributing factor for some changes, particularly if part of your concern is that you are socially isolated. For example, if you are doing drugs and alcohol to escape loneliness, and you build (or rebuild) social connections, you’ll be directly targeting your triggers. But if social connectiveness has little to do with your problem, it’s hardly a solution.
I will accept that you can USE your capital, just like any other resource, but I feel like it is more individualised that that…I am an introvert by nature. Opening up about my problems to social connections is also a bit detrimental — it drastically increases my stress. Previously the same social capital would have been a barrier. For some people, as it did for me, that connectedness would hold them back out of fear of abandonment / shame. It is certainly present for me, but I’m choosing to ignore it. Instead, I’m using that added stress to propel me forward.
So social capital as presented doesn’t work for me. It’s not a panacea, it’s just one other resource available to you, if you can use it.
Chapter 9 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change”, entitled “Moments of Clarity that Change Everything”, talks about how there are people who have undergone profound change but it was not the result of a single overwhelming event that changed everything “immediately”. Instead, over time, change seemed to have been happening almost in the background. A series of positive changes that was so gradual as not to be obviously apparent, and yet there was some moment where something “snapped into place” and they felt a profound sense of clarity.
This isn’t revolutionary, it is often the entire basis for psychotherapy…analysing situations until something is “learned” about it, some new identified element that allows you to reinterpret a situation, an insight that allows you to change the way you interpret and react to certain types of situations. Some of that insight is that “you are not alone”, that what you are feeling is “normal” and that others have felt the same way previously. But what I like about the chapter is the clear recognition that insight alone is often insufficient. In particular, I like the section about the insights you can discover more or less on your own, partly as I came to the same insights when I stripped my psyche down to the core back when I was 29-34. Some examples:
“Nobody or nothing can make you feel anything, or cause you to react in a particular way, without your permission and consent”. For me that was about the fact that people can push your buttons, but you choose whether or not, and how, to react when your buttons are pressed. Maybe some buttons do nothing, maybe others make you smile or walk away. Accountability reigned supreme for me in those early insights. Another insight that Kottler highlighted was that “Feelings do not arise out of thin air, nor are they caused by anything other than your own thoughts and interpretations.” Again, a powerful notion of accountability built into that too.
I’m not as sold on the other two insights he talked about. “You have the power to almost instantly change how you are feeling about almost anything you ever experience, just by altering your interpretations of the event and substituting alternative thoughts.” That is a bit too far for me…I think you can try to do those things, but there are limits to how far you are going to get. In some situations, it might seem as benign as “think positive” but in the face of large adversity, that’s not likely to be enough. And if you don’t succeed, that accountability suggests that it was your choice, i.e. you failed to think otherwise. But I accept, kind of like rehab for 12 step programs, that there are some forces in the universe greater than my own. There are days I’m going to fail, and one of the things I might fail on is substituting alternative thoughts. It’s not a simple mindset change, but a behaviour that reinforces and is reinforced by the alternative thoughts, counteracted upon by the original thoughts that betray you. I’m not sure Kottler was suggesting it was easy, just my concern that it isn’t identified as being as hard as it really is.
The last is that “Most people don’t want what I’m selling” i.e., the argument that most people don’t want to take full accountability for their emotional well-being. I find myself both agreeing and totally disagreeing with that premise, and I’m not sure why. In part, I want to fully agree because I like the accountability as it goes hand in hand with power – if I have the power to change things, accountability kind of goes with it. But on the other hand, I know that I’m not the all-powerful Oz (just as Oz wasn’t really all-powerful), and so I don’t want full accountability either. Maybe it’s semantics, but it seems like it isn’t quite the right nexus.
The part that I think is missing, a bit, is a primary interpretation example. For me, hand in hand with failed accountabilities in part is the recognition that others are going to fail regularly too. If I accept full accountability for self, wouldn’t I then have to hold others fully accountable for how they behave? Yet if I accept that they might not be perfectly in control of themselves, and that they might be acting in a way that is harmful to me, do I give them a possible pass on their behaviour i.e. recognizing that they’re not perfect? And if so, don’t I also have to give myself the same pass?
For me, I constantly try to remind myself that most people who interact with me are in their own little worlds and their behaviours may or probably don’t have anything to do with me. In short, not everything that others do TO me is ABOUT me. In fact, most of it probably has nothing to do with me at all. Yet if I am recognizing that, and giving the others a break for their behaviour, how do I square that (normatively) with arguing I am fully responsible for self? The two seem incompatible to me for normative theory. Kottler does cover a portion of this in the section on dysfunctional beliefs for “mind reading” (page 205) where the person makes “invalid assumptions about other people’s behaviours and motives (emphasis mine), based on inaccurate data, poor observations, and fallacious reasoning.” Overgeneralizing, discounting/self-deprecation, fortune-telling/forecasting, and disasterizing are all in there too, although I’m surprised there isn’t one that is a bit more a hybrid of several…more of a simply pessimistic one.
But overall, I simply like the initial premise — that clarity might come suddenly, or in fits and starts, even if the underlying “events” are not sudden.
Chapter 8 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change”, entitled “Transformative Travel and Spiritual Journeys”, covers a specific type of “change” tool, popular in such novels as Eat, Pray, Love and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The premise, in part, derives from several aspects of change. First, by undergoing a challenging experience (such as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail), you find renewed confidence in your ability to make changes in your life. Second, by pulling yourself out of your daily life, all the anchors that hold you in place — routine, work, life in general, etc. — are displaced, freeing you up to make a change, since many of your reinforcing resistors are missing. Third, since the event / trip is clearly aimed at making a change i.e. if it is a “spiritual journey”, you have already made a firm commitment, often the first step to lasting change. And fourth, the trip often lasts several days or even weeks, ensuring that it is not a simple one-off event that you can blow off the next day since when the next day comes, you are STILL on the journey i.e. it has an ever increasing cumulative effect to distance yourself from your regular life and farther and farther from the “life you know”.
I confess, I’m not strongly attracted to this method as a change tool, partly because I think true change is incremental and a daily journey, not an “one and done” experience. For every transformation / spiritual journey that turns into lasting change, I suspect there are 10-20 others where the person goes right back into their routine when they come home. They experienced a profound experience perhaps, but they didn’t change their environment, and if you go right back to that environment, you relapse. Literally, in the case of addicts, who might get clean off in a rehab clinic (which is needed to ensure no access to drugs, for example), but if they return to the same life they had, in the same house or apartment, in the same job, with the same friends and family, the likelihood to relapse is pretty high. For travel, the premise in part is that you can “be” whoever you want to be, and that is extremely freeing. But when you return, you are much closer to your own reality than the invented one for travel. For me, it is a bit like relationships — anyone can have a good date with someone, or even a weekend trip, but that is hardly an indication of a strong foundation for the future when people have to wash dishes, do laundry, and take out the garbage.
Kottler notes some interesting variables though. Where lasting change happened, the person was likely to have undergone an uncomfortable or even traumatic event that forced them to dig deep and find new solutions. A shock to their system, if you will, and they fought their way through. Overall, though, the list is pretty bland — a mind ripe for change, insulation from usual influences, problem-solving, new experiences / adventures, altered / heightened states of consciousness, and teachable moments.
However, what did interest me was on page 169, he lists approximately 25 “types” of transformative travel, and buried within the list, were certain types of “ritual” trips — an initiation ceremony, Aboriginal walkabout, rite of passage, vision quest, religious pilgrimage, or a ritual ceremony. Each one includes an act or a series of acts that says to the person “you are passing from one reality to another”. I see a lot of merit in this, although perhaps more as a final aspect of a change, something you do to celebrate your transformation, a graduation if you will, from your old self to your new. I hadn’t really thought of it much as a tool for change itself, but it is obvious that it could easily be used that way. I am also strongly attracted to the deliberate nature of the rituals, as opposed to some of the other types of travel that seems more “accidental happenstance” (business trip or tourist trip that goes awry or off the grid). On page 182, Kottler includes a laundry list of what may precipitate the desire for a spiritual, religious or ritualistic journey and while the majority are negative catalysts (hitting bottom, trauma), some are more positive (desire for communion with others or nature, internal resonance with the divine).
As an aside, I LOVE a list on page 172 of the reasons people travel. Separate from questions of change, it is a GREAT list of why people might want to travel and what they are looking for from their travel experience:
- Escape from daily pressures. This is the type of typical holiday that people plan in order to rejuvenate themselves. The goals are selective and modest, focused primarily on entertainment, fun, and relaxation.
- Pursuit of pleasure. Related to the previous category, these trips are designed to provide pure stimulation, accompanied by relaxation, drinking, massage, and other forms of recreation.
- Time out for contemplation. In order to reflect on your choices and life path, it is often useful to get away from normal routines. Whether in a retreat setting or structured time for solitude, the goal is to sort out future plans and perhaps initiate an action plan.
- Social interaction. People often travel to meet other people, or deepen relationships with existing family members and friends. In other scenarios, travelers join groups for the companionship as much as the convenience.
- Adventure. People pursue all kinds of challenges to test themselves or feel a sense of accomplishment. Options might include river rafting, backpacking, mountain climbing, caving, or all kinds of exploration or discovery.
- Education and learning. People choose to travel to see the sights, visit museums, or study art, architecture, culture, or history.
- Service. Some people plan trips that involve some type of volunteer work to assist others.
At the end of the chapter, Kottler sums it up a bit too simply for my taste, but it isn’t inaccurate:
To summarize, there are three distinct components of a life-altering trip. First is what happens before you leave and how you [pre]program the experience. Then there is the actual experience in which critical events occur and memories are created. Finally, last but hardly least, is what happens afterward and how the experience is processed, folded into narratives, communicated to others, and understood by yourself.
In short, it seems like the same issues when dealing with any traumatic experience — how did you view the event beforehand (if you knew it was coming), how did you interpret it during the actual experience, and what story did you tell yourself afterwards. If you saw it as something to endure, your outcome is going to be a lot different than something you willing experienced in order to test yourself and come out the other side, and how you tell yourself what it means when you’re done.
Chapter 7 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change”, entitled “Changing in Psychotherapy”, would be where you might expect Kottler to say that change on your own doesn’t work and you really need a psychotherapist to help you. However, that expectation would be wrong, particularly as that would belie Kottler’s premise that basically we don’t know how change happens. Early on in the chapter, he dispels the “one true way” myth:
Psychotherapy is usually a last resort after all other options have been tried and failed…As we’ve already seen, most changes that people make in their lives take place in the outside world, as a result of circumstances, challenges, adventures, disappointments, conflicts, transitions, traumas, opportunities, and other critical incidents.
Consistently (and incredibly) more recent studies have found that the therapist’s techniques account for only about 15% of a client’s improvement, compared with triple that figure (45%) for so-called “common factors” that are evident in almost all approaches. This includes things like the quality of the relationship, client expectations and characteristics, the opportunity to talk openly about their concerns, feeling supported, taking constructive risks, and developing new understanding of themselves and the source of their difficulties.
Psychotherapy is often a significant part of [the change process], but one that represents only one piece of the puzzle. There are all kinds of other forces and extraneous events (improved economy, family support, new opportunities, spontaneous remission of symptoms, self-initiated actions, impulsive gestures, random conversations, films, and books) operating outside of sessions, and within the client, most of which we will never identify, much less understand.
And if that is all true, it leads to a question put succinctly by Kottler as why do paid psychotherapy if you can just do it yourself?
Some of the answer is speed of success, effectiveness and efficiency if you will. I crunched my psyche for 4 years on my own so to speak, and a trained professional could have perhaps stopped me from going down unproductive avenues. In some cases, picking up on an earlier point, I made myself feel worse about myself (or an aspect of myself) so that I could critically examine it, turn it around in my hands, and decide if it was something worth putting back in my psyche or if I should jettison it.
On page 158, Kottler has an incomplete list of 38 factors that can make a difference in promoting change in therapy. It’s a long list, but I think it could have been grouped and consolidated into a lot fewer headings:
- Hopeful intent / willing to do the work — a positive mental outlook that you are capable of some change that the psychotherapy will help you get through, along with active engagement, willingness to model new behaviours, perhaps a public commitment to your change, and a willingness to consider new options, alternatives and solutions with adjustment over time.
- Emotional honesty / know what you want — it doesn’t work if you’re not willing to be open and transparent, candid, emotionally true to yourself, trusting, disclosing and facing your past / present / future fears, challenging your old beliefs, having integrity and respect for your therapist and yourself, and accountability for the outcomes you generate.
- Try new approaches / take action — even if you’re willing to do the work and know what you want, if you take no action to change, you’ll get the same outcomes you already get. The personal narrative has to change too, and it can be a chicken and egg situation if the story changes before the behaviour or the behaviour changes before the story, but you’ll need to face your fears, rehearse new skills, devote new resources to the effort, and take constructive risks.
There are certainly other factors around support, planning, etc., but for me, those three elements are the ones that resonate.
When I started to read Chapter 6 of Jeffrey Kottler’s “Change”, I expected it to mirror the previous chapter i.e. that instead of hitting rock-bottom through some sort of death spiral, you would hit rock-bottom as a result of some traumatic event. And while that is part of the chapter, the focus is on the reactions to the trauma, i.e. how “post-traumatic stress is not the universal consequence of tragedy or unfortunate events”.
In fact, in a table, Kottler outlines some of the potential benefits of post-traumatic growth:
- Toughening up;
- Staying in the moment;
- Altered priorities and values;
- Greater appreciation of relationships, etc.;
- Higher self-esteem;
- More tolerance for others / empathy, etc.
But what determines whether a traumatic event leads to negative or positive outcomes? As expected, the answer is always “it depends” but some of the ideas mentioned included:
- Severity and kind of event;
- Personality traits of the person (optimism, resilience);
- Prior experience with adversity;
- Pre-existing conditions;
- Absence of blame and shame;
- Drugs and alcohol;
- Personal resources;
- Support system;
- Spiritual beliefs;
- Meaning making.
So you stand a better chance of surviving and growing if low to moderate severity, you`re optimistic, you`ve overcome previous adversity, you don’t have a bunch of other factors you’re dealing with, you’re not to blame or shamed by the event, not relying on drugs and alcohol to get by, decent personal resources, strong support system, a spiritual belief system that puts things in perspective, and a way of interpreting what happened in a constructive fashion. Obviously, you may not have all of them, but it increases the likelihood of responding to an event with a more positive outcome.
If people have these “conditions” in place before the event happens, then Kotler argues that “such individuals already have solid skills to manage and bounce back from adversity, [and] they often take such challenges in stride, returning to their previous level of functioning but not necessarily spring-boarding to higher levels.”
By contrast, I was interested in how he talks about avoidance in both positive terms (buying time until the person is ready) and negative terms (denial or extreme procrastination). Overall though, Kottler notes that “responses to crises are often guided by how you conceptualize them”. I was also interested in how he views “secondary trauma” i.e. the impact of witnessing trauma happening to others.
In the end though, I was a bit disappointed with the chapter. While there are some tips on how to recover, mostly obvious things (“take care of yourself”, “get help”), I thought there should be more about how people respond who DIDN’T have the ideal factors in place before the event. Without it, it reads to me almost like “if you’re strong enough to get through it, you’ll get through it easier than those who aren’t”.