He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery. Harold Wilson

In the middle of a meeting  today, my client’s seemingly casual remark led me to ask an apparently irrelevant question.  I inquired, “How tall are you?

Certainly, the question surprised her, and she stammered “five feet, six.”  I then asked her to respond to my query in a complete sentence. She reiterated, “I am five feet, six inches tall.”  I then asked her why she didn’t answer my question with any of the possibilities listed below:

            “I choose to be five- six”

            “I have difficulty being taller (or shorter) than five six.”

            “At times, I seem to be five, six”

Okay, where was I going with my question and subsequent request for height to be expressed in a full sentence?  My research about her stature was triggered by her casual remark earlier in our session.  The remark is one that I often hear from clients, and one that we all frequently hear in daily conversation as follows:

                                         “That’s just the way I am.”

When individuals express themselves with self-descriptors beginning with the words “I am,” it implies a permanent, unchangeable condition.  When a mature, adult woman asserts, “I am five feet, six inches tall,” it is an accurate statement. None of us will start “adding inches” at the age of 37 or 52. “I am” is an accurate choice of phrasing when we describe our height.

The problem begins when we start uttering the following kinds of self-appraisal, such as:

                                I am an introvert (or extrovert)

                                I am a procrastinator

                                I am weak-willed

                               I am stubborn….or short-tempered……or anxious……etc,

Individuals make the above statement in the same way that they describe their unchanging height.  Those statements are often expressed with frustration or exasperation.  “What can I do?  I’m an introvert (or procrastinator, etc)”

Actually, there is a lot we can do about it.

As a professional counselor and trainer of future therapists, one of my goals is to have my students and advisees develop an ability to listen carefully to how their clients express themselves.  Surely, we listen intently to what clients say, but it is equally important to train our ears to hear how they state their thoughts, particularly when they are describing their own tendencies and quirks.  So, for example, when a client laments, “I am a procrastinator” the unexpressed, uncompleted part of the sentence is,……”and there is nothing I can do about it.” 

To be sure, there is nothing any of us can do about our height or eye color.  But I sincerely believe that everything else about us is subject to change, to improvement.  I teach my students that future therapists are in the “behavior business.”  More specifically, the “behavior-change business.”  Obviously, as practitioners, it is incumbent that we believe that our clients possess the ability to change. 

That future change will be for their own benefit, surely, but also for those around them as well.

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is we must change if they are to get better.  Georg C. Lichtenberg