“Yeah, we tried couples counseling a few years ago and it didn’t work…obviously.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“Things got better for a little while but in six months things were back to the way they were…the way they are now.”

This is a pretty common conversation that plays out in my office and I’m a little confused by it. People put unrealistic and unkind expectations on themselves and on each other. Each person has individual patterns that date back to childhood and relational patterns that date back at least as long as they’ve been together. Why is it reasonable to believe that sitting in an hour-long therapy session four times is going to examine, understand and sustainably impact all of that?

That’s not how change works; not for individuals or couples or families or companies or societies.

I was recently joking with another woman about the number of beautiful journals we’ve collected over the years. I have one that I made at a retreat a couple of years ago. I made the paper and hand bound it. I’ve done nothing with it because I am terrified of desecrating it.

We usually buy them because, damn it, it is time to get ourselves together, to turn a corner and make a new start. Apparently the tool most needed for this kind of endeavor is a clean, fresh, beautiful journal. But clean, beautiful writing isn’t fast enough to keep up with the chaos that needs to be unpacked. Our writing turns to scribble. It seems incongruent with our beautiful journals filled with inspirational quotes from people who seem to be mastering life. When our internal storm slows we lose the need for journaling and walk away. After that the journal is too sullied by our past crisis to be the right avenue of healing for our next crisis…and so the collection of beautiful journals.

Clients come into my office every week discouraged because they interpret the change process as failure.

“You know I decided last week to stop being so negative and critical at work, but I’m still doing it. Every time I open my mouth I’m saying something snarky and being negative. Then I’m like, ‘Way to go, idiot. You’re doing it again.’ It just makes me think I’m never going to change.”

“But you are changing,” I offer. “When you complained this week you saw it! That’s change. That’s where we begin.”

My enthusiasm over their success is usually met with a shrug or an eye roll or some other minimization of their progress.

“If I had a magic wand I’d charge you more and see you less,” I remind them. “That’s not how change works.”

The change process works backwards. In other words, when we first begin to change a behavior, we usually start by doing the behavior and then noticing that we’ve done it. Many people call this failure and sabotage themselves just as they are having their first taste of success. Creating awareness is the foundation of change.

But behavioral changes are often not sustainable.

Most people can momentarily change behavior. That’s why couples think they’re successful with change after three or four therapy sessions. The problem is that if changes are primarily behavioral, they’re generally not sustainable.

A helpful paradigm in therapy is that the problems clients present are often solutions to other, deeper level, problems. Usually our personal and relational patterns are strategies that have worked in earlier environments. Maybe it worked in our families of origin, or at school or in past relationships but as the years roll by these strategies result in behavioral and relational patterns that we don’t see. They become wound up on our personality structures because they are based on beliefs we have learned about ourselves, the world and our relationship to it.

It takes quite a bit of time, often a lifetime, to look at all of this, to begin to understand it, to recognize it when it arises, to be able to calm our habitual response to make new choices. Then we sabotage our growth by belittling it when it is not quick, clean and congruent with our beautiful journals.

So be kind to yourself. Know that life is a journey and that we slowly unfold over the course of it, not in a day or in a decision. Be patient and encouraging with yourself. Color and doodle and scribble and in those journals. Change is messy business.