It seems for years I have been noticing references to Allen Wheelis’s book “How People Change.” I finally decided I had better read it since I’ve read so many quotations out of it, I figured I’d probably read most of it anyway. It is absolutely an interesting book and a quick read. Wheelis was a psychoanalyst and author of 14 books. This little book, “How People Change,” describes how people are created by their actions as much as their actions are created by the people who do them. If we act in a certain way repeatedly, we become identified with and by that kind of action. In other words, in the book Wheelis says, if you steal over and over again, you then become a thief.
As the book progresses, Wheelis explains that much of what we think and feel is generated for reasons that are just out of our awareness. We believe these thoughts and feelings are “just the way I am.” But if we take the time to reflect on our inner experience and its meaning, we can often uncover earlier experiences that set us off on the path that led us to where we are. His book gives the powerful account of his relationship with his father and how that relationship led to an inner anxiety that hampered his adult life.
The point Wheelis makes is that once we become aware of the underlying meaning of our interpretations of our experience, we then become free to make other choices. It is not that changing ourselves is effortless, but it is possible–if we can see what drives us to create the choices, thoughts and feelings that we do. Then it is a question of repeatedly making the effort to notice where we want to make a different choice, and practicing that different choice where we can. With time and with commitment, we can create a new familiar pattern, and a new identification, to replace the old.
Sometimes it is easier to believe we cannot help how we are. It is easier to accept the familiar inner experience we know, even if it is not what we want. It is easier to accept ourselves as limited, or determined, than to take the responsibility and make the effort to pursue what we value and respect. Ideals are guideposts, and sometimes pursuing them feels like an exhausting and never-ending marathon rather than the slow float down a still river that we were hoping for.
Ultimately freedom is a choice and an effort. There is no shortcut, no technique, no intervention that will do for us what we can do for ourselves. Like playing the piano, we get better at it by practicing. Just as we have a piano teacher–in other words, a guide and mentor–we have a therapist or counselor, but we can only acquire this capability by working at it. Learning to recognize the many parts of our minds, understanding them, and integrating them into a whole person is a lifetime developmental process. The depth that we develop as a result creates a satisfaction that resonates throughout our ongoing experience.