From inauthentic to authentic: The seven stages of personality change in therapy
Have you ever wondered what other people's therapeutic process looks like?
Today, I want to talk about exactly that with you. I want to explore the different stages that client's go through on their therapeutic journey. While appreciating that everyone is different and their processes highly unique, there is a general pattern in how therapeutic change unfolds over the process of therapy.
Psychologist and founder of the person-centred approach, Carl Rogers, defined seven steps that summarize the 'classic' steps of personality change in therapy. Let's take a look at them. Step by step, stage by stage!
A quality shared among clients at this stage is rigidity. At this stage, people show very little openness for change, they are rather cut off from their emotions, are unwilling to share anything personal and thus, often feel defensive towards anything and anyone who encourages them to look at themselves. They might say things like:
"Talking about feelings is a waste of time."
"You ought to do as you are told."
"I know exactly who I am. I don’t need anyone or anything."
"Boys don’t cry!"
"Fuck off and leave me alone."
Very often people at this stage see things black and white – good or bad, right or wrong with no shades in between. This makes them very judgmental of themselves and the world around them. Consequently, the world they live in is a scary, hostile and unfriendly place in their perception. It’s unlike that people at that stage would see value in therapy and thus, I rarely ever have clients showing up in the therapy room when they are at this particular stage.
At this second stage there is a slight loosening of rigid constructs, yet, there is an ongoing disconnection from their experience. They find it incredibly hard to take responsibility for themselves and what happens in their lives. When things don’t go their way, they will blame others and feel like a victim of a hostile world, rather than an active participator in it.
"I didn’t do anything wrong. People keep making life hard for me."
"People never see my good sides."
"I am not responsible of this mess in my relationship. It’s her fault."
There is more acceptance that things are not right in their lives, but any fault tends to lie in others, or the bad, unfair world in general.
At this stage, people are more willing to talk about themselves, however, the way they talk about themselves is in the third person, particularly when they talk about feelings.
"You know, this is how people feel when they get hurt. They protect themselves and shut themselves off."
When they do talk about feelings, they find it much more comfortable to talk about past feelings rather than feelings experienced in the moment.
"When I was a kid, I used to cry in my bedroom all the time, but I couldn’t tell anyone. They would have been angry with me."
At this stage, the contradiction in their personality – their inauthenticity – becomes apparent. They would say things like:
"I try so hard to be a perfect mother, but I fail all the time."
"I want to be a good person, but I keep disappointing others."
At this stage, people can see a few options available to them on how to do things differently. They are not as rigid anymore, yet, the options they see are still heavily attached to rigid concepts. If I am not good, then I am bad, if it is not a success, it is a failure. People usually start therapy at this stage.
At this stage, people start to connect to and describe deeper feelings about events and experiences that happened in the past.
"I felt deep despair when he moved out. I had never felt this sad and hopeless before and it really scared me."
People have difficulty in understanding and accepting these (negative) feelings and would rather they hadn’t existed.
"If this is what falling in love means, then l' d rather not have it."
Feelings in the present start to emerge, but they are mistrusted and even rejected.
"There's this knot, deep down inside, which stops me from doing things and being myself. I hate this feeling and I want it to stop. How can I make it stop?"
At this stage, people start to slowly take responsibility for their feelings and experiences, even though they are scared about it. People might recognize old patterns, sometimes accompanied by humour.
"It's crazy, isn't it, I keep setting myself up for failure and then cry about it like a kid. Look at me, I am a man of 40 and I behave like a child."
Now, when people feel fully accepted and understood in their therapeutic process, they can feel free to explore deeper feelings. The therapist's role is not to guide them from one stage to the next, but to provide them with opportunities to wholly experience each stage in their own unique ways. At this stage, clients feel more able to express present feelings even if they don’t fully understand nor trust them:
"I am having this strangling feeling in my throat when you just looked at me the way you did without saying anything. I don’t know why this feeling is here, but it is intense and very uncomfortable."
At this stage, people can acknowledge and accept ambivalent feelings towards a past event or person, and that it is OK to have these contradictory feelings alongside each other.
"Now, I know that it is OK to feel anger. I feel anger when I feel hurt. I can see now that it makes sense that I get angry when I feel hurt. I don’t have to feel love for him all the time, he's not perfect, and neither am I."
This stage is a powerful one. Things that have previously been suppressed are now in awareness and are fully experienced in the present moment. The self which previously has been experienced as rather fragmented is now experienced as an integrated whole - mind, body, emotion. At this stage, people experience moments of full congruence, connected to their authentic, true selves.
Previous uncertainties now start to click into place, make sense and become clear. These experiences produce changes that are quite remarkable. The way the world is viewed is never the same again. Feelings start to flow freely and reach their full conclusion. One of the most striking discoveries made by many people at this stage is the realisation of care, concern and kindness for oneself.
"You know, when I look at myself as a three-year-old, and see what I had to put up with, I really do feel sorry for myself. I feel so much more tenderness towards myself than I used to and I want to look after myself. I never thought I could feel this way towards myself. It feels really good."
At this stage, people are open to experience, are able to trust their own feelings, and have developed a strong internal locus of evaluation. In the therapeutic situation itself, client and therapist are actively collaborating to explore ways in which new-found confidence, insights and growth can be used and expressed in their day-to-day life and experiences. There is a fluid, changing quality to life, as people are able to experience each new event without being bound by interpretations that belong in the past. There is a strong feeling of living in the present, an ability to relate freely and openly to others without defensiveness. At this last stage there is an awareness that further change and growth is not only possible, but is truly anticipated and welcomed.
...AND WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE?
I wonder if you too see parts of your own process in these stages? Where did you see yourself at the beginning of your therapeutic path of introspection and growth in your life? Where do you see yourself today?
These seven stages are based on Carl Rogers seven stages of personality change in psychotherapy. An approach that is heavily focused on the phenomenological reality of the client.
Merry, T. & Lusty, B. (1993) What is Person- Centred Therapy?, Loughton, Essex: Gale Centre Publications.
Rogers, C.R. (1951) Client Centred Therapy, Constable, London. Rogers, C.R. (1961) On Becoming a Person, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Rogers, C.R. (1961) On Becoming a Person, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.