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A White Therapist’s Thoughts on Change

Change. What leads to change? As therapists this is a question many of us have considered deeply in our professional development. Students at Council for Relationships write their final paper on their theory of change because we believe that it is so foundational to their growth as therapists. We all know that it is hard to change, but clearly we all believe that it is possible or we wouldn’t persist in this profession.

I once had a supervisor who used to talk about the “cold-butt” theory of change, by which she meant that it is not until we become very uncomfortable that we make a change. Hope also seems to be a crucial factor in change. How can we remain motivated to do all that hard work if we don’t have hope that things can be different? I frequently ask clients who continue patterns of behavior that they say they want to change, “how does this behavior serve you?” I ask that question because I don’t believe that we continue to do things unless there is something that that thing does for us, even if that thing may also hurt us. Maybe we also are afraid of what may come if we stop doing what is hurtful but known in favor of what is unknown.

I find myself thinking about my work as a change agent for my clients as I consider the change that needs to happen in our country. The protests, destruction, and looting are, at least in part, acts holding up for all to see the atrocities of racism in a way that cannot be ignored. It may make us uncomfortable to see the trauma and pain laid bare in front of us, but we need to see it and we need to be uncomfortable. White people must also remember that our discomfort at seeing this is a fraction of what is experienced by people of color in America who live this reality. As a white person, I cannot understand what it feels like to be a black person in our society, but I must listen, see, and believe what they tell me. When I help my clients I do not have to have had their experience in order to support them, but I do need to be open, present, trusting, empathic, and validating of their experience. It can be uncomfortable to be with pain, and even more so when we have contributed to that pain, but we must learn to tolerate that discomfort so that we can make the choice to do something different.

Along with the grief and the rage, I feel inspired. The hope that must exist for people to take to the streets fills my heart. Not only are we not willing to accept the murder of people of color at the hands of those who are sworn to protect us, but we believe that change can come, that we can do something to make it happen. These protests are demonstrations of hope and faith. They are beautiful and grueling, unifying and dangerous, and protesters return day after day because they hope that in doing so it will make a difference. We must keep enacting this optimism and conviction, and hold on to the vision of a more equitable world; otherwise, we will fall into despair. People do not grow and change in despair.

This brings me to the question that I pose to my clients: how does not changing serve you? White people must face the ways that perpetuating this system has made their lives better. We must reflect on the knowledge that our life has been made easier by our skin color, while for others the color of their skin means that the deck is stacked against them and that they face danger. We must reflect on the dissonance of enjoying the benefits of our privilege and knowing that that privilege has contributed to death. We see ourselves as good people who value life, for whom black lives matter, but part of us does not want to give up what we have. Maybe we feel that dissonance, but instead of being with it, we push it away by saying all lives matter, or my life hasn’t been so easy either, or I’m sure that that person who was killed brought it on himself. Instead of embracing the denial or rationalization, we must honestly reckon with both parts of ourselves, and with the fear and the loss that accompany any choice. White people will either risk losing the benefits of perpetuating white supremacy or the ability to see themselves as good and just. Face the choice, and make it actively, for if we don’t we are still making a choice and we will have to live with it.

I find myself reflecting on the speech “Breathe! Push!” given by Valerie Kaur on New Year’s Eve 2016. She likened that time in American history to childbirth, and specifically, the transition phase. Transition follows the stages of early labor and then active labor, and is the hardest part. It is the darkest and most painful, the part that you have to push through so that you can get to new life on the other side. Just like childbirth, change is theorized to have stages: (1) pre-contemplation when there is an unwillingness to change, (2) contemplation when there is ambivalence about change, (3) determination when the commitment to change is solidified but the steps to change are not yet clear, (4) action when the steps for change begin to be taken, (5) maintenance when goals have been achieved and the work is to keep that change in place, and then (6) recurrence when we fall back in to old patterns. Change is a process, individually and systemically. We all may be in different stages of our own change processes, and we may gain ground and then lose it. The most important thing is how we react when we fall back, when we make a mistake, when we lapse back in to what is familiar, or when we get called out for not doing the right thing. Without facing that discomfort and interrogating it, we cannot re-enter that process of change, and we cannot progress, individually or collectively.


Emma Steiner, MSW, MFT, LCSW is the Director of Clinical Services and a Staff Therapist at our University City and Center City locations. She currently sees clients via online therapy. To request an appointment, she can be reached at esteiner@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4279.