People are unique yet strangely similar at the same time. Although no two are identical, the way that individuals handle certain aspects of life are very similar. There are patterns and clusters of ways people respond to life. I especially see this with lasting personal growth.
Having worked with individuals and families since 2000 and in private practice since 2007, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how people respond to and live through challenges. I’ve noticed there are a few key ways people respond to life happening around them and the impact it has upon their personal well-being.
It always fascinates me as to why someone can go through unspeakable stress and come out of the experience as a vastly improved version of themselves. They shine from having walked through the trials. On the other side, someone can go through what would be perceived as less traumatic and they seem to have gained little to no personal growth from the experience. Why do some people shine after challenges and others become perpetually stuck? I think it has to do with the four levels of willingness to change.
First Level: “Nothing is wrong with me.”
It’s exceptionally hard to change what we don’t see as an issue. At this first level, someone might come into counseling for just a few sessions because a loved one begged them or it was court ordered. These types of folks are a counseling challenge. They have no true interest in changing much, if anything, about themselves. They might throw out a few things they could see as needing work but quickly rationalize away any real need for personal growth. The extreme end of this level are narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths. They cannot change because they do not authentically see anything wrong with themselves. In their own minds, they are the personification of perfection. It’s startling to think that people roam the earth with this much arrogance. But trust me, they are out there among us in our families, friend groups, workplace and communities. First level folks never stay in counseling for very long. They might stay slightly longer with a counselor who is willing to do their perfection dance with them, but eventually all counselors need to see actual personal growth for the work to be therapeutic. That is when these first level folks tap out of counseling and stop any journey of change.
Second Level: “I know I have some issues, but I won’t actually do anything to fix them. Ever.”
Second level individuals are not necessarily toxic. They authentically recognize and can talk about areas of change within themselves. You’ll hear them say things like, “I need therapy” and “I want to master my thoughts and actions better” but then also defeatedly say, “I’m exceptionally lazy.” In their laziness or lack of motivation to improve their lives, second level people live the same way today as they did 10 years ago. The seasons change, the calendar changes, but second level folks do not. The saddest part is they know they need to improve their position in life. They’re aware, and at times painfully aware, that healthy steps are needed, but make no advancement towards doing anything tangible about it. My heart goes out to the second level folks the most because living in at this level is a lot like being in a cage but with the door open. They just won’t stand up and start to walk out towards health.
Third Level: “I’m seeing change in my life and I’m excited! Until it gets hard.”
Third level people are willing to invest their time, resources and energy towards growth. This is initially very exciting. Unfortunately, this level is where some individuals will retreat and return to the second level. Why do they do this? No one said change was easy and sustaining it can be even more difficult. Third level people often get hung up on fears, inconveniences or social pressures that tell them change will cost them greatly in some area of life. For instance, counselors see clients who really want to improve their physical health and lose significant amounts of weight, but as they start walking towards their personal goal, toxic people close to them start sabotaging their growth. The client has a dilemma to face and must decide whether to keep walking towards health or succumb to the peer pressure and slip back into old habits. Counselors also see this with those who want a healthier, less toxic, relationship. The person might be temporarily willing to make a tough decision if the people around them refuse to treat them better. Third level people will experience some small steps towards personal growth, but unfortunately it doesn’t last. Weight will be lost but is put back on, and relationships don’t improve so they settle for the present version which doesn’t really meet their needs.
Do not lose hope if you see yourself at the third level and feel like you are slipping backwards in your growth. Many people fluctuate among the levels; going from second to third, back to second and then they jump up to the fourth level of change.
Fourth Level: Actual Lasting Change.
The most rewarding level of growth. If we look back on our own journey, we can see that we were probably at all four levels at some point. We’ve been in denial about ourselves and the need for change (first level), we’ve wanted change but didn’t make the effort to make it happen (second level), we’ve tried a few things to change but didn’t see it happen quick enough or gave up at some point (third level), but then we started over and eventually made it to the fourth level of seeing real, significant personal growth in ourselves. It’s very exciting when that happens. Believe me, it doesn’t come without a cost. All change requires us to give up things. It’s just a fact. Hopefully, what we are gaining with reaching level four will be far more valuable than anything we’ve given up.
Take some time and reflect on the four levels of personal growth. Be honest with yourself. Where are you today? Are you happy with your current level? If not, what steps can you take to move yourself forward? I believe in small, incremental movement toward reaching goals.
I promise you that one step at a time truly does work.