The other day, a client I work with got very emotionally upset over a small matter, acted out inappropriately, and aggressively demanded immediate attention from myself and other staff to resolve her problem. During her outburst, she said to me: “I can’t help it. It’s my personality disorder. I’m just an emotional person.”
The premise underlying her comments is: “I don’t have control over my behavior because I’ve been diagnosed with a mental disorder.” Unfortunately, she didn’t make this idea up on her own; it’s widely promoted in the mental health field. The idea is that people’s genes, biology, upbringing, or environment causes them to act as they do, not their own free will, beliefs, and choices.
The fact is, most, if not all, psychological problems are caused by errors of thinking, and then acting on those errors, and then making those errors a habit. Once that happens, the behavior and emotions become automatic, and it feels as if “It’s just my personality” or “That’s just how I react to things,” when in reality, it’s just a bad habit that can be changed. However, if we don’t recognize that dysfunctional and self-destructive behavior is learned, and not determined by factors outside of our control, then we will never exert our will to change it.
Not only is the idea of determinism false, it’s extremely harmful. It makes people believe that they don’t have any control over their lives or their behavior. After all, they’re programmed to act that way, so how could they have any control over themselves, and why should they take any responsibility for their lives when they literally can’t help it?
First of all, I don’t think anyone really believes this idea even though it’s almost universally accepted in the mental health field. If we really have no control over our behavior and emotions, then what would be the point of psychotherapy? The premise underlying psychotherapy is that people can learn to change—change behavior, emotions, and thinking to live healthier and happier lives. If no change is possible, if we are all programmed like robots, then psychotherapy would be the biggest scam ever.
Notice the major contradiction here: we are programmed by forces outside of our control (i.e., our genes, environment, parents, etc.), yet we have control over changing how we’ve been programmed. This begs the question: If we have control over changing ourselves by going to therapy, then didn’t we have that ability all along, and isn’t this idea of determinism totally false?
I think people at some level know they have the ability to change, despite what’s communicated by the psychology field. The reason they know it is that they can witness themselves making hundreds of choices everyday that are in their complete control. When I challenged this client that I didn’t buy the personality disorder excuse and that she could learn how to manage her emotions in a healthy way—she said she knew she could.
So, why hasn’t she done it? Well, in order to change she would have to take full responsibility for her behavior and learn the skills necessary to change. This takes consistent work and effort, and not everyone wants to do this. Another reason could be that at some level, she has internalized the idea that change isn’t possible, that she has a personality flaw that makes her fated to be who she is. If this is the reason, I blame those mental health professionals who fostered this idea in her.
However, if we accept the correct premise that we can change and that we do have control over our behavior, then all that’s required is learning the proper methods for identifying one’s thinking and behavioral errors, and changing them to be more rational and life promoting. This may not be easy, but it can be done and the choice is fully within our control.