The Work of Change: Why Insight is Never Enough

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Insight is great, but without challenging dysfunctional thinking and behavior patterns, and most especially, without reinforcing efforts to do things differently, most people will stay feeling “stuck.”

As those familiar with my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance and my online articles already know, before I retired from active practice, I long specialized in the assessment and treatment of personality and character disturbances. While dealing with character disturbance was my primary specialty area, I always maintained a roster of traditional psychotherapy clients — fairly eager, verbal, and insightful individuals seeking only to understand themselves better, overcome their emotional “hangups,” and grow into healthier persons. Providing professional guidance to individuals with significant disturbances of character is particularly challenging and sometimes emotionally draining work. So, making space for traditional insight-oriented psychotherapy was really helpful in maintaining my sanity. It also helped me keep important skills intact.

It never ceased to amaze me how much insight a person could gain within the therapeutic milieu. It was always rewarding to witness someone finally “put all the pieces together” as to how they got the way they were. If only it were enough to have those proverbial “Aha!” moments. But my psychotherapy clients taught me well (a lesson also validated by ample research) that most of the time, insight simply isn’t enough when it comes to changing one’s life. In fact, the very fact that someone might have come to “see” the self defeating things they do as well as why (based on the emotional scars of the past) they do them, yet continues to have difficulty doing things differently can in itself be a significant source of distress. A person could easily wonder at times if they wouldn’t have been better off remaining in the dark. As one client so aptly put the dilemma: “I know what I do and why I do it, and I know what I need to do instead, so why can’t I seem to make myself do it? It makes me crazy!” To address that very concern, I often found myself drawing upon lessons I’d learned from my work with disturbed characters. Insight is great, but without challenging dysfunctional thinking and behavior patterns, and most especially, without reinforcing efforts to do things differently, most people will stay “stuck,” feeling better only for the few moments that they have the opportunity to “vent” their frustration during the therapy hour.

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Recently I wrote about covert self-monitoring and self-reinforcement — powerful tools in the process of change. (See “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”.) Such tools make the “work” of changing one’s usual modus operandi easier and help the client develop increased motivation to persist in the effort to change. I’ve also written about how the high cost of change often hangs people up in their quest to do better, and the value of not only doing a change cost/benefit analysis of a person’s behavior patterns but also implementing strategies that lower the cost of change. (See “Cost-Benefit Analysis in CBT: An Exercise in Behavioral Economics”.)

Adherents of traditional approaches stress the importance of “working through” the “dynamics” (Jung used the term “complexes”) during talk therapy even after the client has gained awareness. But even this process is more of an internal emotional reconciliation of sorts and not an automatic change in one’s behavioral modus operandi. The fact is, once we develop certain ways of doing things — whatever the reasons were for us developing them in the first place — it’s really hard to change course. Old habits are simply really hard to break, and as we know from learning theory, nothing is ever really “unlearned.” Even when we learn new behaviors and begin to implement them, it’s always likely that we’ll fall back into old patterns from time to time. That’s why it’s so important not only to reinforce ourselves as we strive to do better but to confer that reinforcement on our sincere effort. Reinforcing only for “success” is both less effective and potentially damaging to self-esteem.

Some behavioral therapists have long argued that insight is unnecessary for change. Others have argued it has little real value, while still others, especially those working within the cognitive-behavioral framework, argue that once a person comes to some awareness about why they’ve made the choices they have, they’re freer to make new, better choices. Some have suggested that while insight is indeed important to self-understanding, it need not be pursued as a primary objective in therapy.

Increased awareness, it’s been argued, can and often does come on the heels of doing things differently. It’s a kind of “taste and see” approach to learning. Do the very thing you fear to do or are not naturally inclined to do and you’ll “see” what a difference it can make. My experience has shown me that while this is true, the insight that can be gained from doing things differently can extend well beyond just becoming aware of a new reality. In pushing oneself to do differently, one always has to confront the demons of the past that fuel the “resistance” to changing. Often, in confronting that resistance head-on, a person can come into full conscious contact with issues they have long repressed. When this happens, I have always encouraged my clients to find yet another reason to reinforce themselves, for not only has their effort to do better paid off behaviorally, it’s afforded them a level of awareness and understanding they didn’t have before, and the fruits of both these things are only likely to increase over time.

Insight by itself rarely makes change possible. But with commitment and hard work (and a lot of reinforcement), a person can not only change and grow but also acquire a greater level of self-awareness. Perhaps it’s true that insight does not equal cure. But in my experience, it sure seems to accompany it.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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