Each of us has someone or several someones whom we would like to change. We may really like or love them to pieces, but there are some habits or traits we wish were otherwise. Sometimes the changes are relatively minor. We’d love it if they broke some annoying habits such as being late to everything, or finishing our sentences for us. In other cases, we want to make deeper or more fundamental changes to who they are. We want to change what American philosopher and psychologist William James identified as their “habitual center of personal energy.”
That can never be changed by another.
William James claimed that each person has some central organizing interests, commitments, principles, or ways of being that orient us in the world. These define us in many important ways and function as our centers of personal energy. These centers can change over time, sometimes very intentionally and other times as a consequence of neglect or passivity. It is particularly painful when we see people whom we like, respect, and love suffer because of their personal centers of energy.
Consider a professional athlete in pursuit of a championship. Relationships, education, and social involvement, for example, are all secondary to that one goal. Their habitual center of personal energy is that goal and all that needs to be done to meet it. People or commitments that hinder that pursuit are often dropped. Reaching that goal may make that center burn more brightly.
People who do reach their center may set a higher but related goal or may see the result as inevitable and proof that they are exactly who they believe themselves to be. Not reaching that goal on their own timetable may provide incentive for redoubling their efforts and commitments. Others may not fare so well. When a person’s life has had such a singular focus but the goal remains unmet, an existential crisis may follow. Who is a person when their center is lost? Athletes who are injured in their prime face this question and will need to figure out ways to live its answer.
Consider another case of people who begin to struggle with addictive substances and behaviors. Alcohol, drugs, and certain behaviors are at the center of a person’s life in the worst throes of addiction. Relationships have been ruined, careers trashed, opportunities lost, and dreams shattered. No one sets out to become an addict, but over time, the need or want of substances and behaviors suffocates other parts of a person. What is left as a center of personal energy is a combination of self-recrimination, loathing, and grief.
In the cases of the athlete and the addict, the usual tactics of pleading, cajoling, shaming, and manipulating are not effective methods to change another’s habitual center of personal energy. One person cannot make another person change no matter how hard we try. Our efforts may have the opposite effect of what we intend. The motivation must be the person’s own.
What are effective ways to change that center and to create a new one? William James is helpful in this regard though he is always clear the compelling force must be a willingness to act differently.
To begin to cultivate that willingness to change, James says people need to have two things in their minds. The first is a clear sense of how the present ways of living are incomplete, harmful, or not good enough and even wrong for them. Athletes who can no longer compete may feel lost in the world. The usual sorts of things that orient and ground people—family, friends, meaningful work and social engagement—may be missing. Perhaps the people who surrounded them during good times are suddenly gone in the wind.
On the other hand, most people who struggle with addiction become experts at listing all the ways they have messed up their lives, lost important relationships and goods, and perhaps most importantly, lost themselves or the plans for their lives. This recognition of their losses is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for change.
The second thing William James says people must have in mind to make genuine change is a positive ideal that they long to compass or set as their points of orientation in the world. These ideals or visions of a good life may seem completely inaccessible or even impossible to people who have become trapped in that loop of wrongness and incompleteness.
Athletes who have been largely sequestered from everything but their sport are at a disadvantage, starting nearly from scratch. They lack fundamental skills that many others take for granted. They may need to look to others who have made the transition successfully. They may need to use those stories as a starter or catalyst for beginning to craft their own positive ideal.
Those who struggle with addiction and voluntarily seek help in some form may have positive visions from earlier in their own lives. They can accept the incompleteness of their present lives but take motivation from it to shape how they will act differently moving forward. They see what they can get back when they become willing to act in different ways. Others who have no ideals from their own histories may need to look to others who have made the sorts of changes they wish to make. Early in recovery, many of us hitchhiked on the stories of others.
While no one of us can change the habitual center of personal energy of another, we can affect the conditions that will either hinder or facilitate change.
We make it harder when we act in ways that keep a person locked in the loop of wrongness and incompleteness. We facilitate positive change when we help a person identify the ideals they long to compass, remaining ever mindful that our lives may temporarily serve as that ideal.
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