The desk is collecting dust.
I look at it and it drives me crazy.
My oldest son is in fifth grade, and his homework demands have increased dramatically, so he’s asked me to help him study more efficiently. Typically, he has completed his homework at the kitchen table, with the family moving to and fro around him. We decided this was distracting, so we set up a study nook in his bedroom. A place to be alone with his schoolwork.
But the only thing sitting alone is the desk.
He hasn’t used it.
I look at the dust-covered desk and I get frustrated with his lack of commitment and resolve. I look at the desk and I grumpily tell myself I won’t give him help the next time he asks. Yet, as I look at the desk, the dad in me can’t keep the psychologist in me quiet. And the psychologist in me looks at the desk completely differently:
It’s not a reflection of his lack of desire. Rather, it’s a reflection of his deepest desire. When we don’t change, it’s not because we can’t. It’s because we won’t. It’s because we want something we’re not saying more than we want the change we’re saying out loud.
Why We Don’t Want to Change
Most therapy clients want to change.
And most therapy clients don’t want to change.
When I supervise a young therapist and tell them this, it can come as a bit of shock at first. After all, clients come to therapy of their own volition, take time out of a busy schedule, pay good money to be there, and express a desire to change in very specific ways. It seems like a green light for mutual collaboration. And it is.
For one part of the client.
But no human being is monolithic. We all have competing interests and desires. While one part of us has goals for personal growth, another part of us has questions:
What is the cost of changing?
If I really get quiet, will I be able to handle all the loneliness that rises up in me?
If I truly get healthy, will I still want to stay married?
If I start using my voice, will my friends still want to be with me?
If I finally get a job and move out, will I still have a place to come home to?
If I set better boundaries with my kids, will they love me less?
If I’m no longer depressed, will everyone stop taking care of me and stop caring about me?
If I change this about me, how will it affect us?
If I change this one small thing, what cascade of change will it trigger?
Do I want that much change?
The job of a therapist is not to force change, but to make space for the reasons we don’t want to change. The job of a therapist is to ask questions, too. Questions like: What is the benefit of not changing? What old things will be lost if new things are found? The job of a therapist is not to love the part of a client that wants to change and shame the rest of the client into compliance.
The job of a therapist is to welcome both parts into the light.
Maybe that’s the job of a dad, too.
What We Want More Than We Want Change
I stand in my son’s room and I look at the empty desk and the sounds of my family drift in from the kitchen. They’re fighting and playing and arguing and laughing, listening to music and listening to each other. I can hear the sounds of dishes being cleaned and I can hear the sound of my son repeatedly chiming into the conversation, distracted from his work.
The dad in me looks at the empty desk and sees a kid who doesn’t want something badly enough. But the psychologist in me looks at the empty desk, listens to the sounds from the kitchen, and knows my son is achieving exactly what he most deeply desires.
He’s in elementary school. Sure, grades are starting to matter more, but he’s still a kid, and belonging is what matters most. He doesn’t want to use the desk in his room because he doesn’t want to be apart. Don’t we all still have a kid inside of us somewhere? Don’t we all still just want to belong?
A Little Compassion for Ourselves
According to statistics, most of us have failed our New Year’s resolutions by now. We’re starting to beat ourselves up for being lazy and undisciplined. But, with few exceptions, our New Year’s resolutions don’t fail because of laziness.
They fail because we all have a fifth grade kid in us somewhere.
We may be older, but connection and belonging is still the great, unspoken driving force behind our actions. When we are having difficulty changing something personal, it’s because we fear it will disrupt something relational. As a supervisor and a therapist, my job is to welcome this reality into the light. It’s my job as a dad, too. Which is why I’m going to tell my son, no matter how much time he spends in his study nook, he will always have a noisy kitchen to come back to.
We all have a kid in us who is needing to hear that, don’t we?
This year, instead of being hard on ourselves, maybe we can have a little compassion for ourselves. Maybe we can embrace the part of us that wants to change and the part of us that is afraid to change. Maybe then, even our failed resolutions will be the beginning of something new and good and beautiful.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.