Making change make a difference


(Note: Many of my readers, having known me during my years as a psychotherapist, suggested I share some of the things that I have found to be most helpful to my clients.  In contemplating this story, I decided to share an insight, which in practice, was an intervention I used largely without their awareness, the explanation of which would have been unnecessary for their successful therapeutic outcome.  The best therapy is when a skilled therapist gently induces an intervention within the context of the helping relationship, thereby not appearing to be prescribing anything more than an invitation to consider one’s thinking.  The result is the client comes to his own epiphanies and therein is ultimately more empowered and engaged in the change he originally sought.  This change is referred to as change of the “second order.”  The therapist in the equation essentially becomes incidental, the client improves and moves on in life.

A discussion of this topic may have a tendency to come across as more “academic” than you are accustomed to here on my site. Therefore, I’ll try to simplify and streamline it so that it has maximum opportunity to hit you straight between the eyes, the scar of which may just change how you live and see yourself forever.)


So the frustrated wife complains of her husband’s lack of attention with an example: “You never bring me flowers.”  That afternoon, the compliant husband, seeing he has the time, ability and means, returns home with flowers for his wife. “Thank you,” she says. “They’re lovely. I knew you really cared.” Pleased with the response and the outcome that night, the husband and wife are happy.

For awhile.


The drug addict, strung out on crystal methamphetamine, realizes the loss of his teeth, his job and income are taking a huge toll on his well-being.  He decides to quit using. His teeth and health improve, he finds work and can pay his bills once again.

For awhile.


Change can be good, but oftentimes for all the wrong reasons.

Now let’s play the two scenarios a little differently.


So the frustrated wife complains of her husband’s  lack of attention with an example:“You never bring me flowers.”

That afternoon, the compliant husband, sees he has the time, ability and means, to return home with flowers for his wife…but before he visits the florist, he recalls the deeper meaning he almost buried within his wife’s complaint. He has been working longer hours, gets lost in mindless video games at night as his way of decompressing. He has been noticeably depressed at work and his friends have made comments. Shamefully and honestly, he thinks about how useful his wife is in cleaning up, feeding him and having sex with him a couple times a week despite her frustrations. This wasn’t why he first fell in love with her 20 years ago.  He stops by the park for a little solitude and reflection and not just a few sobs alone on a dirty bench, ashamed of how he has shown little regard for her other than for what she does for him versus who she is as a woman. A maid. A prostitute. Wiping his face on his sleeve, he continues on to the florist and returns home.  Upon arrival, he takes one of the giant red rose floral arrangements and places it on her bedroom night stand with a handwritten apology poem that doesn’t rhyme, but still, shows a genuine brokenness and renewal of promises he has never revealed to her before.  The other bouquet, he disassembles petal by petal from the front door, up the stairs and into the candlelit bedroom with the final petals falling randomly on the bed and waits for her arrival home from work. “Thank you,” she says. “They’re lovely. I knew you really cared.”Pleased with the response and the outcome that night, the husband and wife are happy.



The drug addict, strung out on crystal methamphetamine, realizes the loss of his teeth, his job and income are taking a huge toll on his well-being…and in a quiet moment with a .45 caliber pistol to his head, deciding why he wants to live anymore, he is scared into a sudden series of epiphanies answering that very question.  He phones the friend he defriended months ago when he became sober, apologizing for his abandonment and swallowing his pride for the moment, perhaps the first time since he began using many years ago, and asks his sober friend for help.  The friend shows up within 10 minutes, discards the gun and embraces his desperate friend for an hour.  They go to the 5pm meeting of Crystal Meth Anonymous together and his sobriety begins.  He decides to quit using. His teeth and health improve, he finds work and can pay his bills once again.



“Well that’s a horse of an entirely different color, “ as we remember the gatekeeper to Oz responding to Dorothy, pleading for entrance because it was the only hope she had to find home once again.


There is change…and then there is change.


What differentiates the two?

Call it desperation. Call it God. Call it an epiphany from the far reaches of the universe which had been lying in wait to be delivered at just such an opportune moment.  Call it a horse of a different color, crafted by the Wizard, ready to take you home.

My moment came after I was arrested.

I had already paid for two weeks of Bartending School to start in September and had saved a substantial amount of money which would pay the balance of my child support and provide enough to pay my bills and expenses for six months, perhaps more if I stayed clean and was particularly frugal. I had a mental plan to immediately cut off all drug contacts, fabricate a story about a sudden horrible illness and post a new sign at my front door which said “THE CHENS” as if drug seeking visitors would be persuaded that my residence was now occupied by a Chinese family…and would with any luck, walk away puzzled.  For awhile.

But it was August 28th, 2011 and before all my September plans could fall neatly into place, the narcotics detectives in surveillance of my house for months prior, decided to abruptly move up my stop date without prior notice…and with handcuffs.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into detail of my own story which you can read here at my website if it helps (Scroll to page bottom, hit “older stories” and read “My 9-1-1”.)  My forever began here.


The twist of the second order…

In the first scenario, the wife who had spent the last several years frustrated, fantasizing about other men, and who also had a bag packed and a plan to leave him, is now not quite sure what to do with herself as a result of what appears to be a genuine, systemic change in her husband.  Her ways of dealing with him, herself and her own beliefs and values seem to now be in disarray.  Though she has her airline tickets to depart on Tuesday, she stuffs them in the top of her closet along with her luggage just in case this man she married 20 years ago might be the real deal after all.

In the second scenario, the addict whose commitment to change included not answering calls from his partying friends, having changed his phone number and his address and now spending more time alone than ever before in his life…finds his decision evoking the anger and insults of his dissed “friends.” In addition to developing new skills for managing his new sobriety, he is also faced with the reality that he really has no true friends and that he lacks the necessary skills to make healthy drug-free relationships.  But he will find a way. He has to.



After years of training and for many years subsequent, I was a very successful psychotherapist. I worked in private practice as well as in group and hospital practices.  I learned many things about helping others, but perhaps the best education was in learning how to help one to help himself.  I am convinced that my practice was most successful due to that last point.

While I lapsed into and swam in my addiction for a few years, several planets were aligning in my life which eventually lifted me out of the mire. Timing, events, God, my despair, etc…all unified on 9/11/11 when it became clear to me I could no longer get high enough to ignore the Voice any longer.


If knowledge, formal or otherwise, does not morph into wisdom, your efforts are without reward.

In the practice of psychotherapy, there is a school of thought which refers to how people change in thinking and behavior over the life span.  That thinking suggests that circumstances and enlightenments of our experience create “first-order change” and,  if we are very lucky,  “second-order change.” The first scenarios illustrate the idea of first order change.  The second set of the same scenarios—and the aforementioned subsequent dilemmas of both the wife and addict—illustrate what true, second order change in one person can create for self and others, the creation of a “crisis of homeostasis” of second-order change, the horse of a different color.


Change is easy.

Sustained change, notsomuch.

Change is attainable. We know it. We do it every day.

Different results, better performance, improved relationships…we use our present knowledge, alter our behaviors and employ our abilities to effect that change.  However, second order change, which requires the complete altering of mind-set, attitude and beliefs is a more complex task, but the dividends are ten-fold.



William A. Guillory, (2007) “The FuturePerfect organization: leadership for the twenty-first century – Part I”, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 39 Iss: 1, pp.52 – 58

I always find that making a graphic representation of a difficult concept makes it more palatable for visual learners like myself. The graphic above shows the primary difference between making a change of the first order and making a change of the second order…sustainable change.

Most of us can proceed through life making first-order adjustments along the way, be reasonably successful, reasonably happy and die reasonably unchanged.

That’s not good enough for me, and I will venture to say it is also not good enough for you now that you have read this far and will forever know that there is more to life change than just reasonably “okay outcomes.  Much more.  It’s the difference between “for awhile” and “forever.”

Change of the second order requires self examination, humility, deep gut honesty, determination and follow through.  You might also add forgiveness, repentance, and a deep education of the heart.  Those who have been enlightened to second order changes, either by force or by volition, never turn back to living how they once did.  It’s dissatisfying.

So my hope in closing is that I have presented the idea of change in a way perhaps you never considered.  In doing so, I hope the idea hit you some place in the vicinity of your forehead…or better yet, your heart. And if you ever decide to make those very difficult changes in your life that have been hanging around like 10 pound ankle weights, you may know the optional kind of freedom and vibrance of a truly full life that comes with change of the second order.  If you don’t, I’m sorry to have stuck an idea in your head which is likely mess with every decision you’ll ever make forevermore.   Please forgive me.

I’m a changed man.

Perhaps you, too, will join me and think differently, for a change.