Are You Ready To Change (Your Light Bulb)?

Most of us are familiar with a type of joked called a “light bulb joke”. According to Wikipedia:

“A lightbulb joke is a joke that asks how many people of a certain group are needed to change, replace, or screw in a light bulb. Generally, the punch line highlights a stereotype of the target group….There are numerous versions of the light bulb joke satirizing a wide range of cultures, beliefs and occupations.”

Given this definition, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit on behalf of my profession that there is a light bulb joke for therapists. It goes as follows:

“How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Drum roll…

“Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

Ta dum, dum, dum!

This joke is generally targeted towards that portion of the client population that has been deemed “resistant”. Meaning they resist the therapist’s help, suggestions, interventions, etc. so that change doesn’t happen.

As you can probably tell, the joke puts the responsibility (blame?) on the “targeted population” (resistant clients) for the fact that change is not happening for them. The implication is if they wanted to change badly enough, change would happen. Bad clients! And not a very nice joke.

You might be surprised to hear that I actually end up telling some of my clients this joke. I am very deliberate when I choose to tell it, and I try to make sure the client is in a place where she can find the humor in it. Almost inevitably we share a little chuckle.

I use this joke with clients as an opening to a discussion of intention. I spend a lot of time with all of my clients helping them focus on, and make conscious and explicit, their intentions. Because what happens in the session, and what happens in our lives, is inevitably in accordance with our intentions.

The problem is that we, as human beings, are not always conscious of all of our intentions. Typically this is because we have conflicting intentions. And we often have conflicting intentions.

For example, a client comes to see me with the intention of wanting to change something. “I want to stop letting people walk all over me.” Or, “I want to stop eating junk food and live a more healthy life.” Or, “I want to stop working so hard and enjoy my life more.” These are their conscious intentions.

So we start work and they make a little or even a lot of progress. But then things slow down or actually stop. The light bulb won’t change anymore. What’s going on?

Usually what’s going on is that some sort of contrary intention is at work, but it isn’t fully conscious. Let’s take the example of the person who has the intention that “I want to stop letting people walk all over me”. Perhaps the person has learned in her therapy some ways to become more assertive. She is speaking up more. She is setting boundaries in her relationships.

And maybe people aren’t so happy with her boundaries. They liked their friend in her door mat form, thank-you very much! So they react. They withdraw. They become critical or make fun of her. They tell her how selfish she is. Yikes!

So a secondary intention manifests. “I want to stop letting people walk all over me, but I also don’t want to lose my friends. Who will I be if I’m not a door mat? What kind of person will I be? Maybe no one will like me. Maybe I am just being selfish here. And maybe if I’m not a doormat, I’ll have to take responsibility for my own choices and decisions. I’m not sure I know how to do that. In fact, I’m not at all sure I want to change at all. Maybe I’m fine just as I am. I don’t want to change if these are the consequences. After all, I’ve been a doormat a long time and I really know how to do that. People like me that way. I’m scared! ”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Unearthing these secondary, conflicting intentions is often what the deeper work is about. And there should be no placing of blame on these very understandable conflicting intentions.

So I have come up with new light bulb joke. It goes like this:

“How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Only one, but the light bulb has to be ready to change.”

Ahhhh.

I share this joke with my clients, too.

The work of therapy, personal growth, healing or whatever other route you take on your life journey becomes about helping our light bulbs to get ready to change. Uncovering all of our intentions, particularly intentions that conflict with each other. Exploring all the possibilities. Examining all of our fears. Strengthening our internal and external resources to help us ease our fears.

I’ve discovered that light bulbs need whatever time they need to change. They can’t (and shouldn’t) be rushed, pressured, judged, whacked over the head, or manipulated in any other way to try to make them change.

We change on schedules that are not always obvious to others or even to ourselves. Perhaps we need life to provide us with other lessons to enable us to be ready to take the next step. I’ve had clients end their sessions and show up two, five, heck even thirteen years later, with their light bulbs then ready to change. (Any many, of course, go on to do their light bulb changing in forums other than my office.)

A light bulb that is ready to change will change. But not one moment sooner and not one moment later than it is ready.

So, how’s your light bulb doing? Let’s sit down together and find out.

Photo credit: thomasbrightbill via Flickr

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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2 Responses to Are You Ready To Change (Your Light Bulb)?

  1. WOW! Karen, I LOVE this post…how true it is!!! As a reunited adult adoptee I have so experienced this in my life, as well as in the lives of my family members…that whole concept of “readiness” reminds me of my experience as an educator…assessing what students have learned and what they are ready to learn next…your post has provided a “light bulb” ah-ha moment for me…I can assess my own psychological and emotional readiness for adult challenges (such as rejection and betrayal) based on what I have learned from those challenges in my past and what I am ready to learn with the next challenge…like goal-setting…coming up a little higher with each challenge…Thank You <3

  2. So glad you enjoyed it, Beth! “Light bulb moment” – Love it! So much of life is about the proper timing and doing what we need to get ready. Very familiar concept to you as an educator, I am sure. Thanks for sharing!

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