Friday, January 11, 2008

How we change (part 2)

I'm always looking around for evidence that people really do change and that transformation really is possible. Today's Exhibit A: TLC's What Not To Wear. Do you know this show? Basically this is how it works: Hosts Stacy and Clinton sneak up on some poor, unsuspecting (and badly dressed) young woman and tell her that her friends and family have nominated her for the show. She is usually confused, humiliated, and intrigued. Then, they offer her a $5000 debit card and a trip to NYC for a new wardrobe . . . but, there's a catch. In order to take the money, she has to promise to allow them to go through her closet, comment on everything she wears, and then throw most of it in the trash. Then she has to follow their advice on choosing a new look.

Assuming she says yes, that's exactly what happens and it is hilarious because, frankly, the nomination to appear on the show is usually well-deserved. Then we see her on the hidden camera either defensive ("I don't think that wearing legwarmers with my camo shorts is THAT bad!") or completely humiliated--and actually, those two things probably overlap a great deal. Then Stacy and Clinton give her a lesson on dressing for her body type, ways to bring out her assets, fashion tips, etc. which she mostly rejects.

Then she goes to NYC and starts shopping. Day One is predictable--she's either resistant and rebellious or she's weepy and overwhelmed. She buys some things and then goes home and tells the secret camera about how hard it was, how much she hated it, how it's not going to work. Day Two is equally predictable--Stacy and Clinton appear out of nowhere, affirm the good choices she made, and set about showing her how it's done. They coax her into trying new things, they give lots and lots of praise as well as some humorous criticism, and they challenge her to explore why she gravitates to the bad choices.

This, actually, is where the transformation comes in. By the end of the week, after new wardrobe, hair and makeup, the woman not only looks completely different but has wrestled with her self-esteem, her identity, her sexuality, and her life's dreams. She says things like, "I never realized I had something to offer," or "I always just wanted to be invisible," or "I've never been told I was worth anything," or "I want to be the person I look like now."

So how does it happen and how can we replicate it? (I can just imagine TBN's What Not to Believe . . . hmmm . . . I think it's has potential . . . ) Here are some of my thoughts:
  • The woman is given an extended period of time to think about herself and her choices. I think this is one of the most effective things about counseling--that whatever happens in the session, having an hour from time to time devoted just to taking care of myself and listening to myself is helpful. Change rarely happens without reflection and most people devote almost no time to it.)
  • Teaching concepts is just a small part of the experience. Actually, the bulk of the experience is given to practice (and not just practice but practice with a mentor.) Whether we're talking about school or church or parenting, I think we put way too much emphasis on the imparting of information. It's important, but by itself, it's not usually transformational. Practicing with a mentor is.
  • The level of intensity is ramped up. Urgency is created and the tension is sustained. At least for a week, it's impossible to go back to business as usual. Studies show that we remember far more of what we learn when emotional intensity is present. (That's up to a point, of course--it is possible for anxiety to get so high that the brain doesn't really function at all.)
  • There is a real and tangible reward--a $5000 debit card--as well as clear direction about how to change. Even if you don't want to make the changes, you understand clearly what the rules are.
  • There is lots and lots and lots of positive reinforcement. I think we forget how powerful that is and how many people there are in the world who are starving for it.
  • There is the opportunity to "try on" new things, to experiment with unfamiliar ways of being, without having to commit to them or feel ashamed if they don't work.
  • The application to real life is powerful. The woman on the show starts to think about how her life hasn't been working and how she could live differently--far beyond just changing the way she looks. She begins to dream about new possibilities for herself and eventually is swept up in the hosts' optimism about her life and what she has to offer the world. She ultimately changes, not out of obligation but because she has a transformed view of her life.

So . . . I think I have probably just done the first ever analysis of TLC's WNTW--and it should probably be the last.

1 comment:

janet said...

I would actually like to do a class for women in a vintage clothing store someday where they dress up as a vehicle for self-exploration! It's all mapped out in my head...