04/20/2012 08:10 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

Want To Change Your Life? Don't Get Involved, Get Committed

I recently had two new patients come into my office and ask me how many sessions this "therapy thing" would take to get them "fixed." I was tempted to respond, "This may not be the right place for you." But I didn't. Instead, I explained that from a psychologist's point of view change does not have a definitive timetable. Feelings and thoughts are not changed quickly, and anyone that tells you differently is a huckster. Lasting and meaningful personal change is not like having your oil changed at JiffyLube, as much as we might want it to be.

Changing your life means understanding and reworking well-worn patterns of ideas or behaviors that have evolved over time. If you are still thinking or behaving in ways that have you running in circles it means that those patterns must have been useful at some time, or in some ways, and they may still be useful to you. Real is slow, steady, and deliberate. It is about distilling the ideas and behaviors that have not been working for you and gently easing them toward patterns that will. When done properly, the process of psychotherapy looks like a stock chart and more like a slinky stretched from end to end -- it goes forward but in loops rather than a straight line. This can be a hard concept for those of us who spent countless hours (not to mention money) learning that the solution to life's problems comes down to formulas.

This is not a popular concept, just a true one: Anything worth doing (e.g., living a mentally healthy life) takes commitment. When I refer to work I mean a real commitment -- not just involvement. You may be wondering about how these are different. This was explained to me once by a salesman I met years ago -- I'll try to get his accent just right for full effect:

"Sunn [sic], the difference 'tween involvement and commitment is the same as the difference 'tween eggs and bacon. The chicken is involved. The pig is committed." It's hard to argue with that.

Commitment is key for making and sustaining real change in your emotional life. I don't expect you to go ahead and turn yourself into bacon, but what's needed is not just a wish to change in five sessions or less, or to have a therapist "fix" you, but an actual commitment to do something different -- to push through when the going gets tough, because unfortunately it does.

A true commitment to personal change requires three things:

1. Vision
2. Promise
3. Energy

Let's look at each of these things in turn.

Vision: It's wonderful if you know exactly what you'd like the New You to look like, but it's not necessary. All that that you need is to be open to imagining yourself and your life as different than they are now. You can explore the particulars along the way.

Promise: When you commit to change you implicitly make a promise. The promise is not to your husband, your sister, your kids, or even your Labradoodle. The promise you make is to yourself. It's like writing a check with your mind. The way you cash that check is with work.

Work: Yes, work is a four-letter word, blah, blah, blah... But when you truly believe in something, when you are moving with purpose, work is not just not bad -- it's good. Work means throwing your energy at something you believe in to make a change -- to make it the way you want it to be.

Commitment is the recipe for change. When you commit with your vision, promise, and work, it pays off in something better than bacon (if there is such a thing)... real change.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.