The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How People Change: Psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis on the Essence of Freedom and the Two Elements of Self-Transcendence

How People Change: Psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis on the Essence of Freedom and the Two Elements of Self-Transcendence

“All that you touch you Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change,” Octavia Butler wrote in her poetic insistence that “God is Change.” And yet, dragged by the momentum of our lives, we ossify into identities and habit-loops, harder and harder to reconfigure, more and more haunted by the paradox of personal transformation. If we are not careful enough, not courageous enough, we may cease believing that change is possible, thus relinquishing the deepest meaning of faith and of freedom; we may forget what Virginia Woolf well knew: that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”

How to remember this redemptive truth and live it is what the psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis (October 23, 1915–June 14, 2007) explores in his 1973 book How People Change (public library) — a field guide to navigating the landscape of the psyche when “the theories with which we have mapped the soul don’t help.”

Wheelis captures the universal undertow of our aching longing for change:

Sometimes we suffer desperately, would do anything, try anything, but are lost, see no way. We cast about, distract ourselves, search, but find no connection between the misery we feel and the way we live. The pain comes from nowhere, gives no clue. We are bored, nothing has meaning; we become depressed. What to do? How to live? Something is wrong but we cannot imagine another way to live which would free us.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

At the heart of the book is Wheelis’s roadmap to freedom, contoured by the negative space around it — our stubborn, scared resistance to change. He writes:

Personality is a complex balance of many conflicting claims, forces, tensions, compunctions, distractions, which yet manages somehow to be a functioning entity. However it may have come to be what it is, it resists becoming anything else. It tends to maintain itself, to convey itself onward into the future unaltered. It may be changed only with difficulty. It may be changed from within, spontaneously and unthinkingly, by an onslaught of physiological force, as in adolescence. It may be changed from without, again spontaneously and unthinkingly, by the force of unusual circumstance, as in a Nazi concentration camp. And sometimes it may be changed from within, deliberately, consciously, and by design. Never easily, never for sure, but slowly, uncertainly, and only with effort, insight, and a kind of tenacious creative cunning.


We create ourselves. The sequence is suffering, insight, will, action, change.

A century after William James admonished in his landmark treatise on the psychology of habit that “we are spinning our own fates,” Wheelis observes that our personality is defined by our recursive actions, that “we are what we do,” that “identity is the integration of behavior.” He writes:

Action which has been repeated over and over… has come in time to be a coherent and relatively independent mode of behavior… Such a mode of action tends to maintain itself, to resist change. A thief is one who steals; stealing extends and reinforces the identity of thief, which generates further thefts, which further strengthen and deepen the identity. So long as one lives, change is possible; but the longer such behavior is continued the more force and authority it acquires, the more it permeates other consonant modes, subordinates other conflicting modes; changing back becomes steadily more difficult.


We are wise to believe it difficult to change, to recognize that character has a forward propulsion which tends to carry it unaltered into the future, but we need not believe it impossible to change. Our present and future choices may take us upon different courses which will in time comprise a different identity… The identity defined by action is not, therefore, the whole person. Within us lies the potentiality for change, the freedom to choose other courses.

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In consonance with James Baldwin’s reckoning with how we imprison ourselves and his disquieting insistence that “people are as free as they want to be,” Wheelis considers the difficulty of finding and owning our range of freedom amid the tug of momentum and the limitations of circumstance:

Often we do not choose, but drift into those modes which eventually define us. Circumstances push and we yield. We did not choose to be what we have become, but gradually, imperceptibly, became what we are by drifting into the doing of those things we now characteristically do. Freedom is not an objective attribute of life; alternatives without awareness yield no leeway… Nothing guarantees freedom. It may never be achieved, or having been achieved, may be lost. Alternatives go unnoticed; foreseeable consequences are not foreseen; we may not know what we have been, what we are, or what we are becoming. We are the bearers of consciousness but of not very much, may proceed through a whole life without awareness of that which would have meant the most, the freedom which has to be noticed to be real. Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and of the ability to choose. It is contingent upon consciousness, and so may be gained or lost, extended or diminished.

Wheelis cautions against our most common delusion: that insight alone produces change. Insight, rather, is what aims the vector of change, but we move along it by the force of action. But the very possibility of action presupposes the freedom to act — a notion difficult to reconcile with a universe in which free will may well be an illusion and every outcome may well have been set by the first flinch of the Big Bang. And yet even within necessity — the predetermined limitations and constraints within which we must live our lives — there exists a range of freedom to move one way or another inside the bounds. Wheelis considers what mediates the relationship between necessity and freedom, which in turn shapes our capacity for change:

Throughout our lives the proportion of necessity to freedom depends upon our tolerance of conflict: the greater our tolerance the more freedom we retain, the less our tolerance the more we jettison; for high among the uses of necessity is relief from tension. What we can’t alter we don’t have to worry about; so the enlargement of necessity is a measure of economy in psychic housekeeping… Tranquility, however, has risks of its own. As we expand necessity and so relieve ourselves of conflict and responsibility, we are relieved, also, in the same measure, of authority and significance.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

He cautions against our tendency to reduce the feeling of conflict by constructing our own bounds of necessity — routines, habits, and rigidities that deliberately limit our degrees of freedom in order for life to feel more controllable — but cautions equally against the total absence of structure and control, which unravels life not into freedom but into chaos:

For some people necessity expands cancerously, every possibility of invention and variation being transformed into inflexible routine until all freedom is eaten away. The extreme in psychic economy is an existence in which everything occurs by law. Since life means conflict, such a state of living is death. When, in the other direction, the area of necessity is too much diminished we become confused, anxious, may be paralyzed by conflict, may reach eventually the extreme of panic.

Change becomes possible when we correctly calibrate necessity and freedom. If we are living solely in necessity, if we are conscious solely of the constraints upon our lives, we feel that nothing is possible; but if within the constraint we come to see two possible courses of action, we are living in freedom. At the heart of it is the freedom to change. Wheelis writes:

When dealing with ourselves the constraining force seems inviolable, a solid wall before us, as though we really “can’t,” have no choice; and if we say so often enough, long enough, and mean it, we may make it so. But when we then look about and observe others doing what we “can’t” do we must conclude that the constraining force is not an attribute of the environing world, not the way things are, but a mandate from within ourselves which we, strangely, exclude from the “I.”


The more we are strong and daring the more we will diminish necessity in favor of expending freedom. “We are responsible,” we say, “for what we are. We create ourselves. We have done as we have chosen to do, and by so doing have become what we are. If we don’t like it, tomorrow is another day, and we may do differently.

Echoing Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Wheelis adds:

In every situation, for every person, there is a realm of freedom and a realm of constraint. One may live in either realm. One must recognize the irresistible forces, the iron fist, the stone wall — must know them for what they are in order not to fall into the sea like Icarus — but, knowing them, one may turn away and live in the realm of one’s freedom… However small the area of freedom, attention and devotion may expand it to occupy the whole of life.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Looking back on his own life, shaped by his father’s cruelty, Wheelis reflects:

Those insights which so convincingly portray my life as determined enable me to intervene in that causality, to bring it about that those forces which necessarily made me what I am, and held me so long in that being, no longer achieve this end. The demonstration of necessity is simultaneously the proof of freedom.


I have taken a segment of experience, A (my present way of life, its isolation, its anxieties), as an object for investigation. The investigation itself has now become another segment of my experience, B (a body of insight into the causal relations between my present way of life and remote encounters with my father). The first segment, A, appeared free at the beginning of the second segment, B. Now, the second segment having come into being, the first segment is seen as determined, the necessary outcome of childhood conditioning. Yet the proof by B that the apparent freedom of A was illusory, that A was in fact determined, has now the effect of creating a real freedom in A: the understanding of how something was necessarily brought about becomes the means to change it.

Observing that our mental universe, just like the physical universe, is an ever-expanding open system, Wheelis echoes Simone de Beauvoir’s insight into how chance and choice converge to make us who we are and adds:

Being the product of conditioning and being free to change do not war with each other. Both are true. They coexist, grow together in an upward spiral, and the growth of one furthers the growth of the other. The more cogently we prove ourselves to have been shaped by causes, the more opportunities we create for changing. The more we change, the more possible it becomes to see how determined we were in that which we have just ceased to be.

What makes a battleground of these two points of view is to conceive of either as an absolute which excludes the other. For when the truth of either view is extended to the point of excluding the truth of the other it becomes not only false but incoherent. We must affirm freedom and responsibility without denying that we are the product of circumstance, and must affirm that we are the product of circumstance without denying that we have the freedom to transcend that causality to become something which could not even have been previsioned from the circumstances that shaped us.

Art by Ping Zhu from The Snail with the Right Heart

Nowhere is the urgency of change more palpable, more propulsive, than in those moments when life seems to have cornered us into a state of struggle — that evolutionary signal that something is not working and we must avert course in order to break free from our entrapment. Wheelis considers how harmonizing freedom and necessity illuminates the most fertile attitude in such a circumstance:

In a condition of struggle and failure we must be able to say “I must try harder” or “I must try differently.” Both views are essential; neither must take precedence by principle. They are analogous to the view of man as free and the view of man as determined. The two do not contend, but reflect the interaction between man and his environment. A change in either makes for a change in outcome. When we say “I must try harder” we mean that the most relevant variable is something within us — intention, will, determination, “meaning it” — and that if this changes, the outcome, even if everything else remains unchanged, will be different. When we say “I must try differently” we mean that the most relevant variable lies in the situation within which intention is being exerted, that we should look to the environment, to the ways it pushes and pulls us, and in this study find the means to alter that interaction.

What emerges from this twining is the ultimate payoff of personal transformation. In a sentiment Rebecca Solnit would echo in her haunting observation that “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation,” Wheelis writes:

This is self-transcendence, a process of change that originates in one’s heart and expands outward, always within the purview and direction of a knowing consciousness, begins with a vision of freedom, with an “I want to become…,” with a sense of the potentiality to become what one is not. One gropes toward this vision in the dark, with no guide, no map, and no guarantee. Here one acts as subject, author, creator.

In consonance with the pioneering psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s credo that “to redeem one person is to redeem the world,” Wheelis captures the heart of the matter:

What have we to go on? What to cling to? That people may change, that one person can help another. That’s all. Maybe that’s enough.

Couple How People Change with the century-old gem A Life of One’s Own, then revisit Keith Haring on our resistance to change and Anne Lamott on our capacity for it.

Published July 4, 2023




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