Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

Why Is Personal Change So Tough to Do?

Engage Three Levels of Change for Self-Improvement

Admit it.  You want to change something about yourself. You want to assert your opinions but you keep holding yourself back. You have a smoking habit that you still want to kick. You feel crippled by anxiety and want to feel emotionally fit. You procrastinate too much and want to act more productively. You are unhappy with the people you date, but keep putting off searching for a suitable mate.

If you are like millions of others, when it comes to making serious personal changes—the kind that can do you considerable good--you put on the brakes when you had better accelerate. Let’s explore why you might stop yourself and how to start and accelerate actions to make positive changes.

Change Blockers and Stoppers

There are many reasons why you may put off critical personal changes.  Here is a sampling:

  1. Sometimes you can trust your feelings. You may resist changes that don’t feel right. However, some emotions come from distorted thinking and your emotions drive you to avoid the very changes that you are likely to benefit the most from making.
  2. Anxieties over uncertainties can prompt a cycle where you repeat painful or unproductive patterns. You may have to teach yourself to explore uncertainty to become familiar with what you fear.
  3. If you believed that complex personal change should be both effortless and a complete metamorphosis, this expectation can lead to exasperation. You may have to separate false from realistic thinking about the costs and benefits in making a change, and strive for what is reasonable for you to attain.
  4. All humans have a built in tendency to approach what is easy and pleasurable and to avoid what is tough, tense, or painful. Sometimes you’ll need to reverse this natural tendency when doing what comes naturally is self-sabotaging. Procrastination, for example, comes easily. Change is challenging.
  5. We live in a blame culture where we’ve gone overboard with blaming and defending ourselves against blame. Daily, you’ll see many non-productive examples of denial, rationalizations, and defensive finger pointing—all to mitigate blame. At the same time, many who engage in defending themselves against blame, also value honesty and authenticity. What a paradox!
  6.  If you foreclose on yourself by thinking that you don’t deserve better, this view can lead to complacency procrastination or treading water because you don’t expect much for and from yourself.

Is it possible for you to get past these and other change barriers when the change that you have in mind is more important than the cost of breaching the barrier? If so, then let’s look at a three levels of change intervention to overcome interferences from change blockers and to get on your way to forge a stronger, confident, you.

A Work in Process

Personal change may be among your most challenging undertakings. Let’s look at how to make critical personal changes at practical, empirical, and core levels. By addressing the change at the most appropriate level(s) for you, you can better navigate the gap between where you are and where you would like to be.

At the practical level, you may use common sense techniques to realize the changes that you want to make. For example, you acquire information about the change you want to make, and that can help relieve tension about changing. You do specific things, such as logging your thoughts about the change. This mind mapping helps make your anti-change thinking visible. You test practical solutions, such as imagining an anxious thought vaporize like a puff of steam.

At the empirical level, you put on your scientist’s hat. Let’s say that you have erroneous expectations about changing that lead to exasperating delays. You want to contain, control, or eliminate them. Will recognizing and labeling erroneous expectations help defuse their emotional impact? If you want to procrastinate less, can you use a to do list to stay focused and get more done sooner?

At a core level, you deal with deeper and more personal issues. You might stymie yourself because of core problems, such as doubting yourself.  You might fear blame and duck doing what is clearly in your interest to do. Thus, you sacrifice your interests to avoid real or imaginary scoffing or censoring. Core conditions are changeable conditions. For example, Instead of doubting yourself you can doubt negative thoughts.

After reading the following two paragraphs, shut your eyes. Use the levels of change that best apply to you. Imagine advancing through the levels.  Here is an example:

  1. From a practical level, is it possible for you to seek information about the area that you want to change?
  2. At an empirical level, is it possible for you to think about your thinking, and non-judgmentally separate what is sensible from what is nonsense? 
  3. At a core level, if you believe that you can’t self-improve until you feel confident, and you doubt you’ll ever feel confident, you have an excuse for procrastinating. Now, what might you do to curtail that core belief?

With your eyes still shut, think about your strongest positive value. Let’s say that you value truth. Self-doubting is one of your core problems, and you decide to look truthfully at the issue. You find that you are foreclosing on your ability to change partially because you doubt that you can change.  After a bit of self-study, you conclude that having helplessness thoughts doesn’t mean that they are factual. This is an important step out of your self-doubt rut.  However, you won’t get far beyond the joys of enlightened self-revelation unless you translate this mental exercise into productive actions. That's an important step toward self-improvement.

If you value efficiency, taking on a core issue is efficient when you can positively impact other conditions that you’d also like to change. Practical, empirical, and core levels of change are transdiagnostic approaches, which mean that when applied to one problem area, this group of interventions can spread to interconnected problems. For example, if you have an oppressive anxiety you may also ruminate too much, doubt yourself, and feel depressed. By targeting a core issue, such as self-doubts or rumination, you can simultaneously decrease the others.

For more on overcoming procrastination, click on: The Procrastination Workbook

For more on overcoming anxiety, click on: The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety

Click on my  Change Procrastination blog on how to use five phases of change to self-improve.

Why is Personal Change So Tough to Do? is the first of a special three part series on personal change. The second is by assertiveness expert Dr. Bob Alberti, who gives you 13 positive tips for expressing yourself effectively. Bob's seminal work on expressing yourself effectively has profoundly influenced millions for the better. Click on Bob's   It's Not What You Say--It's How You Say It!. Click on top change expert Dr. John Norcross’Three Important Lessons for Making Critical Life Changes. John's seminal ideas on change helped revolutionize how people think about, make, and maintain meaningful changes.

© Dr. Bill Knaus. All Rights Reserved

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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