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The Six Saboteurs of Self Change

Sometimes change isn't as easy as you think.

Every time I teach my social psychology class, I begin by asking students to engage in a fairly powerful exercise adopted from cognitive and behavioral psychology and neuro-linguistic programing (NLP).

I essentially ask them to identify one aspect of themselves that they’d like to make a change in – be it their diet, their relationship status, their study habits, their relationship with God, their status as a smoker, a cutter, a purger, etc. I let them pick the topic, the process remains the same.

I begin by asking them to get really clear on what the desired change is and – in particular – how it relates to how they see themselves. I then ask them to put it in an identity statement, stated in the positive: I am a healthy person, I am a regular exerciser, I am an organized student, I am someone who loves and cares for my body.  

In order to tap into the full range of motivation, I also ask them to get real on why they want that change to happen. I ask them: How much better could things possibly get if this actually occurred? I also ask: how bad could things possibly get if it doesn’t?

We then think of all of their objections to making the change and create affirmations that will help counter those objections.

One common objection is: I don’t have time to...[you fill in the blank].

To counter that, I have them say – every day – “I am [insert desired future identity, here] and I have all the time in the world.”

Once they understand their desired outcome (that is, their future self), their leverage, and the affirmations that were designed specifically to counter their conscious and subconscious objections, I let them go from class.

During the course of the term, I check in and see how things are going; but I don’t hassle them about it. Assuming I am doing it with them, I may report on my own progress.

One term, when I was suffering from a severe case of professional procrastination, one my personal mantras was: “I am a published textbook author and it is fun!”

Their final paper assignment, due some ten weeks later, is simply to tell me how they did. They must take four or five of the social psychological theories that we discussed in class – affect control theory, status expectations states, reference group theory, etc., – or some concept – role strain, role conflict, stigma, etc. – and explain their results.

Whether they succeeded or failed in their personal goal – in creating their future self – is irrelevant. Indeed, some of the best papers come from students who failed miserably, but, who in the course of their failure, understood why. Undoubtedly these students, perhaps even more so than those who “succeeded” end up knowing that they will need to do in the future in order to make that desired, future self, a realized part of their day to day identity.

Having run this course exercise this a number of times, here are the six biggest reasons why people fail to realize their desired future selves:

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  1. Lack of Commitment. This is often the case when they picked something because someone else was doing it or they did it to make someone else happy. It practically goes without saying, but changing for someone else – without fully adopting it for yourself – is pretty much a waste of time.
  2. Role-strain. Within social psychological theory, a role is a set of rights and obligations that are tied to a given social position. A social position – say, a student, a wife, a father, etc. – refers to a position within a broader social network, such as a school or a family. Role-strain is likely to occur when the demands within one social position become too much. So, students who decided to do better in one class, for example, often failed because they had so many other demands associated with being a student. Similarly, a son who decides to spend more time with one parent, may get some pushback from the other.
  3. Role-conflict. Unlike role-strain – which occurs due to overcommitment within one social position – role-conflict occurs when the rights and obligations of one position interfere with the rights and obligations of another position. So, for example, if your future self is a more loving and committed boyfriend, that may have a negative impact on some of your other obligations (that is, studying, if you are also a student; practicing, if you are also an athlete; or parenting, if you are also a parent). Role-conflict is a big one, one that often manifests itself in terms of exhaustion, irritability, and, eventually, burn out.
  4. Who we think we are. According to most versions of identity theory, we, as individuals, have a pretty good idea who we are – that is, what kind of person we are, what we like to do, and how good we are at the things that we do. When we fail to match our expectations of the kind of person we are – even if we surpass them – we experience “deflection” (often experienced as unease or as some form of emotion). Identity theories within social psychology predict that in order to reduce these feelings caused by deflection, we often do whatever we can (consciously or subconsciously) to bring our circumstances back in line with our expectations – or identity. This identity mechanism is the core of what Gay Hendrick’s, PhD, identified as an Upper Limiting problem in his bestselling book, The Big Leap. According to Hendricks, one way to get past this type of problem is to expand our capacity for pleasure. Learning to lean into the feeling, Hendricks suggests, will prevent you from engaging in self-sabotage, whether it’s gaining that fifteen pounds again, flunking an exam in one class after getting an A in another, losing the email of that amazing woman you just met at Starbuck’s, or ending up broke six months after winning the lottery.
  5. Failed expectations. People make the change and it doesn’t end up like they thought it would. I remember one student in particular, who decided to become a better listener in order to become a better leader. Social chair of his fraternity and co-captain of the rugby team, he was surprised to realize that his silence was looked down upon by his brothers and teammates – to the point where he found himself losing social status within his network (see #6 below). Needless to say, once he realized what was happening, he went back to being his normal boisterous self. Social psychologist Ellen Granberg (Clemson University) says that it’s important to be very clear on what your desired outcomes are and how they match your strategies. It’s also important to make your outcomes reasonable (that is, accepting that losing 15 pounds or finding that special someone isn’t going to fix all of your problems) and to be willing to alter your expectations whenever necessary so that you won’t backslide in the case where your goal was met  (that is, losing 15 pounds) even if your expectations (that is, getting a lot of male attention or getting that promotion) were not.   
  6. Lack of social support. Social psychologists, not to mention most coaches, are well aware that our reference groups matter. One of the best ways to ensure success in self-change is to change your reference group. Our ideas about what is possible, what is desirable, and what is worth whatever sacrifices they may entail are shaped – consciously and subconsciously – by those closest to us. It’s much easier to stop smoking when your daily routines don’t involve meeting your friends for a smoke, and to eat healthier when your friends are doing the same. How many times have you annoyed a friend or family member by dropping a habit they themselves still held dear? Although it may seem coldhearted, changing your reference group doesn’t necessarily mean dropping your friends along with your shared bad habits. For example, you might simply want to add new people into your friendship group who already have the habits in place that you want to adopt.


Self-change is hard. It’s hard because there are psychological mechanisms in place – identity-level mechanisms – that privilege consistency over change, not to mention pleasure over pain. There are also social mechanisms in place, such as our obligations to and our relationships with others. In order to increase the likelihood of creating change that lasts – to create that desired future self and have it stick – it’s vitally important to deal with both.

I often receive emails from former students who, for all intents and purposes, “failed” in creating the change that they desired. Without exception, these messages contain new tales of success and the understanding that the time they took to reflect on their prior  “failure” had turned into a resource for their ability to create change in the present.

Because, as humans, we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, we tend to run from our failures. We try something, we fail, and we never look back. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, try, fail, look back, and take notes. That way, when you try again (or when you try something else) you’ll have a much better idea of what went wrong, and what really needs to change in order to move forward.
 


Kathryn Lively, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Dartmouth College and is co-author of Selves, Symbols, and Social Reality.

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