Why do we often maintain such a strong grip on our old, unwanted ways?
What blocks many of us from being able to tap well-researched, sound advice?
This is how I began my first blog (Finding the right path to change) in July 2009. As I explained then, I began this blog to "chronicle my continued journey into making sense of the diverse (and sometimes seemingly conflicting) psychological research, theory, and wisdom that relates to personal change." I also expressed my hope that I would gain some wisdom that I could pass along in the form of a book. Now, as I complete my book proposal, it's time to come back to these questions.
When direct ways of approaching change fail, it helps to understand what it is about people that blocks such change. Although there are innumerable ways of doing this, I have found the following line of thinking to be helpful:
Fulfilling psychological needs
People are born into the world needing caregivers, usually parents, to ensure that they survive. Most people accept that infants need parents for physical survival, but often don't realize that they also need warmth and nurturing for their psychological survival. In fact, infants who are given the basics of food and shelter, but are not held or comforted, can eventually die from the neglect; they are what we call failure-to-thrive babies.
Parents help their children fulfill three basic psychological needs (according to self-determination theory). As I explain these needs, please remember that people are driven to satisfy them at least enough for psychological survival, just as they are driven to eat or drink sufficiently for physical survival.
Relatedness: As early as their first interactions, infants begin to form connections and attachments with their parents that will underlie their social relationships for the rest of their lives.
Autonomy: Importantly, when parent-child relationships are healthy, children feel valued for who they are, not just what they can offer others. As a result, they can fulfill the need for autonomy; acting in accordance with what feels right for them, expressing their interests and living by their values.
Competence: People have a need to gain a sense of mastery in the world.
Developing an identity
While people try to meet these psychological needs in childhood, they are also compelled to continue meeting them through life. To do this, people develop a working model that they carry within them. This model is what we call people's identities; it's how they know who they are. And, people rely on them so they don't need to rediscover each morning who they are and how to best meet their psychological and physical needs.
How identity blocks change
In order to rely on their identities, people must see them as stable. Of course, people are not always that consistent. Sometimes they are honest... but sometimes they fib. Sometimes they are extremely capable... but sometimes they screw up. So, how do they handle this inconsistency? They develop complex ways to support what they already believe about themselves. In fact, they have an unconscious pull to continue to see themselves and to function in established ways; in psychological terms, they self-verify.
As a result, people often work against themselves when they want to change - and they can't even see themselves doing it. As a result, they are frustrated and confused by their repeated failures to change - for instance, the dieter who repeatedly overeats; the woman with low self-esteem who can't seem to feel more positively about herself; and, the man who has a string of bad relationships.
Breaking free of old patterns
The big problem here is that people either don't actually see the pull to repeat old patterns; or don't know how to break free. And, the answer to breaking the logjam is to balance increased self-awareness with a compassionate way of responding to yourself as you explore. I call the combination of these two factors compassionate self-awareness.
After developing compassionate self-awareness, not only can people understand and relate better to themselves, but they can think differently about their efforts to change. They might see how they sabotaged or derailed previous efforts; perhaps making it worthwhile to return to those methods - but with a different attitude or approach. Or, with an understanding of where they are stuck and what they need, they might be better able to discern whether new programs or methods are likely to help.
I have explored all of these areas in the course of writing this blog. And, there is much to be learned and said about each of them. So, I will continue to address them in upcoming blogs, hopefully enlightening you about what you need to do to change; or enhancing your understanding of those around you. Eventually, you will be able to read about it all, clearly organized and expanded upon, in my yet-to-be-published book.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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