Many of my patients have felt frustrated and discouraged when their sincere attempts to transform their lives did not produce the results they desired. Some were new seekers and others have been trying to improve their psychological, intellectual, and spiritual paths as far back as they can remember. Whatever their journeys, they have held in common a strong motivation and a significant commitment to change their lives. They also share the same bewilderment, “What stops me from making the changes I so want?”  

In my four decades as a therapist, I have lauded their patience and determination, and ached with them when they’ve felt stuck and disillusioned. In helping them to carefully examine every clue that might make their process more rewarding, I’ve accumulated a list of the nine most common “drag chutes” that seem to be the barrier culprits. When I share them with my patients, they are more able to leave those obstacles to change behind and overcome the obstacles that have held them back.

Some of these limitations to personal transformation are buried within the psyche, often from unresolved traumas from the past. They require some hard digging to uncover. Others may just be just bad habits or unchallenged rituals that emerge without conscious intent and merely exposing them can have both positive and rapid results. For many people, these barriers are simply manifestations of old rebellious responses that no longer apply, but still hold sway over more productive behaviors. Exorcising these past, internalized enemies can be a difficult task but very doable.

The hardest obstacles are self-destructive patterns that seem to have a life of their own, resisting even the most ardent challenges. To eradicate those imbedded behaviors, people must be willing to look at how they originally evolved, why they are still manifesting, and what new, more positive behaviors should replace them.

No matter what their origin, resistant barriers to change are dangerous impediments that keep us from becoming who we want to be. Recognized and identified, they can be significantly diminished.

The Nine Most Common Barriers to Change

1) Is it Your Own Path to Self-Actualization or Someone Else’s Wish for You?

Many people begin their therapeutic journey because someone they care about thinks they should. Somewhere along the way, they’ve lost themselves while trying hard to be what others want them to be. When they are asked what their desires are, they talk about someone else’s wish for them. When they are reassured that this should be their own personal journey, they defer, offering that they trust other people’s opinions more than their own.

Valiantly, they continue to go after goals that disintegrate despite their strong commitments and intense efforts. When they fail, they blame themselves for not trying hard enough. It does not seem to occur to them to challenge the people who define them, or to look for another path that is more their own.

Listen to your inner voice when you desire to evolve into someone you like better. When you try, do you hear opposing opinions of past authorities who tried to mold you in their images? Could you now speak your authentic truth to them and hold that boundary?

Trying to become someone you are not meant to be is a daunting task. If you are lucky, your inherent desire to self-actualize will keep you on task. If you are not, you may end up repeating inauthentic relationships designed to please your partners at the risk of your own integrity. If that has been a pattern for you, you may need a good professional to guide you. Ultimately you must develop your own voice even if it means risking your current relationship.

2) Do you resist challenging your preconceptions?

From the time you were born, the people who raise you have influenced your beliefs and behaviors. As a young child, you could not have challenged those teachings. Young children want approval and validation and take those teachings as gospel. As you progressed through life, some of those internalized beliefs will have been challenged by new experiences. In working through those conflicts, you most likely have dropped some of those early biases but held on to others that either still worked for you, were unquestioned, or too risky to give up.

As you realize that some of those tenets have not produced what you were promised they would, you may have wondered whether you should still live by them. Those well-intended biases have now become “drag chutes” that are keeping you from living the life you want. The partners you’ve chosen may have different beliefs and expected you to see the world the way they do. Out of fear that they may leave the relationship, you may have tried to give up old patterns but found yourself helplessly sliding back to familiar behaviors.

If you feel held back by what you thought was the right way to think and act, ask yourself whether the people who taught them to you are worth emulating. Look around to those you admire and ask yourself if they hold the same beliefs. Facing the fear of not belonging to the past takes courage, but may be necessary if you want to grow beyond it.

3) Are you looking at new options with a pessimistic eye?

If you’ve had many hurtful experiences in your life, you may have slipped into the dangerous abyss of cynicism and bitterness. Those feelings create a pre-defeat that can make new possibilities harder to see. Faith that change is possible fills the gap between old ways and new options.

Allowing the past sorrows to determine future limitations is a one-way path to staying stuck. Some people have had incredible heartaches and seem to continue believing that the next possibility will be better. Others are too afraid to try again, and spend their lives waiting for a guaranteed result that may never come. People with negative expectations often attract “cheer leaders,” people who try hard to make them happy. When they are unable to change the situation, they move on, leaving the pessimistic person more convinced that joy is not in the cards for them.

Do not judge yourself negatively if you have a hard time believing in a better future. It is equally important to understand that what we think will happen often determines what does happen because we only see what we expect to see. Watch for your first reactions to any new opportunity. If your attitude is “Nothing ventured, nothing lost,” consider exploring the options more completely first. Honest investigation is not commitment, rather the only the option to gain more knowledge before giving up.

4) Are your basic personality characteristics holding you back?

There are several personality patterns that make transformation a hard path to take. Some have been made worse by trauma and others are just part of your genetic package. Some are mild but reinforced through the teachings of others. All basic personality traits are harder to change, but they can manifest at different levels depending on the situation.

Taking the time to assess how you characteristically respond to new possibilities will help you understand what motivates you to go forward or holds you back. Research shows that just being aware of your typical reactions can give you the option to change them.

The basic personality traits that most often hold people back from transformation are anxiety, depression, inertia, insecurity, dependency, impatience, compulsion, and need. No matter how hard a person understands the need for change, he or she may be facing barriers that are very hard to scale. People who are anxious, for instance, feel a need for a predictable security. Though that may be an illusion, they at least think they can control their lives if they just don’t take many chances. Chronically depressed people are out of fuel. Though they may want desperately to change, the very act of doing something different may be too exhausting. A low frustration tolerance may make the waiting for rewards unbearable and deep-seated needs for nurturing or escape can be too much to overcome.

Personality characteristics do wax and wane depending on how much satisfaction or heartbreak you may be experiencing at the time. They also may have positive parts of them as well that you will not want to give up. You can learn how to predict your responses and practice more successful ways of expressing who you are. With the right guidance, many people modulate or transform behaviors that have lost them options in the past.

5) What habits and rituals keep you from moving on?

Throughout life, you have explored, sorted, chosen, and adapted patterns of behavior as a result of traumas, opportunities, attachments, desires, frustrations, accomplishments, and failures. If you’ve been conscious of the choices you’ve made and worked at not letting the past automatically define the future, you have, hopefully, changed those patterns for the better.

Unfortunately, most habits and rituals are formed unconsciously, taught by a particular culture, or current reactions to situations. They often take hold without much thought or intent. Then they are reinforced by repeated behaviors and settle in to limit new options.

“What if I didn’t do that,” or “I wonder how my life would be if I just didn’t give in to that, “ or “Is what I’m doing really making my life easier or better,” are good starting questions to eliminate energy-wasting ways. It is not easy to let go of what feels familiar and takes little thought to keep doing. Most people are more willing to let go of an old behavior when a new one seems possible, but find it harder without that option. Yet, real change often only happens when people let the past go and allow the future to form in its place.

Habits and ritual behaviors take less energy, but that doesn’t mean they predict the best outcomes. Choosing to live a conscious, intentional life may, at first, seem like a lot of work, but, at least, you will not be locked into a past that endlessly repeats itself.

6) Are you living with unconscious or suppressed pain?

In my practice, I often see people doing everything right to create a better life, but keep falling back into ineffective, over-used thought patterns and behaviors. In digging a little deeper, it has become apparent that they are being held back by unresolved past trauma that they have been unable to share or heal.

It is natural for people to try to process heart-breaking events, whether by reaching out to others for nurturing and support, or by going inward to compensate for the forced adjustment. Many people bury trauma and for totally understandable reasons. Perhaps they have been turned away when they needed someone. Or reliving the grief may just be too hard. Maybe they just have never been able to put into words how deeply they’ve been damaged. Sometimes it is just easier to pretend the heartbreak didn’t happen and try to live a better life without thinking about it. Unfortunately, suppressed distress becomes sealed off by an emotional wall and forced into the unconscious. Yet it still drives people to alter their life choices for fear of a returning sorrow.

Suppressed pain can fester, becoming an invisible barrier to future options. Once forced underground, it resists unearthing because of the pain that is re-experienced. Yet, to leave it means that the energy required to keep it at bay can steal a person’s life force. Transformation takes purpose and commitment. That process requires emotional and physical fuel. People who are determined to change often find themselves wanting to finally get to the core of prior traumas in hopes that process will release the energy they need.

7) Are you frightened of taking risks?

Fear of risk-taking can be both inborn and affected by environmental rewards or punishments. Even anxious children can be coerced into new behaviors. If they have not been too broken, they will feel triumphant when they overcome prior barriers. When they break those fear barriers over and over again, they build a greater willingness to go through them again.

As people go from relationship to relationship, they hover between the need for security and the love of novelty. Security fulfills their sense of mattering to another and the comfort of being included. The love of novelty satisfies a basic human need for excitement and adventure.

Intimate partners who hold back when new opportunities present themselves opt for security over new possibilities. They are willing to emotionally endlessly “rearrange the furniture” but are more wary of taking the risks that might give the relationship a real chance to transform. If they continue to let opportunities for adventurous decisions go by, they may end up bored with their predictable patterns. Boredom is a dangerous saboteur of any long-term relationship. It can take many forms, but usually ends up with one or both partners seeking excitement outside the relationship. Any major transfer of energy from the relationship to a new possibility can threatens the partnership over time.

I have asked hundreds of people to go back in time and remember a pivotal decision they had made in the past. I query them with “If you could go back in time, knowing then what you know now, would you have made the same decision? If not, would you have chosen to take a more conservative route or taken a greater risk?”

Only one person out of all those I’ve queried has told me he would have opted for more security. All the others, in retrospect, would have taken more risks. I ask them to go ahead in time and ask themselves what decisions they are making now and if they will regret these decisions in that future. Though their answers are somewhat varied, the essence is the same. Knowing that truth, they tell me they will opt for more risks in the present.

8) Are you just too tired or stressed to make the changes you want at this time?

Life can cost, and for some people, a lot. They can know what they need to do to change, and even how to do it, but they just don’t have the energy or resources to make those transitions. They are often caught in a painful dilemma. They can see a better way but can’t yet do what they need to do to accomplish it.

Stress is very exhausting in and of itself, and can come from many sources. Chronic illness, loss of employment, deaths of loved ones, diminishing options, and life’s unpredictable demands are all barriers to transformation. When people are depleted over a long period of time, they resort to less-than-optimum habits and rituals that have worked in the past.

Exhausted people reach out to others to support them, or retreat into non-involvement in order to conserve the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual resources they still have. If there is no one trusted to turn to, they may try to escape through alcohol or drugs, hoping they will feel better later. Sadly, those negative escapes tend to return them more dissipated and needing to escape more.

If you are exhausted and stressed, don’t put pressure on yourself to make difficult changes until you can get ahold of your strength again. And don’t allow yourself to be seduced by others who take advantage of you when you’re unable to speak your truth.

9) Are you frightened to leave the person you’ve known behind?

Though positive change may be wonderfully seductive, it does require that some of the ways you’ve thought and acted will no longer be part of your life. Ideally, you could weave everything you’ve done or thought into the new person you want to become, but some of those practices will become obsolete or oppositional to that goal.

Familiarity is a powerful motivator, even when it is not now, nor ever has been, good for you. You may find yourself resisting new options even when they have no negative downside, and wonder if your motivation is really enough to leave it behind.

Think of life as a hand of cards. You can only hold so many at one time. The ones you hold in the center are beloved and desirable to keep. The ones on the outside are replaceable and open being given if a better option emerges. Embracing what is possible but not yet realized takes courage and determination. Giving in to what is known is easier, but choosing to stay limited by the past will let every possibility for positive changes to go unclaimed.

The goal is to become the best person you can be given whatever positive or negative experiences you have experienced. Your assets to do that are your willingness to face uncertainty and to have faith in the process. Your liabilities are your attachments to what you’ve known, and your fear of what has not yet happened.

These nine barriers to change are all surmountable. It’s harder when you have many of them, but each triumph makes the others easier to conquer. Many of my patients have started out with more barriers than hope, and yet achieved their goals. The process of staying the course and not giving up brings a strength that most had not known they possessed.

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