Why Is It So Hard to Change?

Holding onto old behaviors might have a purpose.

Posted Sep 05, 2018

“I know I’m not living up to my potential,” said Louise,* when she came to me for a consultation. “I’ve always had this problem. It’s like I just don’t want to do my best.” 

From the outside, it looked like Louise was doing pretty well. After graduating from college, she had gotten a job working for a small firm where she had steadily moved up the ranks, and now, at the age of twenty-nine, she had been offered a job at a larger organization with more pay, more responsibility, and more prestige. 

“I don’t even know if this is what I want to be doing with my life,” she said. “I’m not one of those girls who has spent her whole life longing to get married and have kids, but I’m also not someone who has her career planned out.”

She had been an excellent student and, from all of the evidence, was an excellent employee. Besides having an job at which she appeared to be quite successful, Louise had good friends and a steady boyfriend who was probably going to ask her to marry him sometime soon. “But I don’t even know if I want that,” she said. “I mean, do I love him? Yes, I think so. But is it the relationship I want for the rest of my life? I don’t know.”

What was going on here? There are always a number of possible answers to that question. Most difficulties in life are what psychoanalysts call “multiply determined,” which means exactly what it sounds like–many different factors go into making any problem. This was true for Louise, as it is for almost everyone I know. Even when you find a single, obvious explanation for a difficulty, it’s worthwhile to keep looking for other, less apparent reasons as well. Many of those quieter explanations play an important role in causing your troubles, and recognizing and understanding them can help you untangle the situation.

But I have learned over the years that I’ve worked as a psychotherapist that recognizing and understanding the reasons for any problem in life is only part of the work that you have to do to change. Changing behavior is an additional and important factor, and sometimes it’s harder to change behavior than we like to think. 

Many therapies look to do one or the other–change our understanding of what is going on, or change our behavior–but I’ve found that a mixture of understanding and changing is most successful over time, and a number of studies have found the same thing.  

But while it’s difficult enough to figure out why we behave in certain ways, it’s even harder to change old behavior patterns. Freud believed that all humans experience something he called “repetition compulsion,” which he saw as a biological need to repeat old behaviors. Neuroscientists have been finding evidence in recent years to back him up on this, suggesting that that neuropathways set themselves up in our brains and push us to keep doing the same behavior.  

But contemporary psychoanalysts and psychotherapists who focus on relational and attachment needs suggest that something about old connections to loved ones may be what keeps us going back to old patterns, even when they are dysfunctional.

Unfortunately, sometimes those explanations lead to a kind of parent-blaming, as when a young child I worked with in residential treatment explained why she had cursed out a childcare worker by saying, “I can’t help it. It’s the way my mom made me!” The explanation was cute in a child, but the staff felt that she needed to learn to take responsibility for her own behavior. They were right about it in her case, and they would have been even more correct in expecting it of adults. We can explain our behavior by the behavior of others, particularly important adults who help shape us as children. But we also have to find ways to take responsibility for those behaviors when we repeat them as adults ourselves.

Taking responsibility can include understanding where the difficulties originated, like in family patterns when we were children. But it also means understanding why we hold onto those patterns, and trying to figure out how to change them.

Change is Hard

There is no one right way to make change, but there are many possible paths and many different tools to help us get there. There are so many different kinds of therapies available that it’s hard to name them all, but this link to the Greater Washington Clinical Social Work Society tells you about several of them. I also describe a number of them in my book on integrative clinical social work. Psychotherapists can be licensed as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, marriage and family counselors, psychoanalysis, and can also sometimes practice without a license, so it’s important to find out what kind of training, experience, and license the therapist you choose has. This article explains some of the different kinds of degrees that psychotherapists have. 

Whatever kind of therapist you might decide to work with, though, it’s important to keep in mind that you have to take responsibility for the work. You have to be an active partner, what in therapy we often call an “agent” for yourself. 

And sometimes, simply discovering what that means is an important part of the change process. For example, as Louise and I continued to work together, we discovered that she had spent most of her life trying to do what she thought would please others – her parents when she was young, her teachers and friends as she got older, and then her bosses and her boyfriends as well. This desire to please made her a good girl, a good student, a good employee, and even, often, a good friend. But it didn’t help her know what she wanted, other than that she wanted everyone to like her. 

Source: 123rf/mimagephotography

As we talked about this problem, Louise and I began to see that she held onto the idea that if she did what other people wanted, she felt safe in the world. “If I do something because I want to do it, and it’s a mistake, then what’s going to happen?” she asked. 

I asked her if she could imagine some of the worst possibilities. "I’d feel stupid. I’d feel bad. I’d feel lonely." She thought that others would criticize and reject her. And she thought that she would be so critical of herself for any mistake that she would have to "give up. I’d just need to disappear.” Depending on others to make her decisions kept her from feeling like a whole, fully functioning adult; but it also made her feel safe from criticism. And it kept her feeling connected to those people she depended on. Louise didn’t suddenly make peace with her anxieties and become comfortable taking responsibility for herself after this discussion. We continued to talk about her fear of being rejected and her sense that no one would forgive her for making mistakes. We looked at these issues as they emerged in many different ways in many different parts of her life. This is something that therapists call "working through”–recognizing a pattern and then consistently revisiting it as it reappears, until, as Dr. Deborah Cabaniss at Columbia University puts it, understanding turns into a change in behavior. 

And this is what change is about. Whether you are working with a psychotherapist or practicing yoga or starting to meditate, you will be most successful if you can find a way to allow all of the different parts of yourself to join the process. And because many of these parts will not want to change, you will make the most progress if you recognize that change comes slowly, over time, through consistent and repeated effort. Success is only part of the process. Mistakes and failure are part too.

* Identifying info has been changed to protect privacy

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