Overcoming Obstacles to Change: Part 1

Beat internal resistance with insight.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

Peter wants to stop his back pain. He’s paid for expensive physiotherapy, but somehow never finds the time to do his exercises.

Suzie is constantly frustrated by her inability to quit smoking. She joins the other smokers outside on every lunch break.

Sanjiv wants to address his tendency to ruminate, as he knows it contributes to his depression. He knows that he feels better when he sees his friends, and yet he ignores their calls.

Geralt/Pixabay. CCO Creative Commons
Source: Geralt/Pixabay. CCO Creative Commons

If these scenarios sound familiar, you are not alone: At times we all behave in ways we’d like to change. Even when we know what we should do instead, most of us struggle to make and sustain positive changes.

Change is really really hard. Were it easy, there would be no demand for the $10 billion self-help industry offering quick fixes. 

But why on earth is it so difficult? Just what is going on? Typically, we procrastinate or start but fail to sustain change after a couple of days, and then berate ourselves for not sticking to our resolutions.

A crucial, but usually overlooked, factor is that all behavior — even when apparently undesirable on the surface — makes sense and performs some useful function given our current view of the world. Our ‘bad’ behavior is good for us in some way. Attempts to change a behavior, without an awareness of its real role in our lives, leave us with a gap in our tool set for coping with the world. Thus we tend to revert to the status quo.

Let’s look at what Peter, Suzie and Sanjiv might be getting from their unwanted behaviors.

Peter’s back pain may get him attention and care.  It might make him feel special or give him something to talk about.  It might give him excuses to avoid work or certain activities and responsibilities.

Suzie’s smoking may give her a sense of community with other smokers, or support her identity as a rebel.  It may also be the only way to get a break from work.

Sanjiv’s depression may protect his self-esteem by giving him an ‘excuse’ for not achieving, or it may have become central to his identity.  He may feel that ruminating is helpful and ‘doing something useful’, or it may protect him from really facing his role in his problems.

JohnHain/Pixabay.  CCO Creative Commons
Source: JohnHain/Pixabay. CCO Creative Commons

Looked at in this way, it’s easy to see that changing behavior ‘for the better’ - through improved health, stopping smoking, or reducing rumination -  could in fact open Peter, Suzie and Sanjiv up to the expectation of ‘personal threats’ such as the loss of attention, or community or identity. No wonder we resist change...

How then can we move forward? 

Understanding why we function the way we do is a start. 

As children we develop our own individual idiosyncratic ways of understanding the world, and what is required of us. One key idea from psychologist Albert Adler was that whilst children are excellent observers, they are poor interpreters, and make mistakes in understanding how best to get what we want.  However, these mistaken beliefs and goals come to form the basis for our actions, just as our more reasonable conclusions do.

Peter may have concluded he needs to be ill to be valued, or that he must be perfect - and thus needs an excuse to explain why he isn’t. For Suzie, smoking may been how she showed she was ‘cool’ or different to others in her strict family, whilst Sanjiv may have learnt to use rumination to block more difficult feelings.

Such beliefs led to behavior that served them well at some point, but now creates resistance to moving to more objectively positive and constructive behaviors.  If we want real behavioral change, we need to modify underlying beliefs, and find better ways to satisfy our needs.

It’s not always easy to do this psychological work alone, as what seems reasonable to us depends on our existing beliefs, so can be self-justifying. Therefore a therapist may be needed to help unpick deep-seated beliefs. 

However, the following sort of questions may get us started:

  • Do I really want to make the change I say I want to? I.e. what am I attached to in my current behavior.
  • What are my fears if I make this change? What will I lose or open myself up to?
  • Do I (honestly) want to make the effort required to make this change?

Sometimes, with a little introspection we realize that the goal of a behavior is completely misguided making it easier to drop, and psychologically more difficult to maintain.  For example, Peter might realize ‘it’s ridiculous to think I need to be ill to be valued’. Or we might realize that although we’ve paid lip-service to wanting to change, it’s actually not the priority right now.

At other times, by focusing on barriers to change, or fears if we do change, we reveal something about the motivations and role of the behavior we wish to change. We can then begin to identify better ways of achieving goals such as getting attention or being accepted or building self esteem.

Geralt/Pixabay.  CCO Creative Commons
Source: Geralt/Pixabay. CCO Creative Commons

Focusing on adding more constructive ‘replacement’ behaviors, is often the key to reducing an unwanted behavior.  In general, moving towards an outcome is a much more successful strategy for change than moving away from something unwanted. I explore reasonable goals that take our neuroscience and psychology into account in Part 2 of this three-part blog series on making change happen.

It should  be clear that changing ourselves is a complicated business, which often demands we challenge our deeply buried beliefs and reward systems.  We should be kinder to ourselves when we find it so very hard: there is rarely a quick fix. Unfortunately, we tend to beat ourselves up instead. 

To change, we have to learn how to be our own cheerleaders rather than our own bullies, which will be the focus of Part 3. We need to learn to say to ourselves: ‘come out for a lovely walk!’, not ‘get off the couch you lazy slob!’ ... Being bullied (by anyone) is a recipe for reduced energy, low mood, and failure, and will not help anyone change for the better.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, so please do join in the conversation below.