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There's Only One Way to Change: Slowly, Over Time

You've got to take it one step at a time

Speak to any quality psychotherapist, fitness trainer, nutritionist, financial advisor, organizational consultant, or AA sponsor—anyone in the change business—and they will tell you that the chief complaint of those trying to change their ways is, "Why does it have to take so long?" And the answer is: it just does. There are no shortcuts. Quick and easy may be appealing, but slow and steady win the race.

I think that one of the reasons why lasting change takes so much time is that there is an enormous pressure in the human psyche to maintain the status quo. The mind is like a rubber band; you can easily stretch it temporarily, but it snaps back to its resting position. We resist change.

People crave the familiar; we take refuge in what we know. There is a basic principle in the deep layers of the unconscious mind that sameness=safety and change=danger. This is why it so hard to break a habit, even if we know it is not good for us.

So the work of change requires us to overcome a misconception. We believe that we need the very thing we are trying to give up. This could be as obvious as the alcoholic believing he needs the drink or the abused woman believing she needs the abusive man. It can be more subtle, though, such as the depressed man believing he needs the depression to be cared for, or the worried woman believing she needs to worry in order to keep herself or her loved ones safe. Often, these beliefs are misconceptions, but they are held onto very tightly. And we can only detach from them, bit by bit, as we find a better reality to attach to—also, bit by bit.

Freud likened the change process to the successful work of mourning the death of a loved one. He observed that grief work does not happen overnight, all at once. Day by day, bit by bit, and painfully, the mourner works through each and every memory of his loved one. We naturally picture a future with our loved ones; when we lose them, we must let the picture of that future go, too. It is a slow, painful process. But if we are to recover from the loss and move forward, we go through this process. We don't want to do it. Sometimes we don't think we can do it. But we do it, one step at a time. Sometimes it feels like it will never end. But if we stick with it—if we keep facing the reality of our loss and the feelings that go with it—we are able to move forward.

In the work of changing ourselves, we must mourn the loss of our relationship to the old self. As in any love relationship, we have very strong ties to our old self. The old self is the center of our identity—it is all we have known. Even if we recognize that there is something problematic that needs to change in this old way of being, we resist giving it up. Sometimes we shake our heads in the process. "Why am I doing this? This is insane. I can't handle my life without <insert dysfunctional version of old self here>. A bad day in the known is better than a good day in the unknown. I just can't move forward. It's a bad idea. I don't want to make things worse."

If we try to hurry up the change process, we don't work through these foundational struggles. We must go through a process of "buying in" to the value of the change. This idea is at the heart of many successful change strategies. Long-term success in weightloss includes small steps in the direction of "eat less and exercise more" so that the body and mind can adapt to a new equilibrium over time. Long-term successful organizational change involves incremental change in which members of the organization at every level are consulted and involved. Long-term financial success involves smart investing over time and the patience to stay engaged through the ups and downs. Long-term success in sobriety includes detaching from the drug and attaching to a new kind of support, one day at a time.

A quality psychotherapist, coach, or partner will hang in there with you through this slow, two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. We understand it is the nature of change. There is no other way to do it. Each step forward is a loss of the old way, and it involves grief and pain. Each step forward is a defiance of the misconception that sameness=safety. Each step forward is an act of faith in the idea that change might actually be a good thing.

And all of this takes determination, encouragement, and time.

Copyright 2011 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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