What Leads to Lasting Change?

The path to to personal transformation

Posted Nov 18, 2013

Why is it so hard for people to make lasting changes in their lives? For one thing, change processes are still very much a mystery. On one level, change is pretty easy; the really hard part is making it last over time. 90% of attempts to stop a bad habit or even follow through on a New Year’s resolution will fail. One reason for this is that people have very unrealistic goals about what is feasible and realistic. They tend to overestimate their abilities or underestimate how challenging it will be to sustain their commitment. That’s why fitness clubs enjoy nice profits because the vast majority of the members pay their dues but rarely ever show up to work out.

There are also just so many cues in our normal environment that trigger prior behavior. And in spite of what many people might say, they are often threatened by change and may actually sabotage attempts to do so. I remember one couple in therapy in which the husband complained constantly about his wife being overweight yet when she tried to diet he would leave her favorite foods lying all over the house to tempt her. It turned out that he was actually afraid that if she became thinner and more attractive she would leave him (which might not have been inaccurate). There are, thus, certain benefits or secondary gains as a result of remaining stuck. You get to complain a lot, enjoy pity and sympathy from others, and externalize problems as the fault of things outside of your control—bad luck, poor genes, fate, or other people who won’t “let” you do what you want.

When are people most likely to make changes that will endure? It turns out that change is the most natural process in the world: everything is evolving all the time, even mountains are becoming bigger or smaller at a glacial pace. There are particular life transitions that require certain adaptations because of changes in the environment, family composition, and aging process. Boredom and restlessness lead to changes as well, when you become aware that you aren’t growing or learning anything new. Crises and traumas often lead to permanent changes that may have never been anticipated or chosen but can still lead to positive growth, especially if people become more appreciative of their relationships and gifts. Finally, when something is irrevocably broken beyond repair, it feels like there is no choice except to move in a different direction. Unfortunately, it can sometimes take years before sufficient courage and resources are developed to follow through on what you may know is required—whether to find another job, extricate yourself from a dysfunctional relationship, or develop new skills and abilities to deal with life challenges.

Another problem is that people are often clueless about what will really lead to greater satisfaction and happiness. There is so much research that consistently supports that income and material possessions beyond a minimal level doesn’t matter. Neither does where you live, or even your health. What matters most are intimate relationships with loved ones, some kind of meaningful work, and a certain resilience and flexibility. Most people have heard this before. They might even believe it’s true. But the remarkable thing is that it doesn’t much impact the compulsive drive to have more, do more, earn more. I’ve never heard people on their death bed confess that they wish that they had worked more hours or earned more money; most say that they wish they had spend more time with loves ones

What are the kinds of experiences that most lead to personal transformations?Since I train and supervise psychotherapists for a living you’d predict that I’d advocate therapy as the optimal path to salvation. And indeed therapy and other formal learning environments can be helpful but I’m also a big fan of any experience that forces people out of their comfort zone, that requires them to develop new resources and take constructive risks, that pushes them to reinvent themselves. That’s one reason why particular kinds of travel can be so impactful. I’ve interviewed people for decades asking them to tell me about a time in which they utterly transformed their lives and so often they mention times when they were lost—either figuratively or actually lost. When we are in a strange environment, when we can’t get our needs met in usual ways, when we are in unchartered territory, we are forced to access new and different resources within ourselves. This can initiate a cascade of changes once we return home. As many times I have been in therapy, or sought growth experiences, nothing has come close to the kinds of transformations that have occurred when I faced very challenging situations when traveling. It is when we are highly emotionally aroused that we are most vulnerable to our fears but also most willing to try something new.

It might also be surprising to learn that stories we hear and see also have a huge influence on the changes we might make. In a sense, stories represent simulated experiences in which we can live ten thousand other lives, imagine repelling zombies or an alien invasion, or crawl into the skin of others to learn more about their inner experiences. Our brains are actually storied organs that have evolved to hold onto memories and information primarily by connecting them to narratives. Think about a story that utterly changed your life or influenced who you are. Think about the characters from television, reality shows, movies, or books that inhabit your life and feel like friends and family. And in a sense, as far as your brain is concerned, they really are among your most intimate relationships. It is also interesting that the stories we tell ourselves—and others—about who we are determine, to a large extent, how we feel about ourselves. The implications of this are profound—and this is where a good therapist, mentor, author, or teacher comes in handy—we can rewrite the stories of our own lives to view ourselves as heroes or heroines rather than helpless victims of circumstances beyond our control.

What is the most powerful example of personal transformation you’ve ever seen--the best story? One of my favorites, one that will always stick with me is the story of Rodney that I recount in Change: What Really Leads to Lasting Personal Transformation. But, a more recent example has been on my mind lately.

I met someone while working on Skid Row a week ago. He has been a functional alcoholic for 30 years, eventually losing his family, job, savings, everything, ending up homeless on the street. All these years he’s been telling himself that there’s nothing he can do, that he can get by the way he always has. But he hit bottom and his usual coping strategies failed him. It was either kill himself, slowly, or get himself together. He entered a treatment program at a homeless shelter, one that he went through the motions of completing, not because he actually believed in the process but because of the support he felt from the other residents and the staff. He found a sense of “home” even among the discarded flotsam and jetsam of society. He surrendered his illusions of control. But it was mostly this rigidly controlled environment that forced him to conform to a structure that he resented—mandatory exercise, career guidance, classes, therapy, support groups. The consequence of failing this time, the last time, would be the end. And he knew it. He really knew it. Not just in his head but in his soul.

Still, he was treading water, his head just above the waves that threatened to drown him. His friends and staff in the shelter encouraged, then cajoled him, into following through on one of the 12 steps of recovery, that is to make amends for past wrongs. He had a daughter who he hadn’t seen since she was born. He had abandoned his family several decades previously. He was pressured to contact her and he was afraid of doing so, and I mean utterly terrified. He resisted and made excuses until one friend actually wrote the message to his daughter for him: he only had to push the send button. They finally met and the healing was profound. So it was a “relational” cure, which is the way it works with most personal transformations. It is support and caring and respect from others that gives us what we need most to follow through on things that are really, really hard and really, really frightening. Most people stay stuck in situations they dislike, whether a job or a relationship or a predicament, even though they are miserable but fear the unknown which they think could be worse. They’d rather remain in an unrewarding situation, but one they’ve learned to endure, than take the risk and investing all the hard work in learning something new. Most people SAY they want to change, and they do mean it, but they want it to be easy. And it almost never is.

What about traumatic and debilitating experiences, the kind that “ruin” our lives? There are also a lot of myths and misconceptions about the supposed predictable consequences of experiencing abuse, neglect, catastrophic events, and tragedies. While it is certainly the case that many people do become debilitated in such a way that they never recover from addictions, disappointments, battle scars, family conflicts, and all sorts of trauma, it is often true that many people suffer no lasting effects whatsoever. Just look at the ways that a group of people within the same family, or who were all subjected to the same events, may respond very differently depending on their personality, perceptions, and support system. It turns out that roughly one-third may become incapacitated for a period of time, but one-third report minimal of any effects, and another one-third say that they grew significantly as a result of the experience. They may not have ever wished that such things what have happened but they found a way to learn from what happened. Such individuals who have experienced what has been called post-traumatic growth report that afterwards they are far more appreciative of their daily lives and more committed to their loving relationships. They have chosen (and it is a choice even if it doesn’t feel that way) to accept that which can’t be changed and instead to focus on making the best of things. They feel a greater clarity about what is most important in their lives. Rather than ruminating on the past they’d rather reflect on its meaning, especially with respect to new choices they can make in the futures. Those who have had close brushes with death have learned to not take things for granted and may renew their commitment to living every day with greater joy and appreciation. Often they have reached out to loved ones or professionals for support but most of all they’ve learned to take better care of themselves.

What are some practical things that people can and should do to initiate desired changes in their lives, especially the kinds that will persist over time? Most changes are relational in nature. So many chronic problems result from conflicts with others and those patterns often seem intractable once they have become established. That’s how families or work environments become so dysfunctional. Yet such conflicts can also bring to the surface unresolved issues that must be addressed—and if that isn’t going to happen then it’s time to change the way you function in those environments. Of course this is easy to say and very hard to put into practice.

Changes don’t last very long because there are limits to our willpower and we often squander our resources, fighting battles we can never win. Lousy goals (“I will work out every day this week”) and self-defeating beliefs (“I’m helpless and there’s nothing I can do about that” work to undermine successful efforts. In addition, as long as you blame factors outside of your control you will continue to remain powerless and stuck which, as mentioned, is often actually desirable since you don’t have to feel responsible. It’s critical that you have support system in place, including friends and family who will be there for you during inevitable setbacks. And most critically, it’s important to prepare for lapses that are not the same as re-lapses. It’s predicable and inevitable that mistakes will be made but not a big deal if you have in place them means by which to recover and move forward.

One interesting strategy that intrigues me is counterintuitive. People spend way too much time thinking about themselves, their problems and troubles. We are obsessed with our own happiness and it is precisely that single-minded focus that often leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction. There is a considerable body of research that points to the positive impact of serving others rather than ourselves. Those who are most involved in altruistic efforts enjoy all kinds of benefits—they have better health and longevity; they are more immune to colds and flu; they feel a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction in their lives. It is ironic that by getting outside of ourselves, by becoming more actively involved in helping others, we end up making our own lives more fulfilling and actually immunize ourselves against some kinds of emotional suffering.

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Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D. is the author of Change: What Really Leads to Lasting Personal Transformation.