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Suzette Glasner-Edwards Ph.D.

Old Habits Die Hard

Why is it so hard to make changes last?

Ambivalence is part of human nature, but there are ways to resolve it.

If you’re like most people, your motivation to change habits that are unhealthy for you is not the same from day to day. While you may find yourself very enthusiastic about cutting back or quitting drinking or using other substances on some days, there are moments, hours, days, or even longer periods when you struggle to remind yourself exactly why you are going to all of this trouble. Why is it that a change that feels so important to you one day can slip on to the back burner the next day, along with all of that enthusiasm to make it happen? The short answer is: you’re ambivalent. You want to change, at least for the most part….but part of you doesn’t. You can envision how great life would be if you were able to make and sustain some positive changes….but it is so hard to change.

Even the habits that are so bad for us, that there are obvious ways that repeating them is destructive (like drinking excessively, smoking, or overeating) still have some appeal. They are familiar. In some ways, they define us, and there is something comfortable about doing them, even when they are creating discomfort.

There are theories about behavior change that can help us understand just how normal these conflicted feelings are. According to the “transtheoretical model of change,” we go through different psychological stages when we change a health-related behavior, from the early stage of thinking about making a change, all the way to making and maintaining a major change over time. In addiction recovery, ambivalence can (and likely will) hang around at just about any stage, no matter how far along or how stable you are in sobriety. In the early phases, even when a person is committed to getting sober, there is still that anxious ambivalence, the voice inside that says, “can I really live a life without drinking? Do I truly want that life?,” and that voice can persist, even when there is plenty of evidence that the life with alcohol or drugs in it is miserable. It is the voice of self-doubt, and the all too common fear of change. In the later phase of sobriety, the ambivalence prompts different questions, such as, “now that I’ve proven I can resist the urge to drink or use drugs, do I really need to continue this forever? Is there anything wrong with drinking or using once in awhile? Can I drink champagne at a wedding?” Not that these aren’t valid questions, but you have to admit: it’s the part of you that wants to drink or use – and for many, that is the addicted part of the brain, that prompts you to ask these questions. The addicted part of you wants to respond to these questions in a way that will ease the conflict inside of you if you decide to drink or use drugs. In recovery, the goal is to strengthen the rational part of your brain – the part that makes choices that support your well being.

Staying motivated for change is not as much about answering these questions “correctly” as it is about recognizing when you’re ambivalent, reminding yourself that ambivalence is normal, and finally, re-examining the list of reasons why making this change was so important to in the first place. In other words, reminding yourself why you’ve gone to all the trouble thus far to set the goal, make steps towards it, and endure the struggle of the ups and downs in your motivation and confidence.

Here are a few tips for staying motivated:

1. Make a list of the reasons you decided to quit, and put the list in a place where you can access it easily – like in the “Notes” section of your phone. Refer to it when you are noticing that your motivation is slipping.

2. Write a list or a few sentences down about what concerns you about your drinking or drug use. Think about what you are worried about that led you to want to cut back or quit. Is there something that you can imagine happening to you because of it?

3. Think about how changing your drinking or drug use will affect your life. How will life be different if you are successful in making the change that you want to make?

4. List a few reasons that you believe in yourself and your ability to make changes. Think about other ways that you have changed successfully, and how you did it. If you can’t think of reasons to believe in yourself, ask a friend or loved one to help you come up with some.

All of these concepts can be found with interactive exercises to practice them in my new book. Check it out on my website, I hope that you’re able to practice some of these strategies and stay motivated.


About the Author

Dr. Glasner-Edwards is a licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor in the department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA.