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Are You Struggling to Make the Changes You Want?

How to get your mental "management committee" to pull together.

Key points

  • Change is intrinsically hard.
  • "Stuckness" suggests our internal mental committee does not agree on the course of action.
  • Identifying and restructuring the roles played by competing wants and fears can allow real change.

Change of any kind is hard. Really hard.

Accepting that we have an evolutionary drive to conserve resources and keep ourselves safe helps us understand that resistance to change is not a sign of weakness. Instead, our inertia is something we need to work with—not fight—if we are to change our direction and habits.

Brains resist change for good reason. Our current habits require little psychological energy, and we can also be sure that they haven’t killed us (yet). Win-win.

Asking ourselves to change, in contrast, requires us to invest upfront effort in something with as-yet-unknown consequences.

Even when we feel utterly sure that a particular change will be good for us—say, finally tidying the house, exercising more, looking for a new job, leaving a bad partner—we still often find it incredibly hard to overcome the biological and psychological status quo.

It’s as if parts of us have not got the memo about what we should do. Indeed, therapists sometimes think of our minds as if they are formed by a committee of different voices. Whilst we may have one character who enthuses about the virtues of change and our bright new future, other internal voices may be skeptical or worn down or actively resistant.

We are often only dimly aware of the background psychological disquiet behind our apparently straightforward, beneficial intent to change. But we are fantastically good at making a narrative to fit what we already want, even when these wants are largely unconscious…. So given a primary wish to conserve psychological resources and keep us safe from the unknown, we are likely to find ways to resist change and keep ourselves exactly where we are.

We will procrastinate. We’ll find other things to do. We’ll tell ourselves we’ll start tomorrow. We’ll keep researching that “how-to” plan. We’ll try things half-heartedly without commitment. And we’ll drop our intentions at the first sign of difficulty.

After a while, we’ll tell ourselves it’s hopeless. That we’ll never achieve what we wanted. That there’s no point in trying.

And we’ll start berating ourselves. We’ll say we are unable to make the change. That we are weak and don’t have sufficient willpower.

The truth is we underestimate just how much psychological energy it takes to change ingrained habits. We are fighting existing neural pathways and short circuits. And metaphorically, our mental management team simply cannot agree on a course of action.

How can I get unstuck?

The good news is that we can break the impasse with some simple steps.

Start by giving yourself a break and accepting that change is hard. Stress and pressure sap our psychological resources, yet ironically when we are struggling to change, we are often the ones piling on the pressure. We can’t kick our legs from under ourselves and then berate ourselves for not standing up.

There’s a real danger that we get so caught up in the “shoulds” of change that we forget to actually make a viable plan to get there. So, if you’ve been struggling to make some change for a while—and getting nowhere—dare yourself to stop what you’ve been doing.

To proceed, you need to know more about those on your mental committee, especially the subconscious dissenters. We can’t properly deal with issues and concerns we have not acknowledged.

Spend a few days or weeks just listening to the internal dialogue about the change you intend to make. What can you notice specifically? What comes up if you think about making the change or when you try to do so?

Perhaps there’s an unease or fear? Or concern about what comes next? Is there a conviction that you’ll fail? Do you notice feeling motivated at some times, and not at others? Are you focusing on what others might think about you making or not making the change? Is this a change you actually want? What do you say to yourself—is it helpful?

It can help to imagine these thoughts as coming from different members of a well-meaning management team, albeit one that is currently struggling to work well together. Who dominates? Who do you need to listen more to? Who is not helping—could they contribute more constructively? Who needs reassurance, and how?

Imagine the information and ideas that would need to be shared and the conversations that would need to happen to allow all contributors to feel heard, valued, and reassured. Can you see how consensus might arise? Are all parts of you clear on why you want this change?

Much has been written in self-help articles on how to make changes in general. But focusing only on the “I should” without understanding our nuanced and contradictory thoughts about changing means we will struggle to make a plan that accommodates our personal stumbling blocks.

We also need to consult the committee to understand when we don’t achieve the change we set ourselves for the day (it’s a when, not an if). Perhaps I was just tired today and didn’t have the capacity, and I should just reconvene tomorrow (without berating myself). Or perhaps, on reflection with input from all team members, I do need to adjust my plan...

We often imagine that change should show a smooth upward trajectory. But realistically, change is often stop-start and zig-zaggy at best. If we can stop berating ourselves for this and instead listen to and improve our internal dialogue, this may, in fact, be the most important change we can make.

We may not immediately make the changes we thought we wanted. However, investing time and effort in building awareness of our internal dialogue gives us our best chance of making changes that stick.

We might even find that a re-invigorated mental committee leads us to a different—but far better—destination than the one we were trying to get to.