Why Some People Undermine Their Power to Change

Avoiding common roadblocks on the path to progress.

Posted Jul 09, 2016


Jim dreams of writing a book, Janet would like to go back to school, Carol hates her job, and Rob wants to lose 50 pound because his wife keeps nagging him to lose weight. But they’re all stuck. And they can give you a dozen reasons why. “I don’t have time,” “I can’t afford it,” “My husband would resent me,” “I have too many responsibilities,” and on and on.  They may say they want to change but then come up with a litany of reasons why they can’t.

Psychologist James Prochaska, who has done extensive research on stages of change, would say that these people aren’t ready to change. They’re in a state of precontemplation. (Prochaska, Norcross, & DiClemente, 1994).  Some people like this cope by denying or diminishing their problems or blaming others. Others don’t want to change themselves, but the people around them. Rob doesn’t really want to lose weight. He just wants his wife to stop nagging him.

Many people sabotage themselves by giving away their power to externals: to other people, other priorities, competing demands on their time and energies. Blaming other people or external circumstances, they live in what psychologists call an “external locus of control,” believing that something outside themselves determines what happens in their lives (Levenson, 1981; Rotter, 1966). This can lead to a state of “learned helplessness” (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993). They lose heart, believing that nothing they can do will make any difference. So why bother?

People who give away their power become so focused on their problems that they cannot discover solutions.  And then there is fear. Admittedly, change is scary. No matter how uncomfortable our current reality may be, it is at least familiar.  Change plunges us out of the familiar into the great unknown.

In my coaching practice, I help my clients move through stages of change, asking them powerful questions to help them develop their awareness and discover solutions. When they say, “I can’t do it because. . .,” I ask, “What can you do?” And when the change they want looks too big, too threatening, too intimidating, I ask them to think of one small step they can take.

Carol hates her job but was afraid to quit. Because she didn’t know what else was out there, she fell into the “either/or” false dilemma--either the job she hates or no job at all. Responding to “What can you do?” she realized she could search the Internet, set up a LinkedIn page, network with others in her field, and check out job listings—all of this without losing her current job. As a first step, Carol set up a LinkedIn page.

The key is to explore possibilities, looking beyond the problem to focus on your goal, then chart a path to get you there, one small step at a time. And, as my colleague Dave Feldman and I have found in our research on goals, it’s important to give yourself alternatives, steps you can take if the first one doesn’t work out, so you can keep moving forward. (Feldman & Dreher, 2012;Snyder, 1994).


Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students.  Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759, DOI: 10.1007/s10902-011-9292-4.

Levenson, H. (1981). Differentiating among internality, powerful others, and chance. In H. M. Lefcourt (Ed.), Research with the locus of control construct. (Vol 1. pp. 15-63). New York , NY: Academic Press.

Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helplessness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C., & DiClemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for good. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectations for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs General and Applied, 80, whole number 609, 1-28.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). The Psychology of Hope. (1994). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web sites at  http://www.northstarpersonalcoaching.com/

and www.dianedreher.com