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Chasing Change: Why We sometimes Run in Circles

Why our efforts to change often send us in circles

Our attempts to change often leave us feeling like the proverbial dog who chases his own tail-never quite getting what we want and feeling a little dizzy from our efforts. As a therapist, I have worked with hundreds of patients who very much want their lives to be different, but are caught in this very dilemma. I've seen them assume that they must not want to change; or that they are lazy; or that they must want to punish themselves. And, it saddens me to feel their distress-especially when I know in my heart that their efforts are sincere, if often misguided.

About a year ago, to gain greater clarity about what creates this dilemma, I threw myself into learning more about it. After mucking around in both popular and scientific writings, I found pay dirt in William Swann's theory of human motivation. I was attracted to his ideas because they are clearly defined, easily understood, and are consistent with most (if not all) forms of therapy.

Swann's ideas are based on the assumption that people need a consistent understanding of themselves (i.e. I am a good, caring person; I also have a lousy sense of direction) and the world (i.e. my community is a relatively safe place). This way we know what to expect from, and how to respond to, ourselves and the world. For instance, just imagine having to wake up and reevaluate your life priorities every day, or having to reassess whether your best friend is trustworthy each time you talk with her. Without consistency, we would be like Alice in Wonderland, constantly confused and unsure of how to make sense of our world.

Swann's well-researched theory of self-verification explains one basic way that people maintain their views of themselves (technically called their self-concepts). It motivates people to confirm what they already "know" about themselves-good or bad. For instance, I've seen a number of career women convinced of their incompetence. Rather than feeling gratified by a merit bonus or an award, they are compelled to explain how they don't deserve any recognition or that those things don't really mean anything. Though they commit themselves every day to excelling at what they do, they are clearly more motivated to maintain their negative self-perceptions than to enjoy their success. When I point this out to them, they can often see what they are doing, but are still driven by the need to self-verify.

As I've thought about Swann's theory, it is clear to me how people might get stuck in particular ways that they see themselves. Little did I know that in opening this Pandora's box, there would be so much to explore.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.

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