Why is Change so Difficult?
“Why can’t I change?”
Most courses of therapy begin with this refrain, or some version of it. It isn’t just in therapy. I’m as likely to hear it from a friend or relation as in the consulting room. It seems a universal lament: As desperately as we long to change, our destructive patterns are slow to die.
Logically, we may be quite knowledgeable about the things that obstruct us. We find ourselves in that classic conundrum: skilled at advising others and yet unable to apply this wisdom to our own lives. No number of self-help books, trawls through the internet, or soul-searching conversations with loved ones seems to shift whatever it is that keeps us stuck. Like the obese person who knows more about diet and nutrition than many of his slimmer counterparts, this knowledge seems to mock us, making us feel ever more inadequate. We have the tools. Why can’t we help ourselves?
One of the difficulties is that, for all our insight, we inhabit a polarized world in which we think of ourselves as divided between good and bad. We think in terms of removal rather than integration. If only we could cure the ‘bad parts,’ then we would be improved and fixed, like well-oiled machines. In our aim to remove or suppress the ‘bad’ part, it, like the proverbial unwanted child, digs its heels in or throws an almighty tantrum. I will not, it is saying, be annihilated.
This is, in fact, a reasonable protest. The “bad part’ is there for a reason. It is likely that at various stages in our lives – quite possibly in our early lives –we even needed it to ensure our survival or sanity. At some stage, (or perhaps even still) these patterns were effective. They worked - to do something. The difficulty is that now, like a protective wall that has grown into a fortress or prison, it impedes other areas of growth and possibility. It prevents us from living our lives to the full.
This is not to say that real change isn’t possible. Every day, I see clients change in a variety of ways. It is exciting to watch the old patterns challenged, to see a client embrace new ways of living and being. Sometimes, clients change almost immediately, as though they have been on a spring, just waiting for the trigger. As exhilarating as this might be for both of us, I am also concerned, in these times, that we give credence to the part of themselves they have left behind at such a pace; the part that still needs to be heard.
It is useful, in this vein, to think less in terms of removing or ‘fixing’ the unwanted part and more in terms of what it is trying to communicate. A client is upset about a persistent pattern in his or her life: a bad habit, another depressed or abusive relationship, a chronic feeling of lethargy. His or her primary question is generally some version of: what can I do about this? Or even how can I get rid of this? The sense of urgency can be overwhelming to the point of near paralysis, making it even more difficult to look at the whole picture. Clients may not want to dig deeply in these moments, to explore the causes or history. They just want rid of it! The irony is that, in such a panic, he or she couldn’t be further from being able to do much of anything, apart from flail wildly in the exact same spot.
Not that I am opposed to “doing.” Sometimes, I do advocate strategies and suggestions. This may be prefaced by an intensive look at the problem itself. Often, for instance, I am faced with clients who feel they waste great swathes of their lives, not making productive use of their days and avoiding the things they really want to be doing. It can be useful to take the client, in nearly forensic detail, through the process itself - the frustrating week or day or hour. We look precisely at the rituals they embark on, at the habits, the obstructions, and the thoughts and feelings that seem to thwart action and goals. In doing so, we open up a dialogue between the ‘driven’ self and the ‘wasteful’ self, helping us to negotiate between the conflicting urges, as well as to formulate practical suggestions. In opening up such a dialogue, we are allowing each side to be heard by the other. We are also asking ourselves the intention of the obstructive thought, the wasteful hours, the laziness, or whatever it happens to be. Not, is it bad or good, but rather, what’s it good for? We might be surprised to find, stripping back the layers, that it has a lot to teach us.
Yet even if we change or remove the problem, we won’t remove the impetus behind it. The former smoker may rightly take pride in overcoming his compulsion, only to discover that the anxiety behind it is that much more acute (or, as I’ve heard it said about recovering alcoholics: “the good news is that the alcohol is gone. The bad news is that alcohol wasn’t the problem.”) And yet, there is no such thing as a bad need, a bad craving, a bad feeling. What we do with it might be bad for us, but this behavior, ironically, is usually a function of denying the need rather than meeting it. Once we are able to listen to what’s going on beneath the fixes and compulsions and conflicts and relationships –the overall drama of our lives - then we are able to locate the original feeling and need, with a better sense of how to fulfill it.
This brings me to another reason why change can be so difficult. Often, it involves a kind of mourning. In obvious terms, we may need to mourn the fix or harmful pattern we let go of (or, to use the phrase so often bandied about these days, leave our ‘comfort zones.’) Looking at it in greater depth, we also mourn the thing that the habit represented, as well as what it aimed to anesthetize. We may, for example, engage in dysfunctional relationships as a way of recreating our parents, in the hope of ‘saving’ or changing the parent or parents so they will love us. Letting go of these relationships may therefore be a way of letting go of the parent, or, rather, the fantasy of whom you wanted them to be. To be in a healthy relationship, conversely, is to accept your own function as an adult who is independent of your parents. Such independence is a victory, but it may also evoke a feeling of loss. With that victory, again, comes the acceptance of what you never had.
To cite another example, letting go of binging – ‘companions’ in the form of compulsive eating or drinking or drugs or sex or shopping – also makes room to mourn how you haven’t been nourished in other, more fundamental ways. If you are addicted to chocolate, chances are it isn’t just the taste of it you crave; it’s what it was a substitute for. To let go of weight or baggage (to lose your companion) is to have to come to terms with your own autonomy and aloneness.
This may all sound rather bleak. It isn’t. Mourning creates a fertile space, left by that which has been lost or mourned. In that space, there is room for real companions, for new things to do, new ways of being and doing and living in the world. New ways, most importantly, of being with yourself. Not denying yourself hunger and need, but learning what it’s really for, and the best way to nourish it.
Nor does it have to be a long process. Change, as I said before, can happen quickly. But even when you remove the problem, the feelings and hungers behind it remain. The good news is that the feelings themselves, while sometimes painful, no longer need to be seen as problems at all.
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