Why change is so hard, and how we can change
I want to change, so why can’t I change? It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to notice that something needed changing and then to be able to just change it: to notice that we are eating too much, or losing our temper too easily, or still hanging onto old grievances, and to just wish ourselves into a different person.
"We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed" - Carl Rogers
If it was so easy to change the things we wanted to change about ourselves, I’d be out of a job, and life would be so much easier for everyone. And yet here we are, wanting to be different and finding ourselves repeating the same habits and the same thoughts and feelings over and over again.
On one level, there is something deeply strange about how the harder we wish for change, the further away it gets, and on another level, it makes complete sense.
Imagine you are talking to a friend or a loved one. You have some advice for them. You’ve noticed something they are doing that is making their life more difficult, and you want to put them right. You start dropping a few hints, and then you tell them outright. Somehow, the more you talk about it, the more entrenched their difficult behaviour gets.
Or, you’re the person who keeps being told what to do, and even if part of you knows what you’re being told is right, to keep being told it is annoying, and you find that you end up digging your heels in.
We probably all know what one side of this is like. Maybe we even recognise both roles.
Why does this happen?
The difficult behaviour that we want to change is only difficult because it has a negative impact. It ends up causing trouble for us, or others. Difficult parts do not think they are being difficult; their internal logic is to protect. They do what they do to keep us safe. We eat too much to distract ourselves from painful feelings; we lose our temper because we’re terrified of being on the receiving end of someone else’s; we don’t let go of old grievances because we’re frightened of change.
When those defensive patterns hear someone telling us to change they get worried. If they change, perhaps the thing that they are really afraid of will happen. That’s why they’ve been working so hard to keep us safe, after all.
The more they hear they must change, the harder they work.
This can play out between two people, as I suggested above, and it can play out in the conversations that we have with ourselves. Part of us sees the negative impact of those defensive parts and is - understandably - desperate to change. The defensive part detects this move towards change and digs its heels in.
This is why acceptance is such a vital part of the process of change.
With support from a therapist, we accept and come to understand the parts of us that deeply want to change. With support from our therapist, we meet our defensive parts from a place of acceptance and curiosity. When we meet them without wanting anything from them, they reveal themselves more clearly to us. We learn why they are working so hard, and we accept them more deeply.
As this process continues, we come to accept and understand the wounds we are carrying that keep those defensive patterns working so hard. As this process of deeper and deeper acceptance unfolds, we let go of the pain and negative self-beliefs that our wounds hold.
Through acceptance, we come to understand ourselves. Through acceptance, our wounds heal. Through acceptance, we change.
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