Change is essential for your growth and development as a person. Without change, you are assured of staying just the way you are and doing things just the way you have always done them. For some people, that’s a good thing; they’re happy and fulfilled in their lives. But for many people, the current path they are on lacks meaning, satisfaction, and joy, and, even worse, they feel stuck. They want to change, but can’t seem to figure out how to change.
The reality is that change is difficult. How difficult? Well, given the robustness of the self-help industry (it’s a $10 billion a year industry) and the fact that no one has yet come up with a definitive path to change, the answer is “extremely difficult.” Add in the low success rates of everything from New Year’s resolutions, stopping smoking, and losing weight to improving self-esteem, feeling less anxious, and having better relationships, and the picture is not at all encouraging.
Part of the problem is that the self-help industry has distorted our perceptions of change, leading many to believe that change should be easy and should happen quickly and with little effort. Of course, the caveat to this claim is that change will only occur, supposedly, if you buy the books or DVDs, attend the lectures or workshops, or invest time, energy, and, of course, money in whatever “snake oil” that promises to help you change quickly and easily when nothing has worked before. (By the way, any time you see the words “miracle,” “magic,” “easy,” or “fast” when it comes to change, make sure you still have your wallet!)
But this article isn’t about bashing the self-help industry. It’s about gaining an understanding of what it really takes to produce meaningful and long-lasting positive change in your life.
On the face of it, change doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult. If there is something that you don’t like about yourself, just change it. But the reality is that profound change can be slow, frustrating, and painful, filled with struggles, setbacks, and disappointment. Whether you want a more positive view of yourself, to be a better spouse, strive for professional goals, or deal with stress more effectively, change is the most difficult — yet rewarding — thing you will ever do.
So why is change so difficult?
Four Obstacles to Change
An unfortunate aspect of life is that we often have obstacles, usually outside of our conscious awareness, that may serve some sort of immediate purpose, but end up being long-term liabilities. These barriers are often driven by some of our most basic needs; for example, to feel competent, to be accepted, and to feel in control. Regrettably, these obstacles become intractable and end up preventing us from changing (or even attempting to change) when they shift from being beneficial to being burdensome.
Like all of us, you bring good things into adulthood from your childhood. And, as a human being, you probably also bring some not-so-good things, what is commonly called your baggage. The most frequent types of baggage include low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of failure, need for control, and need to please. This baggage causes you to think, feel, and behave based on who you were as a child rather than the very different person you are now as an adult. Most of this baggage causes you to react to the world in an unproductive way that can sabotage your efforts to achieve positive life change. For example, if you have a fear of failure, yet you also have a high goal you want to achieve in your life, you’re less likely to put in the effort or take the risks necessary to achieve that goal because you are afraid that you might fail if you try, and that would be far more devastating than not putting yourself out there at all.
When you experience thoughts, emotions, and behavior that are driven by your past experiences and early reactions with enough frequency, they become deeply ingrained habits that dictate how you act on and respond to the world. These habits are much like athletes who practice bad technique. This poor technique becomes wired into their “muscle memory” and comes out in competition. Similarly, when your early reactions become ingrained as habits, they produce seemingly reflexive responses even when they are neither healthy or adaptive. The challenge is that, again like athletes, once habits are ingrained, it is difficult to retrain them. For example, if you grew up in a family where negativity and powerlessness was the norm and that dark view of the world became ingrained, then you would likely continue to express that negative perspective into adulthood, thus coloring your education, career, and relationships.
Negative emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, frustration, and hopelessness, can act as a powerful deterrent to life change. For example, many people don’t change out of the fear that they won’t be able to which would only reinforce their low view of themselves. They might think, “What if I can’t change, then I’ll prove myself to be even more of a failure than I am now. I’ve been this way for a long time and I’m getting by, so it’s not worth the risk.” These negative emotions become substantial barriers to change by being triggered whenever you feel uncomfortable, incompetent, or unsupported. And the only relief is to retreat back to the way you have been. For example, if you experienced considerable frustration as a child, in which you never felt that your needs were being met, that same frustration would likely emerge in situations of deprivation in adulthood, leading to emotional reactions that cause unhappiness and thwart your pursuit of your goals.
You create an environment that helps you best manage your baggage, habits, and emotions. You surround yourself with people who are supportive of the way you are and make you feel comfortable and safe. You engage in activities that play to your strengths and help you either mask or mitigate those obstacles. Unfortunately, this environment reinforces who you are, even when you don’t want to be who you are, and can cause you to continue down a path that interferes with your happiness and achievement of your goals. This environment may, at a minimum, not support change and, at worst, discourage change. For example, if you have a strong need for control, you choose friends who allow you to decide what you do and where to do it, rather than encouraging you to let go and feel comfortable with ceding control.
In all four cases, when you allow these obstacles to control your life, they have the effect of sabotaging your efforts at changing your life in a positive way. Even worse, you feel stuck, frustrated, and helpless to change your lot in life.
In my next article in this series on how you can create meaningful change in your life, I will explore the Five Building Blocks of Positive Life Change.
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