Overcoming the Obstacles to Change
We are excited to share this latest article written by Sarah Groff, LCMHC on the obstacles to change, and the elements of life that can help you truly initiate a new beginning for you. Sarah has been a team member of Miracles Counseling Centers for the past 3 years and is highly skilled in counseling addressing relational attachment needs of families and couples, and also works with late adolescents through adulthood on issues relating to trauma, depression and anxiety concerns, and empowering clients to live fully in an intentional life.
I think it goes without saying that most people seek out therapy in hopes of accomplishing some level of change in their lives. Whether it’s navigating a serious mental health issue, a life transition, or a relationship or career stressor, therapy is often the avenue for identifying effective steps for change. Why then, can it be so difficult to enact and maintain?
Understanding the ways in which change actually takes root and becomes sustainable over the long term is just as important as learning to love oneself and develop healthy coping mechanisms. One of the most common themes I see in dealing with clients is the desire for movement in a particular area combined with an overwhelming feeling that such movement (or transformation) will remain forever elusive. While I would normalize these conflicting emotions, I would also argue that change does not have to feel like a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse. This article will briefly identify some common reasons why we tend to resist change, as well as steps to take in achieving it.
To begin with, a resistance to change is often a reflection of one’s lack of confidence, life experience, modeling, or fear of failure based upon past attempts. When I begin to probe into a client’s past efforts at change, it is not uncommon to discover that he or she either lacks practice or has been “shot down” so many times throughout their life that they no longer believe they are capable of change. All too often, society assumes that people who so “obviously” need to change and don’t, are just lazy. I realize that may be true in some cases, but more often than not, I believe clients lack skill, confidence, experience, and an advocate. Not only can a therapist help to identify the root of a client’s resistance, but they can also be a positive voice to encourage a client that he or she truly is capable of effecting the change(s) they so need and desire.
Another important factor to keep in mind is that we often mistake change for a television makeover. In other words, we expect it to be quick, tidy, glamorous, and relatively painless. If that is your expectation, then I venture to say you may be disappointed. By its very nature, change is undoing something that was and transforming it into something new, therefore some level of discomfort is to be expected. I believe this is a second reason why change sometimes doesn’t take root, despite the best of intentions. If clients can get past the resistance stage, they may become discouraged when the work becomes hard. For example, clients may feel at a loss when experiencing emotions for the first time or when their faulty patterns of thinking and behaving are being challenged. Without even knowing it, a client may sabotage their own therapeutic process because they misunderstand discomfort for failure. When I see this occurring, I remind my clients that if they will believe in the process and develop some tolerance for the discomfort that positive change creates, then their emotional/mental “muscle” will be strengthened and will continue to grow with each step or improvement made.
The pace and timing of change are equally important to acknowledge in this discussion. When it comes to changing one’s thoughts and behaviors, not only is it work that takes time, but it also requires attention to pace. In other words, it can’t be too fast or too slow. If change moves too quickly, the roots are shallow and if it moves too slowly, clients often lose motivation. You can liken this process to baking cookies. If you don’t include enough baking soda, for instance, then the cookies fall flat. By contrast, if you add too much then the whole batch tastes sour. Skip a step, eliminate an ingredient, or alter the time and temperature, and the result will probably be disappointing. When it comes to one’s mental and emotional health, the same principle applies. Remember, the goal is genuine change that lasts, so paying attention to pace and timing are critical.
One of the most helpful tools in creating much wanted/needed change is to identify small steps to support that goal and then tackle one step at a time. Clients often admit to feeling overwhelmed about all of the changes they believe are necessary, but when you break it down to one area of focus at a time it is much more manageable (and sustainable). For some individuals, the first step towards a healthier, more balanced life may be to engage in some form of self-care or to go on a social media “diet.” For others, it may be setting their alarm to get up 20 minutes earlier every day so that they can practice some sort of mindfulness like journaling, praying, meditating, vocalizing affirmations, or making a plan for the day. Once that step is put into place and has become a part of the client’s routine, then it is time to add a second step. This strategy is often referred to as “habit stacking” and is proven to be highly effective for change.
As another year gets under way, you may have already been contemplating changes you would like to make in your life. Perhaps your finances need overhauling or you need to learn new parenting strategies. Maybe you lost your job because of COVID or you are struggling with an unfulfilling marriage. You might be the client who has fought depression off and on for years or who questions their value and identity. Whatever your struggle and regardless of how many times you’ve tried to turn things around, remember that it is never too late to change and it is absolutely okay to ask for help. Talking to a therapist may be just the thing you need at this time to provide prospective and reassurance that the changes you desire really are within reach.