There are tons of reasons not to change. Where the current (Western) culture is that everything needs to change constantly, it may be interesting to explore this dynamic a bit more. Competition is rife and we need to better ourselves all the time or we’ll lose out, fall behind and will not be able to catch up again. Are we susceptible to this in our professional lives, we will be equally so in our personal lives. Lifestyle articles on how to be happier and more effective in themselves can make you unhappy and a feel like a failure. It all seems a matter of working and trying harder, even with things such as mindfulness and yoga. A contradiction in terms. What to do?
If all goes well, we do change all the time organically. If only you think about what partners you found attractive when you were 16 and what kind you fall for now: I bet you didn’t make that shift consciously. And some things we (think we) can’t change, such as that munching habit; the difficulties with setting your boundaries and saying no; or even the underperformance in your career. Often, when we think we can’t make a shift, there are underlying and unconscious dynamics at play that keep us from doing so.
Consistency A very strong tendency for people is to want to appear consistent. Have you ever filled in a questionnaire that you had to retake after a while? Did you go over it in your mind to be able to give the same answers? That would be an indicator. And another example: how do you like a politician or a scientist who all of a sudden announced a different viewpoint from before? So if you were to change things about yourself, especially big ones and even if they are for the better, how would the people around you respond? Indeed, they would have to be different around you too and that is often not appreciated very much. Or so you think.
Loyalty My very first patient when I started as a therapist in the NHS, came in for anxiety. We worked hard in the room, or rather, I worked very hard and she agreed with all of it but didn’t really budge. Every session she came in quoting the words that her mother would say: ‘There is nothing wrong with you! Going to therapy is useless’. After a while I decided to explore this and not to my surprise she admitted that her mother was suffering from the very same issues. So I asked her: ‘What will happen to your mother when you get better?’ And then she understood: her resistance to change came from her being loyal to her mother, joining her mother in her suffering. If she wouldn’t, my patient would feel guilty and as if she were abandoning her mother. From then on the sessions went like a whirlwind and she shed all her symptoms within the number of sessions that she was given.
Avoiding pain Many years down the line I had a patient who was nearly 70 years old and lived in a hostel. He had decided he would never love again, after two painful experiences in his adolescence. As a substitute he had begun hoarding, claiming at least he could trust things not to leave him or hurt him. He was sent to me by the manager of the hostel to deal with the hoarding, as logically there was a significant fire hazard, which he understood very well. Nonetheless, he was very unwilling to give up his survival strategy. When we explored how he could deal with his issues, and it dawned upon him that he actually could resolve them, much to my surprise he still refused. It must have shown on my face as I was so flabbergasted, but he explained it to me very clearly. He said: ‘I will live another 4 years, like all my family members. If I go through all this pain to have another few years of mental health, I will have to face having thrown away 70 years of my life doing the absolute wrong thing’. It was too much for him to bear that he could have been happy all that time. He’d rather not go through the grieving process of that lost time, even if it would leave him not having known happiness at all.
DNA There is this old idea that is still very alive, unfortunately: it is what it is. Often you find these thoughts amongst people who have very devout ancestry, even though they may not be religious at all anymore themselves. The source of the conservatism used to be God: he made everything perfect and so you cannot and will not try to change it. That would be heresy. Now God is out of the picture, often this belief still lives on, unconsciously. Science has proven extensively that a lot can be changed, even in the conditions of people with psychoses, autism, and other so-called physiological defects. Lifestyle and good therapy can cause epigenetic changes; the wonderful mechanism of turning on or off genes expression through the environment.
Losing yourself Better the devil you know, does that feel familiar? Even if you’re not keen on how things are going in your life, at least it’s predictable. What will come instead? Who will you be and will people still like you? And will you know what to do and what to say, will you even like yourself? Sometimes it’s easier to keep living according to the guidelines or rules that were laid out for you, they give you security and stability. When you are going to be yourself you will have to figure everything out anew over and over again. That could be hard work and very unsettling.
Going mad You have put away your emotions very well. They are deep and dark and they scare you. They may even scare you so much that you think you will not be able to bear it. You are convinced they will be so overwhelming that you will lose your mind. And they will never stop. You may even have a heart attack when they surface with the vengeance you are convicted they will.
Of course, these are not all the road bumps to change; there are many more. But these are the main ones that I have encountered most often in my practice. You may recognize one or two, and you may even foster several. Often becoming aware of what is stopping you is a first and big step towards overcoming it. You may ask yourself: is this really true? Will this really happen? Later I will address in more detail ways of dealing with these road bumps. Look out for more blogs!