By Dr. Wendy Froberg
As a clinical and counseling psychologist, I am in the business of change. People pay for my time and expertise in helping them to make changes in their lives. But despite expressing a desire to be different and demonstrating what appears to be good motivation, change does not always occur for many clients. Why is this so?
When people arrive in my consulting office, I often ask them “why now?” Typically, outside of an externally-imposed and often unforeseen crisis, most presenting problems have taken a considerable amount of time to develop. So why hasn’t the person come for assistance before now? It has been said that people change when the pain of staying the same finally is greater that the fear of making change. In order to change, we have to be willing to move outside of our comfort zone, that range of familiar (but often self-defeating) behaviors that we engage in automatically, not because they are effective in helping us meet our goals but simply because they are comfortable due to their familiarity. Research has shown that people express a preference for things they have seen or experienced before, even if this is only a very superficial kind of knowledge about what is being judged. Like a well-worn cattle trail though a pasture, we keep plodding along the same path, day in and day out, because the path is so deeply etched and is now such an obvious road to travel along.
It takes real effort to seek another path and, if we don’t remain consciously focused on our new road, we are likely to veer back onto the well-worn one. It is not easy to purposefully choose an uncomfortable position and to continue practicing the new behavior until it, too, starts to feel more familiar. To do so creates uncertainty (experienced as anxiety) partly because, while we know the results of our current choices, we are not completely certain of what will happen should we change. It’s like that old saying, “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t”.
We often make the mistake of thinking that wanting something to be different (no matter how badly) is the same as being willing to do what it takes to achieve that change. If someone asks “Do you want to be thinner? healthier? fitter?” the answer would usually be “Yes!” But a better question is “Are you prepared to do what you have to in order to get there? Are you willing to give up old patterns of unproductive behavior and exert energy to keep from drifting back to them?” It’s been said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results”. If that is true, then most of us have acted insanely at one time or another.
Sometimes others in our lives do not like the changes we are making and put pressure on us to return to our familiar and predictable selves. If the way we are acting, no matter how harmful or unproductive it may be for us, is a good thing for someone else, that person has a stake in us remaining the same and may even go so far as to sabotage our efforts to change. Similarly, we ourselves may get other “payoffs” (beyond comfort) for staying stuck in old behaviors, whether or not we are conscious of these, and so resist change while verbally asserting that we want it.
If you think back over your life, you will probably discover that any time you made a change the proved to be significant, you had to step outside your comfort zone. You will likely recall that this often was rather frightening but afterward, led to real feelings of accomplishment and mastery. Focusing on the scary aspects, worrying about what might go wrong will hamper change, while embracing the uncertainty and reframing it as an exciting adventure will allow you to achieve new heights. Real fear, of real dangers that can kill us, has a legitimate role in our lives. However, anxiety, which is learned and is usually about failing or looking foolish, typically holds us back. Knowing the difference may well allow you to transform wishes into reality.