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What Makes Change so Difficult?

Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.



by Portia Nelson


I walk, down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in

I am lost.... I am helpless

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again

I can't believe I am in the same place but, it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it there.'

I still fall in.... it's a habit, my eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

The poet says it very well. Self-defeating behavior persists. Time after time, people repeat behaviors that will bring about hurt, frustration, dissatisfaction, and a loss of self esteem. We have all known people who have a knack for entering relationships with people who are likely to hurt and disappoint them. It seems that as soon as they get themselves out of one "hurtful" relationship, they set out to begin another. Often they seem to be doing it with their eyes wide open, knowing full well that the seemingly new relationship is really a carbon copy of an old, destructive one. To the observer, it makes no sense at all. The behavior is clearly maladaptive. It should be stopped and the person should move on to more satisfying and mutually agreeable relationships.

Problematic behavior persists for a variety of reasons. Important in those reasons are the stories or explanations we offer ourselves about what we do:

Who we are today, how we feel about things, how we make sense of the world is a product of our history. It is difficult to really understand anyone without knowing about that person's personal history. We are influenced, shaped, molded in ways that we are hardly aware of by the background we come from, the parents we have, the opportunities that have been available to us. It is in the complex interaction between our genetic endowment and the environment that nurtures us that our personality is forged.

The journey from infancy to adulthood is the process known as socialization. Parents and society attempt to transform the unwary newcomer into an individual who will fit into the prescribed roles to function adaptively in our world. It is in this transformation process that maladaptive behavior patterns can be learned and entrenched.

  1. Things that are learned early in life are the hardest to change or unlearn. Early conceptions of the world, even if lost to consciousness, remain a part of our memory and may influence our behaviors in some very interesting ways.
  2. Children attempt to explain and make sense of their world in terms of their experience. By the very nature of their limited number of years, their experience is not very wide or deep. Their interpretations of the world, why things happen, is extremely limited and often very inaccurate. Nevertheless, these early interpretations are often the groundwork upon which later, more accurate and sophisticated explanations are based.
  3. Exposed to poor or destructive parenting, a child is likely to explain the mistreatment as being deserved due to some lack, deficit or badness within him/herself. In other words, if someone has to be the bad or undeserving, the child is inclined to take the negative self view on him/herself. In this way a child protects his parents; they are kept perfect. It is not that the child has bad parents; instead he or she becomes the bad child who gets just what he or she deserves.
  4. People seem to have a need to repeat unrewarding situations in the present that are remarkably similar to unhappy situations and relationships that occurred in their childhood. It is as if they are trying, over an over again, to recreate a painful experience from childhood, but, this time, have it work out better. The attempt is to undo a painful history by redoing it successfully in the present.
  5. While one part of the personality seems to be actively engaged in trying to redo the past in a more favorable or successful manner, another part seems determined to make sure that the present turns out exactly the same as the past. This is certainly a more difficult motive to understand since it seems designed to continue a painful, frustrating, even self-defeating situation.
  6. Who we are, our sense of self is a product of all the experiences that have impinged upon us. Every time we say "I am good at writing," or "I can't play tennis," or "I am not very good at arithmetic," or "Athletics are really my great strength" we are making a statement about some aspect or ourself, our identity. Over the years, we add to and modify parts of that identity. The process goes on without our having to give it much thought. Often, discovering who we are becomes a complicated process of reviewing influences that have had an impact without our realizing it. Sometimes, the review process--the getting to know ourselves--holds some very real surprises as well as confrontation with some real contradictions that exist within our personality.
The capacity to love and hate the same person, to want to go while also wanting to stay, to feel courageous and frightened at the same time are just a few examples of one of the most confusing psychological states there is: ambivalence. Ambivalence is an inherent contradiction, the pairing of opposite feelings at the exact same moment in time. To experience ambivalence emotionally is to know one of life's deepest agonies. It creates an internal sense of confusion and dismay that is unequaled by anything else we know. To want to change and to want to remain the same is the "stuff of which resistance is made!"

Everyone has had the experience of owning a favorite pair of shoes or a sweater or some other article of clothing that has gathered comfortable associations over time. Time and wear have usually taken their toll on these articles, but despite the holes or frayed edges or other signs of disrepair, they remain special. They are known quantities; old friends whose presence makes us feel a bit more comfortable in our world. Good sense often dictates replacement of these tired clothes with new ones. Something inside rebels at the thought of parting with that "special sweater." And if a new sweater is purchased, it is highly probable that the "old one" retains its special place in the drawer. It is not discarded in favor of it fashionable replacement.

Perhaps it is human nature to become accustomed and comfortable with the well worn and the well known. Habit requires no special effort or special thought. It is there. Even when it is less than perfect it is more certain than some substitute might be. Change requires a period of adjustment, a break in period before this new thing feels like your own. And who knows if it will be as good as the ones you've thrown away. Something new always implies a gamble, a risk. Who knows if the new purchase or a new behavior will ever feel as familiar as what has been given up.

Psychological change is similar to giving up a pair of well worn slippers for a brand new pair. The new pair obviously look better, they may even keep your feet warmer but will they ever provide the familiar support that was vested in the old ones.

This is a part of the dilemma faced by the person who seeks psychological assistance. Certain feelings, attitudes, methods of solving problems, self-views, thoughts are being considered for the discard pile. Habitual ways of dealing with the world seem no longer to be effective or are so self-defeating that the person feels that there is no choice but to "change." Usually, if there were any other than change, it would be chosen. Thus, people seek assistance at a time when they are in pain because old strategies for problem solving are not working. But, there is no way of knowing for sure if the "new strategies" will prove better and more effective than the ones that have been grudgingly relinquished.

As illogical as it may seem on the surface, the ambivalent wish to change and to say the same is pivotal in our understanding of why self-defeating, pain producing behaviors persist over time.

Psychological change implies the revision of personal identity. It is as if we were about to remodel a house from the basement up. A person's identity is the foundation of his personality. To remodel that identity is to shake the personality to its core. To carry the remodeling metaphor a bit further, most of us would prefer some simple cosmetic changes rather than a remodeling that would be costly, lengthy, and very disruptive to our lives.

Imagine how disruptive it must be to a person who has crystallized an identity as a "loser/victim" to begin to experience himself differently. This is a person whose deep self view portrays him as a "second class citizen." He is entitled only to the crumbs that life has to offer, if he is entitled to anything at all. Disappointment is the cornerstone of his life. While painful, always getting less than what he hoped for feels internally correct. He may complain about his lot in life, but for the most part, he has adjusted to this self-view and has learned how to live within its limits. Being a "loser" is a central construct to his personality organization. To change that view--no matter how desirable it might seem--would mean shaking every aspect of his personality that is built or dependent upon that central core view. While the long term goal of change would hopefully produce a modified personality with an increased capacity for self-fulfillment, the process leading to that goal would indeed be painful. Understanding how disruptive and agonizing change can be helpful to us in understanding why real change takes such a long time. It can also help us understand why people say "I have finally gotten what I have always wanted and I don't know what to do with it" or "Having my needs met really scares me. I don't know how to handle being treated like a person." Becoming a "winner" after a lifetime as a "loser" may look like a story book fantasy come true. In reality, however, it is the product of an agonizing labor over a long period of time.

The kind of change that takes place over a long period of time is not the kind of change that crisis intervention workers are usually involved in. Our contacts are usually brief and transitory; our interventions more specific than what would be required to remodel a personality. That is the job of trained psychotherapist, not a paraprofessional.

Nevertheless, understanding resistance helps us to understand why certain behaviors have been so enduring when by all logical standards they ought to have been discarded eons ago. It also provides some understanding of why the people who call us often seem to struggle to maintain their self-defeating behavior in the face of the help we have to offer. In some ways, it is useful to think of any phone call as between three people instead of two. The liner, the side of the caller that is looking for constructive change, and the side of the caller that is fighting desperately to remain exactly the same.

While it is unlikely that a brief intervention is going to markedly effect resistance, it is still important to address this psychological state when we recognize it. The following are some examples of phrases that may prove useful when you meet a caller's resistance on the phone.

"As I listen to what you're saying, I begin to hear a pattern. It is as if you've been repeating the same thing over and over again. How do you understand that?"
"You seem to see yourself as a (victim, bad guy, loser, second class citizen, unwanted child, etc.). How did that self view come to be?"
"I get the feeling that as bad as being a (victim, bad guy, etc.) is for you, you get something out it as well. What are the payoffs for that position?"
"You seem to sabotage yourself every time you begin to get what you want. Why is that?"
"You really seem much more comfortable with doing what you've always done. That's more familiar. When you try something new, you seem to be frightened. Why is that?"
"You're really saying you're afraid to change. Tell me about that."
"Staying the way you've always been is easier even if it gets you into trouble sometimes."
"I guess you have a sense of what its going to take to change and you're not so sure you want to do all that."
"You really want to prove that I can't help. Then you can sort of sit back and say 'Well, I tried. Nobody could help me'."
No list can be complete and as often as not you're going to have to think up your own response to what you hear over the phone. Don't expect to make a brilliant interpretation and the caller to drop his/her resistance as a result of it. Instead, expect an argument of some sort. The caller is going to fight tooth and nail to maintain his resistance and is not going to be appreciative of your efforts to disable it. Your task is to start the caller thinking about his/her own participation in maintaining the state of affairs that is problematic. Your task is to start a person on the path of better understanding how he/she is fighting to stay the same. The concept of resistance envisions a war within the individual. You can help the caller to be able to identify the two sides, to bring resistance out of the shadows so that the caller knows that he/she is in a struggle with him/herself. If you accomplish this in a phone call, you have armed the caller with an insight that will affect his/entire life and not be limited to a specific problem situation.

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