You would think that everyone who has been caught drink driving would want to change their drinking habits. You would think that everyone who has been to prison would never re-offend. You would also think that everyone who is unhappy at home or work would be doing whatever it took to build a much happier life for themselves.
Why is it that many people are so reluctant to acknowledge that their behavior is a problem? Even those who do are slow to do anything about it or they find change very hard.
Of course, we all struggle with changing our behavior at times. I believe there are five main reasons why this occurs.
- Unhelpful thinking. Many people tend to minimize how problematic their behavior is - convincing themselves that their behavior is not so bad or that it is more other people who need to change.
People can also have unrealistic expectations, giving up when change has been hard or they have experienced a relapse. Other times, the problematic thinking is not thinking at all, simply being on automatic pilot, repeating the same behavior that is not working for them.
Here we need to identify thinking that is a barrier to helpful action and find more helpful thoughts that will be motivating for the individual.
- The status quo is comfortable. Why change if you are relatively comfortable? Sure your partner is upset about your drinking, but they are still there. Yes, your smoking may increase your risk of heart attack, but ... you haven't had one yet.
Sadly, for some of us, it is only when the status quo becomes very uncomfortable that we see the need for change. Even if we are open to change, the thought of putting in the effort and coping with the related challenges, is enough for some of us to return to the familiar.
Here we need to help people to appreciate more the costs of inaction, perhaps allowing the status quo to become more uncomfortable, emphasizing the benefits of change. But it is important to search until we identify what is most motivating to the individual concerned. It is not always what we think.
- Changes are being imposed. I believe that most people don't mind change. It's just that they don't like being changed by others - whether this be their partner, their manager, or their therapist. The more one person argues why the other needs to change, the more the other person can sometimes resist.
If you believe your approach is producing resistance, you need to immediately reconsider what you are doing. People tend to be more open to changes which they initiate themselves, where their ideas are included.
- The problem behavior is need-satisfying. Problematic drinkers, for example, will sometimes say that drinking helps them to socialize with others, feel more in control of their life, gain freedom from painful emotions, have fun, or simply to relax.
For those in helping roles, the challenge is to help people identify the needs underlying their behavior and make choices that are effective in meeting the same needs, respectful of the needs of others, and take them in a good direction.
- Physiological barriers are present. It can be easy to mistakenly label someone as resisting change when they actually have a medical condition inhibiting their ability to change problem behavior Clinical depression and chronic pain are examples of conditions that, when effectively treated, can greatly increase an individual's ability to embrace change.
Other physiological conditions such as brain injuries or neurological diseases may mean that some people may never be in a good position to behave as others would like. With such individuals, the focus is more on managing the environment around them.
Of course, when people are resisting change, more than one of the above factors may well be contributing. If you are helping people to embrace change, it can help to form a theory as to what may be contributing, adjust your approach, and to notice what helps.
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Ken Warren BA, M Soc Sc, CSP is a Relationships Specialist