“People don’t change.” “Nothing ever changes.” We’ve all heard these assessments of the possibility of change, but the fact is that, in the material realm that we live in, change is the only thing we can count on. In fact, if there’s one thing that fasting for four days in the desert taught me, it is that no matter how convinced I am that time isn’t moving, it always is. So then why is it that change seems so elusive? As a therapist and coach, I work with people who don’t only want to change their own lives, but who want to make positive changes in the world. Many years ago I wrote a blog post about three major obstacles to change. Here’s the short version:
Lack of awareness – people don’t change because they aren’t aware that there is a problem.
Fear, doubt, and worry – people don’t change because they get in their heads about how hard it’s going to be.
Prioritization – people don’t change because they don’t prioritize the work that is required to create change.
One thing you may notice about these three obstacles to change is that they are obstacles that stop many people before they even begin trying to make change. But what about people who are aware of problems, have pushed past their fear of facing them, and are regularly working on creating change in their lives or in the world? If you’ve ever tried to change anything in your life, you very likely know that the obstacles don’t stop just because you’re willing to face them. So in today’s post I’m going to write about two more major obstacles that I’ve encountered on the path to change.
Faulty thinking as an obstacle to change
An incomplete or incorrect analysis of the cause of the conditions you are trying to change will ensure that no matter how fast your wheels are spinning, you won’t be going anywhere. We live in the physical realm of cause and effect. Everything that happens does so because of some preceding cause. Let’s say you’re trying to build your confidence. You can go to therapy and recite affirmations all day, but if you surround yourself with people who disrespect you on a daily basis and you don’t deal with that first, you’re fighting an uphill battle. When it comes to social policy, causal factors are rarely given enough weight in the strategies that we employ. It’s much more popular to pay for more policing as a reaction to crime than it is to proactively address the unmet needs that are driving the criminal behavior.
Starting too big as an obstacle to change
This obstacle to change is very difficult to see without awareness of the first, and in fact, it is a natural consequence of faulty thinking. Creating change takes work and time. If our first target for change is bigger than we are allowing ourselves to acknowledge, we either won’t stick with it long enough to see results, or we may not even have developed the skills necessary to see the change through. In the personal dimension, this can look like setting your sights on finding a romantic partner when your social anxiety and low self-esteem prevent you from even talking to strangers. I’m not saying that you can’t do it that way, but it will likely take a lot longer and involve a lot more emotional suffering. I find it helpful to subdivide a life area into different “difficulty levels.” If we take “relationship with others” as an example, then striking up a conversation with a stranger, getting married, and starting a social movement are three very different levels of that problem area. Obviously there’s no one right way to progress through these levels, but if there is a problem that you have been butting your head against for a while, ask yourself or someone else you trust if there’s a simpler version of the problem that you can tackle first.
In the social change dimension, this obstacle is huge. Take climate change, for instance. A major obstacle to addressing climate change is the widespread tendency among people to not think about what is not right in front of them. It’s very easy to over-use energy without thinking or unconsciously buy products from Amazon without considering the consequences. You can’t solve this problem without addressing this fundamental aspect of human attention. But why is human attention so hard to direct towards the facts of climate change? Because it can be overwhelming to think of our impact on the climate when there isn’t an immediate negative consequence to our behavior and there are so many other immediate sources of stress and insecurity in our lives. Remember, this natural human tendency to ignore the inconvenient long term effects of our actions wasn’t so costly before the advent of modern technology.
In my therapy and coaching work with clients, I like to say that we have to learn how to do small things before we can learn how to do big things. Usually it’s ego that makes us want to skip levels. Here’s a practical strategy to put this principle to use: for anything that you’re trying to change, write out a list of all the circumstances and causal factors that contribute to that problem existing in the first place.
For example, the circumstance that I want to change could be that I have a low mood every day. Now I would make a list of all possible contributing factors to this circumstance:
- I eat a lot of junk food.
- I don’t get good sleep.
- I hate my job.
- I don’t get much exercise, natural light, or fresh air.
- I constantly judge, criticize, and complain.
- My past history includes many major stressors and traumas that continue to have an effect on my mood.
- I don’t talk to people about my problems, and I don’t spend time with friends.
A problem is just a circumstance that we don’t like, and all circumstances are the natural consequence of other circumstances. Thinking in this way will help us to accept the present as it is, so that we can begin to take responsibility for it. And it can point us in useful directions for starting our change-making work. Once you’ve made your list, here are a few helpful questions:
- Which of these contributing factors can I take immediate action on to change?
- What kind of support do I need to make this change? (More information, more resources, emotional support, strategy, etc)
- Where can I go to get this support?
One of the major examples of faulty thinking and starting too big in the activism world is the tendency to see the “problem” as “out there” in other people and other people’s behaviors. I promise you, there is nothing that happens “out there” that doesn’t happen “in here.” By ignoring this fact, we risk coming off as inauthentic and hypocritical, which will harden other people against our efforts to change them. This is an example of starting too big based on faulty thinking. By acknowledging that the problem exists inside of us, and by cultivating compassion for our own dysfunctional behaviors as a precursor to changing them, we shift our energy in a way that encourages others to be more open to our ideas, because they can feel that we accept them as they are and we aren’t asking them to do anything that we aren’t willing to do ourselves.
Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds) and a coach for HELPAs (Healers, Educators, Leaders, Parents, Activists & Artists) wanting to build a life of sustainable selfless service. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.