Friday, March 16, 2012

Why Is Change So Hard?

A Whole New MindImage via WikipediaBy Arthur Wenk

Why do we have so much difficulty making changes in our lives? Our friends come to us for advice and we help set them straight. We watch with satisfaction as they take the first steps down a new path that will lead them away from their self-destructive habits to a new life of mental health.

Then six months (or even six weeks) later we find them back in the old, self-defeating groove that had led them to seek our counsel in the first place. What happened? Wasn't our advice any good? Or were our friends simply deficient in will power? Why is change so hard?

Suppose things were different. Suppose change were easy. A friend would point out some deficiency in our approach to life, we would thank him or her for noticing, make the appropriate changes, and enjoy the improvement in our well-being. If change were easy, pretty soon we'd all be perfect. What's getting in our way?

It all goes back to our bifurcated mind. Our emotional mind, the only really useful mind we had for the first five years of our lives, figured out early on how to keep us alive. The emotional mind finds change threatening. It has worked out how to assure our survival. Moving to a new place could prove fatal, so the emotional mind resists the change.

Our rational mind hates to be in conflict with the emotional mind, so it finds all kinds of convincing excuses (not surprisingly, we call them rationalizations) for abandoning change. Good advice may persuade our rational mind for a time but before long the emotional mind steps in and nixes the plans.

A decision to take a new path will not keep you on it for long. If you don't deal with the emotional mind-your inner child-you'll soon find yourself back in the old familiar groove. It may help to think of how you'd typically deal with a five-year-old. Let's suppose you've decided to reduce your intake of cookies.

Before long that inner kid will have you thinking about nothing but cookies, and will nag at you ceaselessly, the way kids do, until you give in. Then you'll be rationalizing away the importance of cookie reduction, perhaps convincing yourself that it's better to try and lose weight in the spring when it's easier to exercise.

This isn't to say that you can't change, but it takes a good deal more than just reading a good idea in a magazine or self-help book and deciding to apply it in your own life. You must get your emotional mind to buy into the change or it will never take place. This means healing the rift between your two minds, and persuading Little You to trust Big You.

That doesn't happen just by wishing it so. You have to talk to yourself and soothe your fears just as you would an upset five-year-old. You need to get in touch with the core beliefs that your emotional mind depends on to keep you alive and then alter those that interfere with the change you want to make. This may require the intervention of a therapist. It will certainly require an attitude of self-love and self-awareness.

Arthur Wenk, a psychotherapist practicing in Oakville, Ontario, combines cognitive-behavioral therapy (discovering techniques for producing immediate changes) with a psychodynamic approach that helps make changes permanent by addressing the root causes of mental health problems. Art's website,, contains one-page summaries of recommended books on personal growth, brief explanations of common mental health issues, and lectures on parenting, the psychology of families, and the functioning of the brain.

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