John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Looking for a Change? What's holding you back?

Maybe you want to feel better or do better or make some personal habit change. Maybe you’re fed with the emotional or behavioral status quo, whatever it is, and you tell yourself you want to change, but something -- something almost as powerful as a magnetic force -- pulls you back. What is that something?

Could be any number of things. Here are some possible candidates.

• Awareness
• Motivation
• Willingness to tolerate anxiety or discomfort
• Know-how
• Support from others
• Willingness to exert effort

Awareness. Obviously, changing anything about yourself starts with awareness. First you must be aware that you have a problem. Of course, it’s not awareness that holds you back so much the things that block awareness: minimization, rationalization, blaming others, and denial. These things are like veils that keep you from seeing the true consequences of the problem or issue. First step: lift the veil. See reality clearly.

Motivation. Recognizing that something is a problem doesn’t necessarily mean you’re motivated to do anything about it. Indeed, many people wait until the consequences of having the problem outweigh the discomfort of facing it before they embark on change. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can make a list of the consequences to build motivation. And you can make a list of the benefits of change.

Willingness to tolerate anxiety or discomfort. Almost of any change generates anxiety or discomfort as you move out of your comfort zone and experiment with new thinking and action. Human beings are nothing if not self-consistent. Stepping out of old grooves, even grooves that are ultimately not in your best interests, will trip the alarm in your psychological system. Anxiety or discomfort is an uncomfortable state. To make it go away, you revert back to old patterns. But this is a trick. This is what keeps your stuck. If you’re serious about change, you must be willing to bear a bit of discomfort.

Know-how. Knowing how-to lose weight is not the same as knowing how-to get undepressed or how-to conquer agoraphobia. Problems vary and solutions vary. Do your homework. Study the strategies that others have used to solve your particular problem. Don’t re-invent the wheel if you don’t have to.

Support from others. Change is something you can do alone, but it’s probably easier when you have someone in your camp who is willing to root for you. Someone who knows not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. Someone who cares enough about you to pick you up when you stumble. Never underestimate the value of supportive relationships. Conversely, be wary of those individuals who have something to gain if you fail. (e.g., domestic violence).

Willingness to exert effort. If only the infomercials were correct: that there really was such a thing as effortless change. But real change -- change that endures -- requires hard work. You must focus on the problem, think about it, feel the discomfort associated with it, come up with strategies or solutions, and start anew when lapses occur, as they most certainly will. If a problem is really a problem, you must be willing to throw some effort at it to make it different. Maybe that means reading books, tracking progress, attending therapy sessions, or just keeping the problem front and center for a while. No one will do for it; indeed, no one can.


If you are trying to change, don’t be discouraged by lapse, relapse, or resistance. To the contrary, expect these things. They’re simply part of the process.

If you are trying to change, know that change is seldom linear. It’s two steps forwards, one step back (or maybe sideways). Learn to look at the trend, not the moment.

If you are trying to change, celebrate your victories. We never outgrow our need for praise. Being an adult, however, means that sometimes we must provide it for ourselves.

If you are trying to change, but you are not there yet, give yourself the gift of self-compassion. There is little be gained by treating yourself badly when you aim at a target and miss. The rule of change is always about successive approximations, not absolutes.

For so many problems, the secret to real change is not in the strategies but in the persistence. You must try and then try some more. Persistence, along with the belief that you can change, wins the day.

Made in RapidWeaver