Getting Unstuck

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At one time or another, we all desire or at least consider change. We want better things for ourselves or the people we hold close. Perhaps we life isn’t what we hoped it would be. No matter the reason, change is HARD. And it is UNCOMFORTABLE–sometimes excruciating. And in deciding what we want, we also must decide what we are willing to do to get what we want.

In my private practice and in my work at a mental health facility, I see dozens of people each week who want something different for themselves but somehow find that they stay “stuck”. Each time they set a goal or try to initiate change in their lives they fall short, leading to a greater sense of powerlessness that in return causes them to feel more stuck.

So what makes change so difficult? What do find that we spin our wheels without progress. Based on my work, here are the most common reasons I see that keep individuals stuck:

Unfair Expectations

We have all heard the phrase “one day at a time”. Often when we set out to accomplish a goal we anticipate that we will move closer to this goal each day. But this is very rarely how change happens. Think about the weather. The weather does not get one degree warmer each day as we approach summer. Instead, it constantly fluctuates with ups and downs. If we look at the big picture, however, we can see the upward trend.  Human development is similar. An infant or child often experiences a regression in behavior before a leap in development (remember those dreaded sleep regressions?). As we move toward change we can expect ups and downs. The downs are discouraging and it might be tempting to give up, thinking nothing is working. But don’t get stuck here, eventually the good days will outnumber the bad; you just have to keep moving.

Negative Core Beliefs

I’ve spoken in previous posts about our basic worldview.  It can be broken down into 4 statements: “I am _________. Others are________. The world is _____________. So I must _________”. This worldview begins to develop in infancy and even before. It becomes an intrinsic part of how we operate, and at times it is out of our awareness. My sense of worth and view of others influences my feelings which influences my behavior. For example, if I believe intrinsically that I am not worthy of love and that others will hurt me or leave me, I may feel sadness, shame, and anger. I then develop unhealthy behaviors that stem from these feelings—like addictions, isolation, or aggression. Now suppose I notice this pattern and decide to change.  It’s possible that I notice my behavior and maybe I am self-aware enough to connect my behavior to my feelings. Often, it’s harder to connect to my core belief.  Through trying to change I might find myself in the precarious situation in which my core beliefs are challenged.  For example, if I repeatedly get into relationships where I am hurt or taken advantage of, I reinforce my belief that I am not worthy of love.  Despite the fact that I may easily recognize these relationships are no good for me, there is comfort in being validated. Now, let’s say I find a healthy relationship, where I am treated respectfully. When another person communicates to me “you are lovable” I may innately feel hesitant or suspicious because what they are telling me and what I have believed my whole life are incongruent. So now, I may push them away, feeling deep down they are lying or untrustworthy. We search for evidence of what we know and believe to be true.

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecies are an extension of the negative core beliefs I spoke of above. They are the result of beliefs that dictate our behavior. For example, if I am a student who believes that my teacher dislikes me this belief influences my effort in the teacher’s class. Chances are, I will not perform well or may not even try, assuming that because the teacher dislikes me I will fail despite my efforts. As a result, I skip class, miss assignments, and eventually prove myself right. We not only search for evidence of what we know and believe to be true but we also act in a way to reinforce our truths. We are masters of “I told you so”.

I once had a patient at the hospital who told me “I am beyond all help”. She had tried countless interventions with lackluster effort, not committing to anything. She had a deeply embedded belief that she could not get better and I believe this influenced her willingness to fight for something different.

Secondary Gain

This one is tough to talk about but is one of the most important concepts to address. Secondary gains are the benefits of staying stuck. The reasons we choose not to change despite or sincerest intentions. Secondary gains may be overt or they may be subconscious and subtle. A straightforward example is when someone on disability does not improve for fear of losing their disability benefits. A more complex example would be if an individual has a history of trauma and perhaps the first time and only time they have felt cared for was in response to their traumatic experience. This could set up the belief “I am worth caring about because of my pain or because I am a victim”. We NEED to be cared for; we need connection. If I believe my only source of connection is my pain, why would I give that up? I might rather be cared for and connected than healthy or healing.

Secondary gains are not always easy to identify or acknowledge, and I am always careful when I address these with clients. If I’m honest, I believe WE ALL have secondary gains. We are human and we are motivated by our needs. Sometimes we do unhealthy things to get what we need. So it is important here to explore secondary gains with compassion. A secondary gain does NOT mean you are malingering.  It does NOT mean you don’t want to change. It DOES mean you are human and change is complicated and hard.

Change Requires Risk

Questioning our beliefs is hard. It requires vulnerability. According to one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, vulnerability is our greatest measure of courage. I heard a metaphor in one of Ana Gomez’s training that I will paraphrase for you. Let’s say you grew up in Alaska, in an igloo. You have worn warm, heavy clothing and a coat all your life because to do otherwise would put you at risk of freezing to death. Assuming you have not been exposed to other environments, you believe that this is just how life is. Life requires a big, heavy coat to survive. Now let’s say that all of a sudden you are uprooted and moved to Mexico, where the weather is hot. But because you believe life requires a big, heavy coat, you refuse to take your coat off. So now, you are hot and uncomfortable. Others don’t understand you and perhaps look at you funny. They try to convince you life will be better without the coat, but in your mind, you are convinced that you might still freeze to death without it, and you are not ready or willing to take that risk.

Our experiences, especially early experiences, teach us how to survive in our world. Letting go of the survival mechanisms that once served us well feels uncomfortable and unsafe. It is very difficult to change the belief system I spoke about above until we feel safe enough to take a risk.

So What?

My goal as a counselor is not to convince someone to change; it is to convince them they have a choice to change—this is where we find our power. I know change is hard, and I know it requires risk.  Perhaps the risk is too great. I don’t judge that.  The truth is that I have no way of knowing what it takes for someone to change; the work and risk it requires. But what I do know is that we all have a choice, and knowing there is a choice at least takes away some of the powerlessness that keeps us stuck in the first place. So maybe you aren’t ready to change but let’s be honest for a minute—that is your choice and your choice is okay. Period.

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