Understanding Change Part III: I have tried everything and I can't change it...

What if the thing you are trying to change is the thing you have tried to change before? Tried to change AGAIN and AGAIN? Why can’t I change this? Especially if I complain again and again that I WANT IT TO CHANGE?

This phenomenon of feeling totally stuck with a behavior you hate has some different names. I call it a pain in the ass. Psychologists would call it ‘resistance to change.’

Resistance has been defined as ‘the motivational forces operating against growth or change, and in the direction of maintenance of the status quo.'** The psychiatrist Martha Stark simplified this description in her book Working with Resistance even more to a tension between “yes” and “no” “Yes, I want to change” and “No, I want to stay the same.” And she beautifully breaks down the experience of working with this resistance. If you lean more in the direction of talking about or working with the ‘yes’—wanting to change, you will feel more anxious and uncomfortable. If you lean more in the direction of avoiding change or not talking about it, your anxiety will go down. So psychologists might also call these things defenses in the sense that the behavior we want to change is protecting us in some way—at the very least, it lowers our anxiety more to keep doing it than it does to change it.

So how do you shift such stuck behavior? How do you take a goal that you keep saying you want to do and find out how to make it happen?

The best technology for unlocking the  resistance to change that I have found is the Immunity to Change model that Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have created. In their model you start with the goal or change you are trying to make and you walk it (and yourself) through a process of looking at what you are doing that is getting in the way, and more importantly, how these roadblocks may be serving you. For example, I say that my goal is to be more disciplined with my writing writing every day. Then I make a list of all the things I am doing or not doing that is getting in the way of this goal. And I discover that I say I want to be disciplined about writing, but instead I am doing favors for people with the time I would be writing. So rather than be committed to writing,  I am protecting my identity as a “good friend or good person.” In their lingo I am more committed to being liked than I am committed to being disciplined about writing.  This model helps you see the obvious: that if being liked is really important to me then of course I wouldn’t change my writing behavior. DUH. My behavior makes perfect sense. It just doesn’t match my stated goal.

Kegan and Lahey talk about resistance in terms of ‘immunity to change’— they articulate perfectly the dilemma of wanting change—wanting to do something differently. And, the reality that while we say we are committed to change, really, we are often committed to protecting ourselves. And behind these protections are big assumptions: If I don’t please people, I will be abandoned.  The solution according to Kegan and Lahey is to create small tests of our big assumption—kind of chip away at it so that you can see it for what it is—an old rule that isn’t objectively true, and isn’t serving you anymore.  Their model of change essentially has you come at the problem backwards. Instead of heading right at your goal: write every day. They would have you chip away at your big assumption: What if don’t please people?

I use this model in a coaching program I teach in to help people understand change and resistance to change, and with clients of all sorts and I have taken to giving a verbal warning label when I teach it: only pick something to work through this model that you really want to change, because it really works. Everything I have taken through this model has shifted.

I will warn you, it’s not a quick fix, but I think that’s okay. Generally the thing you are trying to change has been with you for a long time. There’s a New Yorker Cartoon with a man standing  in front of a mouse hole in his wall, and there is a mouse-sized garage door next to the door and a mouse-sized swimming pool and deck chairs in front of the doors. Next to the man is a handyman in overalls with a toolcase, and the caption states, “You should have called me sooner.”

If the mouse has already put in the pool, it’s going to take a while to get the mouse to move out. So it will take some work to move through your immunity to change and to shift the behavior—but this process helps untangle it the best.

I will also say that this model is really for things that are resistant to change, the things that are stuck, the things where you say to yourself: HOW DID I GET HERE AGAIN?!? There are plenty of things where you can take a more straightforward approach and where you can go straight at the problem. But if you have already tried all of that. This will really help.

You can check out their website here. It exists as an EdX course, and the book is below.

But if you take nothing else from this whole blog, I hope you take this. When something sticks around for a really long time, it’s because it is serving an important function. Important isn’t the same as good. You may not like it. But your system believes that it is an important piece of infrastructure—and so you have to honor it in some way. And you have to be kind to yourself about the fact that you haven’t changed for good reason, and that you will. When you don’t need it to do its job anymore, and when you can see that it isn’t the thing that is holding your world together. 

**Ghent, E. (1990, 1999). Masochism, Submission, Surrender: Masochism as a perversion of surrender. In S. Mitchell and S. Aron (Eds.) Relational Psychoanalysis: The Emergence of a tradition. Hillsdale, NJ; Analytic Press

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014

Right Weight, Right Mind: The ITC Approach to Permanent Weight Loss
By Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Deborah Helsing