Why is Change so Difficult?
Perhaps therapists see a biased sample. Perhaps there are people who recognize a need to change something important about the way they live and execute change in a timely manner. But I must admit that what stands out to me as a therapist as well as through informal (non-therapy) relationships is how hard most people find it to change any well-entrenched aspect of how they face the world or live in the world day to day, regardless of how desirable it might seem to let us say ‘upgrade’ how they go about living life. Which leads us to the question, ‘Why is change so difficult?’ If people are thought of primarily from the perspective of rational actors, or let us say primarily in cognitive (as contrasted to emotional) terms, then clinging to what appear to be decidedly sub-optimal strategies for living life seems quite mysterious. I think it is far more realistic to emphasize emotions and feelings than to emphasize thought in trying to understand why people conduct themselves as they do in living. The question of who is the master, feelings or thought, is a venerable one in Importance psychology and philosophy and other fields . In my view you can hardly do wrong by focusing on the emotional side of life. Only feelings ever animate or push anybody to do anything; thought stripped of emotion lacks motivating force. If you have ever tried to persuade a person to do anything they are really disinclined to do via (what you consider to be) rational argument you no doubt know what I am talking about.
Regulating feeling life so that feeling life stays within tolerable limits is the primary imperative in living, I propose. If a person resists what seems to be desirable change as he/she sees the matter (never mind how desirable it seems to others), the most likely reason is fear or anxiety – fear or anxiety that deviating from what is known and familiar will result in even greater emotional difficulty than what is presently being experienced. I am inclined to call this the devil you know phenomenon. It is very potent.
The therapist of course realizes that if the client does not modify his/her way of living there is no good reason to expect the future to be any better than the past, but what to do? All theories of therapy take for granted that the client must modify his /her way of living (this is a deliberately elastic term that includes the client’s way of perceiving and reacting), but there is substantial disagreement about what the therapist should do to help the client to change. I think it is essential to understand why change is so difficult. In conventional therapy parlance clinging to the old rather than advancing towards the new is called ‘resistance.’
‘Resistance’ is an evaluation from the outside, from the therapist’s side, not from the client’s side (a 3rd person term, not a 1st person term; as such, resistance called be called a ‘deformation professionelle’, a French term suggesting that a distortion has been produced by the professional’s framework of thought). From the client’s side nothing that makes sense, is desirable, and is unthreatening in any way is ever resisted. The therapist can never lose sight of the fact that his/her own evaluation of how threatening something is is a strictly external, onlooker perspective. To bring this point into focus, it may help to think of something that deeply frightens you but does not frighten a specific other person that you know nearly as much as it frightens you (if you can’t think of anything you really should try harder). I make this point because it is too easy from an onlooker perspective to minimize the severity of someone else’s fear. From the client’s side there are compelling reasons not to change (it is the client that has ‘skin in the game’).
If a client resists something that seems clearly desirable and advantageous to the therapist this (the client’s resistance, that is) is a sign that the therapist does not fully grasp what is at stake as far as the client is concerned. People do not resist things that make sense, are desirable, and are not threatening in some way, to repeat. The client may not be able to state clearly and convincingly why he/she is hanging on to the old rather than embracing the new, but the client’s reluctance itself reveals that there are felt reasons, even if not yet articulated. The client’s bodily reactions, “feelings,” show that there are subjective reasons not to move ahead, although the reasons may be far from clear to the client him/herself. The only thing the therapist knows with certainty is that the client has reasons not to move ahead. The reasons may be quite complicated and take a long time, via the process of prolonged dialogue, that is prolonged back and forth to unearth and explicate.
Explicating the reasons for maintaining the status quo does not automatically banish fear and bring about change (the fear, again, is that giving up the old will make matters even worse). The only way to move ahead is on the basis of a feeling shift, i.e., that moving ahead is not a certain disaster. Where does the feeling shift come from? This is a complicated issue. The answer I favor brings to mind the ongoing debate within the therapy community concerning whether therapist intervention strategies primarily bring about change (when change does occur) or whether change occurs (when it does) on the basis of the relationship that has developed between the client and the therapist (Bruce Wampold, an academic psychologist, has referred to this as ‘The Great Psychotherapy Debate’; see his 2001 book bearing this title). My answer is that a feeling shift occurs (when and if it does occur) because the relationship with the therapist has become important to the client, thereby altering the client’s feelings of aloneness and distrust, as well as altering the client’s negative and hostile self-feelings and background dysphoria. If the therapeutic relationship becomes important to the client that is already a feeling shift, and it lowers obstacles to changes in the direction of more self-care, positive self-regard, and positive social connections. The bad news, I think, is that to the extent that a person is too guarded to allow the relationship to become important, the less likely it is that significant and enduring positive change will occur. The onus is on the therapist to do all he/she can do to foster a positive relationship.
If the client’s background were such as to make it easy and natural to develop trusting personal relationships, I submit, then the therapist would not be making the client’s acquaintance as a client seeking therapy at all. If positive change depends on the establishment and development of an important and trusting relationship, establishing and developing an important and trusting relationship is going to be challenging, effortful, and, let us say, little by little for the client (given his/her formative background). In a sense the task is to alter the legacy of the formative years and experiences of life. This cannot be accomplished through argument, only through experience. The experiences that really matter in life are usually intimately connected to actual relationships, actual interactions with specific people. Such experiences stick, that is shape self-regarding attitudes as well as a certain style of being involved with people. Altering self-feelings and feelings about others is not like changing a shirt. It is more like coming to feel at home in a new language that you only start learning as an adult. It’s hard work and takes substantial time.