The biggest impediment to personal change is confusion. Most people fail to make positive changes in their life because they get confused about what they want; they get confused about their entitlement to it; they get confused as to the reason their dissatisfaction exists; they get confused as to whether the changes they want will even work.
People want to be happy, to have a sense of well-being, to be fulfilled in their work and relationships. However, they become mired in confusion regarding how to achieve these things. Figuring out what and how to change can become so difficult. Confusion is created by self-doubt, lack of clarity, having too many goals, or having goals that conflict with one another.
The most common set of conflicting goals are these:
Very often it is not possible to do both. For that reason, people get caught in the middle trying to straddle both. Or else they surrender to the first goal of keeping other people happy, and sacrifice their own well-being.
So if people are conflicted about something as basic as this it is no wonder that they get confused about what they want in life and how to get it. If you want two opposing things simultaneously then you are going to experience stress and distress. At times it is the essence of the conflicts of life – the fact that we are forever at war with ourselves.
So how do you come to terms with this confusion, this shifting landscape of personal needs and goals?
The antidote to confusion is clarity - getting clearer and clearer about what is most important to you. This can only happen if you can prioritise that which needs to change. You get confused because you have so many competing goals in your life.
On Monday the priority in your life might be your relationship while on Tuesday it may be work. On Wednesday it may feel life your personal happiness is most important and then on Thursday it appears that achieving financial security has to take priority; only on Friday you think that the needs of your children are the most important thing; to be changed again on Saturday when you are convinced that everything will depend on your husband changing first. And the merry-go-round of changing goals and priorities continues to spin week after week, year after year, decade after decade.
If you are to change you need to get off the merry-go-round and take a grip of the goals and priorities that you need to attend to and, not only that, you need to find the courage to change yourself. Confusion is your enemy because it inhibits your personal focus and becomes the bed-fellow of apathy.
What breeds more confusion is the belief that you need to do some more thinking. The illusion that you can think our way out of deeply ingrained habits is a myth. To change deeply ingrained habits you have to fight off thought patterns that will inevitably seek to prevent change. Your thinking, very often, is your worst enemy!
So at times of change the best advice can sometimes be: “Don’t listen to yourself”. Listen, instead for a new voice calling you forward.
What is needed is to then make decisions and take action. To decide to change you need to be out-of-character in some way, you need to think and act in a way that is not typical for you because to be the same-old-self you will not want to change. If the truth be known, most people have forgotten what it is like to make a full-blooded decision. They confuse intentions with decisions. A decision is irreversible. An intention paces outside the wall of a decision, wondering its life away.
So if there are things in your life that you need to change, goals you need to pursue, and dreams you need to bring into reality, then work to eliminate confusion. Do that by trying to prioritise what is important. Confusion reigns when you want all your personal goals to be priority number one.
Making substantive changes in your life takes courage and integrity - the courage to change old ways and the integrity to integrate your hidden dreams into the fabric of your life.
Most of us find changing personal habits and behaviours extremely difficult if not impossible. WE are all filled with good intentions but when push comes to shove, most of us fail to convert these intentions into permanent life –changes. The uncomfortable truth is that when it comes to healthy behaviour, losing weight, keeping fit, improving relationships, or developing our self-esteem most of us remain unchanged over long periods of our life. The process of changing is a little more complicated than we like to think. Psychologists have broken the change process down to recognizable stages.
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation is the stage in which people are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future, usually measured as the next six months. People may be in this stage because they are uninformed about the consequences of their behaviour. Or they may have tried to change a number of times and become demoralized about their ability to change. They are usually described as being unmotivated.
Stage 2: Contemplation is the stage in which people are intending to change in the next six months. They are more aware of the pros of changing but are also acutely aware of the cons. This uncertainty can keep people stuck in this stage for long periods of time. We often characterize these people as procrastinators.
Stage 3: Preparation is the stage in which people are intending to take action in the immediate future, usually measured as the next month. They have typically taken some significant action in the past year. These individuals have a plan of action, such as joining a gym, talking to a counsellor, talking to their GP, buying a self-help book or whatever.
Stage 4: Action is the stage in which people have made specific changes in their life-styles within the past six months. Since action is visible, change is often equated with action. However, initial action does not mean permanent change, as most of you know. You stop going to the gym, your Lenten fast fades away. Your positive-parenting gradually dissolves. So another stage is needed.
Stage 5: Maintenance is the stage in which people are working to prevent relapse. They know the difference between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is a temporarily blip when you ‘fall off the wagon’ but get back up very quickly. A relapse is when you fall off the wagon and then use that as an excuse to give-up.
The bad news is that research shows that that relapse tends to be the rule when action is taken for most health behaviour problems like weight loss, fitness, dietary changes, stress reduction, relationship improvement, etc.
The good news is that for many people though they ‘fall off the wagon’ they don’t fall all the way back to stage 1 – that is to a stage of –re-contemplation. In other words, they don’t have to start from scratch again. They can pick up again at the preparation or action stage.
For example, in a study of smokers it has been demonstrated that 40% of all active smokers are already in the pre-contemplation stage – i.e. thinking about giving up. Another 40% are contemplating change, i.e. thinking about giving up smoking within the next six months or so. And the final 20% are in the preparation stage, i.e. preparing to stop within a month. So, the good news with bad habits is that most people are engaged in an internal dialogue about changing. However, most people, when they begin, find it hard to get to the maintenance stage of change.
The sad truth is that most people have forgotten what it is really like to make a permanent unalterable decision. In fact, you might go through life and only make a handful of such decisions. You think you make permanent decisions every day but you have your life rigged with escape hatches, trap-doors, and hidden exists that allow you to jump ship whenever the going gets rough. Most people confuse good and positive intentions with decision-making.
You have probably announced on countless occasions that you have decided, for example, that you are going to change you eating habits. You may announce your “decision” but in truth it’s probably little more than a good intention! The truth is you rarely make the decision to change and to maintain it. All you are doing is contemplating change, preparing for change, maybe taking some small initial steps toward change, but never really deciding to change. The sad truth is that you are probably hovering around the contemplation and preparation stage of change. Wasting your life away with good intentions.
Everyone believes this myth: That if you know the cause of your unhappiness and what you need to do to change it you will reasonably take the steps necessary to do so.
This myth suggests to you that if you understand why you are unhappy and you know what you need to do, then that is 90% of the problem solved. It is seeing yourself as a reasonable person because, very simply, if you know what the problem is and how to solve it then you will solve it. It’s simple and makes total sense.
Unfortunately this is not true. We are unreasonable people, if the real truth be known. 70% of people who have lung cancer from smoking continue to smoke! 90% of people who suffer from obesity continue to eat too much. People who get anxious because of worrisome thinking continue to worry.
Though you begin to realise that this myth is foolish, it is so embedded in our thinking and logic and conditioning that it is impossible to erase it. Parents roar at their children for not being logical or reasonable, spouses engage in intense conflict over the other person’s so-called unreasonable behaviour.
The real problem with unhappiness and depression is that knowing what you need to do often not make a whit of a difference because the problem is not related to a lack of knowledge or information. You will surely recognise this in yourself – that the reasons you continue to act in ways that are not really in your best interest have nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of information. You and I are emotional, symbolic, fearful, and insecure people in some many harmless ways.
The reason we don’t do what we know would be good for us has to do with a number of other things other than knowledge. Our behaviour is guided by motivation, beliefs, ritual and habit, and a form of spiritual necessity. We must see the improvement of our well-being in terms of a responsibility and discipline as much as a technique.
To make significant changes in one’s life one needs a mixture of desperation and inspiration mixed together. One needs some sense of immediacy, urgency, or inspiration to move and take the kind of inner and outer action you need.
What stops people from actually doing what they know they need to do? What is it in you, and I, that can read a dozen self-help books and have them forgotten as soon as they are put aside?
I would suggest that for many of us the fantasy of change is almost sufficient. There is a form of comforting self-soothing that occurs when you read something about what you need to do and you are able to say to yourself “Yes, that’s good. I could do that if I wanted to!” or when you say “That’s very useful information that I could use at some point…I’ll get back to it!”, “Or there is nothing new in this, I know that these are the things I need to do, and I could do them, in fact I might do them..”. And you continue to sooth yourself with the fantasy of change, with the addiction to imagined possibilities. But nothing happens. In fact the problem is more to do with a certain detachment from oneself and one’s reality that is the problem.
This slight detachment allows you to then not feel any urgency, obligation, responsibility, or spiritual motivation. You detach yourself from your self and float above yourself looking down feeling sorry for yourself but void of the urgency of having to take action.
Because this kind of detachment appears so intelligent it does not appear to be the impotent day-dreaming that it really is.
Another reason you don’t take action is because you lack the three C’s – conviction, certainty, and commitment. To change your ways you need a strong enough reason to need to change. You need to have a sense of certainty that you are going to change, a conviction within yourself and a commitment to take action. Without this desire, motivation, and utter conviction that action is going to be taken then you are still left with nothing more than wishful thinking.
There is a great deal of difference between a good intention and a committed decision.
Again, there is a huge difference between someone who states that they must lose weight or get fit from someone who says that would like to lose weight or will hopefully get fit.
The other reason you don’t move is that you have not really developed a clarity as to why you must change – that is your deep seated motivation for change. For this to be effective you do very often have to dig deep into your sense of responsibility and obligation to yourself or others to make changes. Alcoholics have to do this to stop drinking. The same kind of thinking has to apply to changing any bad habits or negative patterns such as anxiety or depression.
All of these elements, becoming les detached from yourself, developing conviction, and being clear about why you need to change all come together into what must be a kind of spiritual discipline for yourself that is converted into ritualised action.
“The world breaks everyone and afterwards some are strong in the broken places” wrote Hemingway. He is referring poetically to the fact that adversity and trauma do not break everyone. Many people grow and develop not despite adversity but because of it. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” I show the German philosopher Nietzsche put it. Or you may be familiar with Leonard Cohen’s line from “There is a crack in everything…that is how the light gets in.” Each of these people is describing the woundedness of life and how our brokenness is the essence of our humanity. The challenge of life is not to avoid adversity at all costs, but to be equal to it when it places its hand on your shoulder.
Psychological research is now supporting the intuition of these poets - that adversity makes us stronger, more robust, and fulfilled people. The erasure of adversity from life makes people weaker.
We need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps some forms of trauma to reach our highest potential. If you are honest with yourself you will realise that the experiences in life that have made you a stronger and more compassionate person are experiences you would not have wished upon yourself. If you have come through a bereavement and have re-discovered your old self, doubtless your humanity has been softened, your empathy for other people has changed, and your appreciation for life in deeper. Life may not be easier, but you will find yourself to be a better parent, a better lover, a better person because of what you have been through.
So our concept and understanding of how to live a meaningful life must integrate the inevitability and necessity of adversity as a pre-requisite to growth. Wisdom in life grows from the soil of suffering and it is achieved by overcoming it.
Naïve happiness is built on the avoidance and denial of the woundedness and brokenness of one’s life and one’s self. Perpetually seeking good feelings, and wanting to be happy all the time, is bound to fail because it actually is avoidant of life in the round. Is it not a relief sometimes to meet someone who when you ask them how they are they do not just say “Fine” but are occasionally able to admit with an element of cheerful acceptance that they are finding things a tad difficult!
If you live a somewhat stressful, worrisome, and at times hard life then this is it.
The challenge is to be able to experience that as not a reflection of your inadequacy but as a reflection of the texture of all of life. If you feel inadequate then you punish yourself for not being able to cope. If you are open to the texture of life than you don’t punish yourself for being inadequate. No, you roll with the waves. What a Grateful Acceptance of all of Life.
Now we must not be naïve about this either. We cannot romanticise adversity or suffering or trivialise it by saying, like mother used to say, “It’s good for you!” No one wants suffering, pain, loss, illness, death, etc. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of genuine trauma that involves a shocking confrontation with death or some overwhelming experience such as rape or battering, is awful and damaging. However, even the most awful of experiences (see Brain Keenan’s an Evil Cradling) do not destroy the person. There is an inner resilience that has great potential to overcome, though often battered, bruised, and wounded.
My point is that adversity does not imply despair. And much adversity causes growth! Great Character is really about what you do with your pain.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the unique point of view from which we come to see and experience the world.
The research on adversity shows that there are times in life when adversity will be essentail to the formation of character. Major adversity is unlikely to have benefits for children although the effects of once off traumas on children are less damaging than people would tend to think. Research would suggest that adversity is best handled earlier in adult life.
No one chooses adversity and no one feels that having it would make him or her any better. Yet, paradoxically, in terms of the developing fabric of human resilience and well-being it is essential to our ability to live a meaningful life. People who go through life with a silver spoon grow shallow and weak.
There will be a moment in your own life when you have the opportunity to sing your Aria. In Puccini’s La Boheme Rodolpho sings to Mimi about his life – so full of passion, loneliness, love, adversity, and sweetness it is that it cannot fail to move the heart. Wonderful opera is like this, finding exquisite beauty in the midst of heartbreak and tragedy and at these moments the lead gets to sing the Aria. At this moment, the tender beauty of life is revealed to the audience. And this is life. You need to be middle-aged or over to truly appreciate opera because by this stage you have suffered and also known the sweetness of life. You know what is beautiful because of what has been tragic.
Our ability to adapt to things in life is quite startling. Some experts have suggested that we live on what they term a pleasure treadmill, meaning that we continually adapt to improving circumstances to the point that we always return to a point of relative neutrality. In other words, when we repeatedly encounter the same pleasure-producing event, we experience less and less pleasure in it.
One of the most frequently cited studies of adaptation is an investigation reported some years ago by a bunch of psychologists at Northwestern University in Chicago. The researchers interviewed 22 winners of the Illinois State Lottery, which is larger in size to the national Lottery here in Ireland. Each of these lottery winners had won between a million and 100,000 dollars. The winners were asked to rate their past, present, and future happiness, as well as the pleasure they took in mundane everyday activities like talking to a friend, reading a newspaper, having a coffee break, etc. The researchers also interviewed a group of 58 individuals who had not won the lottery but lived in the same neighbourhood as the winners.
The results showed that the lottery winners were scarcely happier than the comparison group in terms of their present and future happiness. On top of that, lottery winners found less pleasure in everyday activities than did non-winners.
These researchers also interviewed 29 individuals who in the preceding year had suffered an accident that left one of their limbs permanently paralysed. What they found was that though their level of life-satisfaction was slightly lower than lottery winners their expected future happiness and pleasure in everyday activities were slightly higher than that of the lottery winners.
These quite extraordinary results show that people have a startling ability to adapt to life events – both good ones and bad ones. The effect of positive and negative events is never as much as you anticipate.
Why do we adapt? Wouldn’t it be nice if pleasure producing situations or positive life events always had the same sustained effect, if honeymoons could last forever, if winning the lotto guaranteed happiness, and if we only had to purchase one version of the Grand Turismo Play Station game.
It appears that by adapting to life situations, both good and bad, it protects us from being overwhelmed by life events. Our species has survived because if positive or negative events distracted us too much we would not be able to get on with the business of living and surviving. In addition, if we did not adapt to things we would lose the ability to be aware of changes in our world, which is essential to survival.
For example, if we were so overwhelmed by our distress we would not be able to take care of our off-spring – or if we were so delirious about our success we would fail to notice dangers and threats in life. So, at a very basic human level, our psychological and physical systems learn to adapt to good and bad things in life and we have a tendency to return to a base level of relative neutrality.
This of course does not alter our ability to experience a given joy or pleasure like having a warm cup of tea on a cold day, taking a swim, or watching a sunset. We keep coming back for more once a sufficient time has passed. The rule of thumb, which you know anyway, is that spreading our pleasures over time increases the satisfaction that each produces.
So the age-old adage that far away hills are always greener is shown top be true from psychological research. What far away hills do you tend to focus on in a belief that is you got what you want you would be much happier?
Don’t let yourself forget the adaptation effect and consider the wisdom in the other old saying that happiness is not doing what you like but actually liking what you do.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.