Why Chipping Away at Your Problems Beats the Quick Fix

Walls of empty room being paintedLike a room with peeling and fading paint, life’s problems have a way of building so slowly it can be hard to notice the point when things go from difficult but manageable to overwhelming or even crisis.

Once a problem becomes obvious, we want it fixed immediately. On the one hand, this can provide incentive to begin addressing issues. On the other, it can create unrealistic expectations. Lasting solutions take time and effort. Whether fixing a room or changing destructive behavior patterns, the best time to start is now.

Making personal life changes is similar to repainting a wall. If you don’t first scrap the existing chipped layers, a fresh coat of paint won’t stick for long.

In our lives, we need to first expose negative and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, examining them closely enough to peer at the uncomfortable issues beneath the surface. From there we can shift our thinking and redirect our behaviors. Though this can be a painful process, it provides a solid base to allow the changes we strive for a good chance to take hold and become the new normal.

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David Peter Stroh calls this “worse before better behavior.” The author of Systems Thinking for Social Change writes that, “Long-term success often requires short-term investment or sacrifice.”

The “worse” part of long-term change usually involves facing and overcoming four issues:

1. Resistance from Self

The old routines are familiar, even comforting, despite being unproductive or destructive. An ex-smoker knows the feel of a cigarette between the fingers. A sibling, spouse, parent, or child understands their expected role when voices roar and doors slam. It is predictable, if not pleasant.

There are always benefits as well as costs of continuing familiar patterns. Resistance happens when we value the benefits and overlook the costs.

If we are successful in letting go of the familiar routines, the next level of resistance might involve a growing awareness of the root causes of problems. Questions can surface, such as, “What if the fear I have pushed aside suddenly surfaces? How can I protect myself?”

We can address self-resistance by engaging in this work gently, patiently, and honestly. Often it is best to do it with a trained counselor or therapist.

Sometimes destructive patterns start as a result of unpleasant or even traumatic experiences earlier in life, or from behaviors learned from our elders in childhood.

For example, when a person stops drinking or taking drugs, repressed feelings and memories can surface that may become overwhelming. It can be tempting to push memories of events and reactions back into the sealed sections of our hearts and souls.

But if we are able to open ourselves to examining some of these painful precursors and learning to cope and work through them, we can begin the path to a vastly improved life.

We can address self-resistance by engaging in this work gently, patiently, and honestly. Often it is best to do it with a trained counselor or therapist.

2. Resistance from Others

Personal change affects other people. Maintaining a change involves facing and managing their reactions.

Even positive changes can be disconcerting to family and friends. They didn’t sign on for this. For example, if we decide we will no longer participate in loud, accusatory arguments, but will wait to have a discussion until all involved have calmed down, we can expect to face others who continue and even escalate the previous routine, trying to get us to engage. Or if we stop going out to bars, our friends will likely still call and put pressure on us to join them because this is a routine they still value.

We can face resistance from others by expecting it, having compassion for the ways our decisions affect others, then holding firm to our commitments. Again, getting support from a trained counselor or therapist can be beneficial.

3. Discomfort

Any change, even a positive one, can generate unfamiliar experiences, different emotions, and some risk to both self and others. To change bad habits or difficult relationships, we need to take a close look at our own unflattering thoughts and behaviors.

Denial and avoidance are often easier than facing embarrassment, anger, shame, and anxiety. But nothing will change until we are able to observe what is really happening, forgive ourselves, and make a conscious choice to think and act differently.

Once we make this choice, we may then face discomfort when others respond to our change. If we start functioning in a more rational and mature way, it can highlight for others the contrast in their own behaviors, causing them to feel negative emotions about themselves.

Sometimes, changing ourselves involves sharing a secret we have held closely for a long time. Though this may be necessary for substantive change to take hold, revealing it can be incredibly uncomfortable for self and others.

We can face discomfort by reminding ourselves that it is a necessary and temporary part of the process of change. Though the discomfort may last for weeks or months, if we allow ourselves to continue the work, the discomfort will eventually dissipate. Reaching out to others who have made similar changes in their lives can help keep us focused and committed.

4. Self-Sabotage

Because of the discomfort and resistance that change triggers for self and others, we might subconsciously do things to undermine our self-development. For example, we may tell ourselves that the initial resistance we experience indicates failure. We may attend only one or two therapy sessions, then convince ourselves that it isn’t helpful. We may seek support from people who are invested in maintaining the status quo.

Talking to someone who is not part of our family or group of friends is a good way to begin. Therapists are trained to help people examine issues in depth, overcome resistance, find strategies to deal with the discomfort, and ensure we aren’t unintentionally doing anything to sabotage the process.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn M. Acquafondata, DMin, MHC-LP, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • lorne

    March 30th, 2016 at 3:57 PM

    Because if you insist on just putting a band aid over the wound then guess what?
    The wound is still there underneath, maybe healing and maybe not.

  • Joni

    March 30th, 2016 at 6:02 PM

    Opting for the quick fix might buy you a little bit of time but you have to know that eventually you will be right back where you started to begin with. It is not always the most pleasant thing in the world but you have to put your big girl pants on and deal with it. Whether the outcome is good or bad, you will at least know that you tried to do the adult thing and make it right.

  • MissVickie

    March 31st, 2016 at 8:37 AM

    Just know that it can be painful at times peeling away all of those layers of the years that have gone by.

    Sometimes it hurts a little bit the deeper that you get and the more you chip away.

    ‘But it is all about getting back your optimum health and I have a strong feeling that doing this work will eventually help you reach a better and more meaningful place in life.

  • bess

    March 31st, 2016 at 10:56 AM

    Sadly my mom was the queen of slapping on another coat of pain and saying that she would deal with all of the flaws later

  • Cassandra

    April 5th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    There was a time a few years back that I made some radical life changes that I am very proud of, mainly losing a lot of weight. Well I had people who I thought would support me through all of that but they basically turned away from em once they saw that I was succeeding. I am still not sure why my own personal decision was so threatening to them. What they were afraid of would happen with a thinner and healthier version of me. I also wondered what this said about them that they would throw me away as a result of those changes that I made and was actually being happy again?

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