As a psychotherapist, I am often asked why some people change and some don’t. This is a great question, one that most therapists think about all the time.
A person I treat who is deeply into therapy recently confessed that she was exhausted from working on herself. YES! If you’ve ever tried to change anything about yourself, you know it is hard. It takes a lot of sustained effort to make most changes; just the act of intense self-observation can feel like hard work.
In my experience, the most important factor is motivation. Your husband or mom wanting you to change may be a motivator, but if you don’t believe you need to make the change, it’s going to be hard to muster the effort required to make it happen.
Let’s look at some examples. Suppose you have gained 20 pounds (most of us can relate!) and are going to a wedding in three months, so you want to look your best. This is strong motivation, and though you may be able to find the discipline to lose the weight in the short term, what will happen after the wedding? For most of us, if the motivation is not strong enough, we will start to slowly balloon after the event because the motivation no longer serves us.
A more successful long-term change will need to incorporate a deeper motivation and will require you to look seriously at yourself and think about deep-seated beliefs, patterns, and expectations. You will probably need to line up some support from family and community. It will also require you to thoughtfully revise your behavior, anticipate challenges, and gradually practice new routines. That’s a lot to take on, and not everyone is prepared to do the work.
Suppose, for example, you have a phobia of driving across bridges. It may be possible to avoid going over bridges for much of your life by going on different routes, getting rides, or taking public transportation. Perhaps you have existed like this for years, and are used to—even comfortable with—these adjustments. Until it becomes a big enough problem for you, you may not be motivated to work through the steps needed to conquer this fear. For most, this would involve examining the fear, discussing it, and then gradually exposing yourself to the feared activity until you can tolerate it, and then you would need to keep practicing it until it becomes more of a new habit. That takes time and sustained effort.
So how do you motivate someone to change?
In general, when people feel pushed into change, they don’t like it! Inviting them to strengthen their resolve and soften the obstacles may yield more motivation and hence make the change process more likely to be effective and to stick.
As a change agent, I often use techniques offered in motivational interviewing (MI) to help intensify a person’s motivation to change. Originally developed as a more positive approach for treating addicted people, MI gently invites a person to challenge his or her own motivation and identify the obstacles in a self-determined way. This usually takes some time, so both change agent and the person attempting change will need to practice compassion and a lot of patience.
For more information about MI, click here.
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