Why People Change (and Some Don’t)

caterpillarAs 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.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, LCSW, MFA, RYT, Aging and Geriatric Issues 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
  • Yolanda

    May 26th, 2014 at 8:25 AM

    Motivate someone else to change?
    Don’t you think that for most of us it has to be about us wanting to change our lives for ourselves and not about wanting to change just because someone else thinks that we should?

  • Marley

    May 27th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    The one thing that I know that is true about me for example is that I will be all gung ho about something new in the beginning but as the days and weeks go on, then I lose that spark that I started out with. I lose the ability to do whatever it is I am trying to do anymore, mainly because I am thinking that I probably did it for all the worng reasons to begin with.

  • Lawrence

    May 28th, 2014 at 3:49 AM

    Most of the time we are looking for ways to get others to change when we think that it would be good for them.
    However no change is ever going to be positive and really work unless that person actually wants this for himself.
    My wife might want me to lose some weight, ok she does, but I am not ready to make all of those lifestyle changes just yet that I understand that I will have to make to make this work.
    I could do it for her but I am clear enough to know that until it means as much to me then it will be a wast of time.

  • rita H

    May 29th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    I have to say that the ones who confuse me are the ones who are one way for a very long time and then all of a sudden they change and you have no idea what is happening because they have made these changes and they do not seem to be for the better! You don’t always know what is going on in someone’s life but what they almost up and become a different person this can be difficult for the rest of us to deal with.

    I know that life should be about becoming who you want to be and doing things that you want to do but it does not have to be at the expense of hurting other people. And I feel like I have been in the middle of those kinds of changes ta times and it is weird because you feel like you can’t even say anything because they may just tell you that they are evolving and growing but I guess that it still isn’t any easier for those of us who are left wondering what in the world is happening to this person that we thought that we knew.

  • Jeannie

    May 30th, 2014 at 3:49 AM

    I am not sure why we always expect that with a little push or nudge that someone could become what we want them to be.
    It’s not like that and I think that most of us know that from having had others want something for us that we are seriously not interested in.
    But somehow we think that it is okay to want this for someone else, we just don’t want them doing it to us.

  • Pamela

    June 17th, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    The thing with change is we never change. We can not change another. What the thing is we can only enhance another or ourselves to be better. Simply it is not change we are looking for it is enhancement. We take what we have and grow it not change it.

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