Four Obstacles to Positive Life Change

January 18th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Personal GrowthChange is essential for your growth and development as a person. Without change, you are assured of staying just the way you are and doing things just the way you have always done them. For some people, that’s a good thing; they’re happy and fulfilled in their lives. But for many people, the current path they are on lacks meaning and satisfaction and they feel stuck. They want to change, but can’t seem to figure out how to change.

The reality is that change is difficult. How difficult? Well, given the robustness of the self-help industry and the fact that no one has yet come up with a definitive path to change, the answer is “extremely difficult.” Add in the low success rates on everything from New Year’s resolutions, stopping smoking, and losing weight to improving self-esteem, feeling less anxious, and having better relationships and the picture is not at all pretty.

Part of the problem is that the self-help industry has distorted our perceptions of change, leading many to believe that change should be easy and should happen quickly and with little effort. Of course, the caveat to this claim is that change will only occur, supposedly, if you buy the books or DVDs, attend the lectures or workshops, or invest time, energy, and, of course, money in whatever “snake oil” that promises to help you change quickly and easily when nothing has worked before. (BTW, any time you see the words “miracle,” “magic,” “easy,” or “fast” when it comes to change, make sure you still have your wallet!).

But this post isn’t about bashing the self-help industry (I’ve done that before), it’s about gaining an understanding of what it really takes to produce meaningful and long-lasting change in your life.

On the face of it, change doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult. If there is something that you don’t like about yourself, just change it. But the reality is that profound change can be slow, frustrating, and painful, filled with struggles, setbacks, and disappointment. Whether you want a more positive view of yourself, be a better spouse, strive for professional goals, or deal with stress more effectively, change is the most difficult—yet rewarding—thing you will ever do.

So why is change so difficult? This post will offer one explanation. It is also the first of three posts that will examine the why, what, and how of positive life change. The goal of which is to shift life change from a seemingly impossible task to one that, if not a certainty, feels at least within your grasp (sorry, no outlandish promises here!).

Four Obstacles to Change

An unfortunate aspect of life is that we often create obstacles, usually unconsciously, that may serve some sort of immediate purpose, but end up being long-term liabilities. These barriers are often driven by some of our most basic needs, for example, to feel competent, to be accepted, to feel in control. Regrettably, these obstacles become intractable and end up preventing people from changing (or even attempting to change) when they shift from being beneficial to being burdensome.

Baggage. Like all of us, you bring good things into adulthood from your childhood. And, as a human being, you probably also bring some not-so-good things, what is commonly called your “baggage.” The most frequent types of baggage include low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear, need for control, anger, and need to please. This baggage causes you to think, feel, and behave based on who you were as a child rather than the very different person you are now as an adult. Most of this baggage causes you to react to the world in an unproductive way that can sabotage your efforts to achieve positive life change.

Habits. When you experience thoughts, emotions, and behavior that are driven by your baggage with enough frequency, they become deeply ingrained habits that dictate how you act on and react to the world. These habits are much like athletes who practice bad technique. This poor technique becomes wired into their “muscle memory” and comes out in competition. Similarly, when your baggage becomes ingrained as habits, they produce seemingly reflexive response even when they are neither healthy or adaptive. The challenge is that, again like athletes, once habits are ingrained, it is difficult to retrain them.

Emotions. Negative emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, frustration, and hopelessness, can act as a powerful deterrent to life change. For example, many people don’t change out of the fear of failure. They might think, “What if I can’t change, then I’ll prove myself to be even more of a failure than I am now.” They then say, “I’ve been this way for a long time and I’m getting by, so it’s not worth the risk.” These negative emotions become substantial barriers to change by being triggered whenever you feel uncomfortable, incompetent, or unsupported. And the only relief is to retreat back to the way you have been.

Environment. You create an environment that helps you best manage your baggage, habits, and emotions. You surround yourself with people who are supportive of the way you are and make you feel comfortable and safe. You engage in activities that play to your strengths and help you either mask or mitigate those obstacles. Unfortunately, this environment reinforces who you are, even when you don’t want to be who you are, and can cause you to continue down a path that interferes with your happiness and achievement of your goals. This environment may, at a minimum, not support change and, at worst, discourage change.

In all four cases, when you allow these obstacles to control your life, they have the effect of sabotaging your efforts at changing your life in a positive way. Even worse, you feel stuck, frustrated, and helpless to change your lot in life.

In my next post in this series on how you can create meaningful change in your life, I will explore the Five Building Blocks of Positive Life Change.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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2 Responses to “Four Obstacles to Positive Life Change”

  1. larry |

    Jim, this was an excellent piece.
    I found I could identify pretty much with all the information you presented. Next question is whether or not that’s a good or bad thing.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Excellent, very thoughtful article. I would add one obstacle, or maybe another under the “Environment” heading. That’s life itself, the things you do every day that aren’t easily changeable or can’t be changed at all. Family and job, for example. These parts of life can’t be changed, or at best can be changed only with great effort and negative outcomes. Many of the things about us that we would most like to change are all wrapped up in those parts of our lives, and for the most part we’re pretty much stuck with them.

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