Like 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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.