Psychology, Self-Development, Videos

Why We Struggle To Change

The following is a transcript of this video.

“To be human, is not a fact, but a task.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

As Kierkegaard, and many others have long realized, life is a continual series of challenges. While some people, from an early age, develop personality traits and behaviour patterns which help them boldly navigate the complexities of life, many more are hindered in this respect by maladaptive ways of being. Rather than facing up to the inevitable challenges that cross their path, such people gravitate towards avoidance, and recede into a passive existence which, in the end, only produces a profound regret for a life not lived. What differentiates the resilient among us from the more fragile individuals? Why are some people seemingly cursed by neurotic thought and behaviour patterns, while others are relatively free of these burdensome chains? And, most importantly, why is it so difficult to rid ourselves of personality traits which are a hindrance to our well-being? In this video we will explore these issues by focusing on the psychological phenomenon known as resistance, or in other words, the inability of many people to positively change their lives.

To understand why significant change can prove so difficult we must discuss the role that our youth plays in our psychological development. For while vigorous debate characterizes most areas of the field of psychology, few deny the massive impact that our childhood and adolescent years have on our functioning as adults. “The beginning,” wrote Plato, “is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.” (Plato, The Republic) William Wordsworth echoed this sentiment thousands of years later with his famous remark “The child is the father of man.”

The roots of many of the thought and behaviour patterns which characterize us as adults reach back to our childhood days. What is important to recognize, however, is that the patterns that prove harmful in our later years, often served an adaptive function when we first adopted them, helping us to cope with the less than ideal situations of our youth. In other words, very often our current problems are the solutions we devised to previous life problems. This phenomenon of solutions becoming problems or, as Sigmund Freud characterized it, as self-defensive patterns becoming self-handicapping, is extremely pervasive and can help explain why we adopt behaviours and personality traits which, over time, greatly inhibit our ability to flourish. For example, an inability to assert our self, or a crippling degree of shyness, may have been an adaptive trait in our childhood helping us to avoid confrontations with abusive caregivers. This trait only becomes maladaptive if we hold onto it into adulthood and generalize its application to situations where the potential for abuse is absent. It is often the case, therefore, that those who suffer most from neurotic, or even some forms of psychotic functioning, are not so much flawed in any innate sense, but rather are the victims of unfortunate circumstances over which they had little control.

“Look at almost any form of chronic psychological distress and dysfunction” wrote the psychologist Michael Mahoney “addiction, agoraphobia, anorexia, anxious avoidance, bulimia, depression, obesity, paranoia, obsession, compulsion, and even schizophrenia. All can be viewed as costly and painful solutions. They tend to be short-term solutions to problems of pain and meaning. The solution becomes a pattern – a well entrenched pattern – and immediate benefits are offset by long-range costs.” (Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy)

But while this can help explain why we adopt such behaviour patterns in the first place, why do we hold on to them long after they have lost any adaptive coping value? Why in other words are we so resistant to change? The topic of resistance has long been debated with some viewing it as the most important problem in the field of psychology. Freud, for example, who early in his career was fascinated by the potential of hypnosis to treat his patients, ultimately abandoned this technique and in explaining why he wrote the following:

“[hypnosis] does not permit us. . .to recognize the resistance with which the patient clings to his disease and thus even fights against his own recovery; yet it is this phenomenon of resistance which alone makes it possible to comprehend his behavior in daily life.” (Sigmund Freud, On Psychotherapy)

Freud believed that this tendency to cling to one’s diseased psychological states was driven by an innate death wish. Not all who have studied the phenomenon of resistance, however, have shared Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature. Over the past several decades there has been a growing realization that our resistance to change is not maladaptive, but instead reflects an important mechanism for our survival. For just as our physical organs are resistant to dramatic changes in their functioning, so too, according to the self-protective theory of resistance is our sense of self protected against dramatic change and for important reasons. We need a coherent sense of self to properly function and while we may at times wish we could change our personality as easily as we could change our clothes, this would in fact prove to be a curse, not a blessing. Having such a weak sense of self would make it very difficult for us to properly function in the world and in fact, many psychological disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, are the result of an inability to maintain a coherent sense of self. The fact that changing core elements of our personality is a difficult task is therefore seen, in this respect, as an adaptive feature of human nature, or as Mahoney explains:

“Many people do not change, or do not change much, because we are fundamentally conservative creatures. This is not our fault. It is our life form. Coherence and continuity are built into life support, and it should not be surprising that these themes are expressed in our psychological life as well. . . We not only seek order but we also need it. We are organized by systems of activities and are often very protective of our own patterns.” (Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy)

While our resistance to change serves a self-protective function, this does not preclude our ability to change, and often in dramatic ways. We are not the prisoners of our childhood and our capacity for change exists throughout our adult years. What the self-protective theory of resistance emphasizes however, is that change is not easy and often requires sustained effort over prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, in our attempts to change it is natural to experience periods of intense emotions such as anxiety, fear, depression and doubt. These feelings, however, should not be viewed as signs that we are necessarily on the wrong path, nor that our attempts at change are doomed to fail, rather we should recognize them for what they are – a natural expression of the need for order and coherence in our psychological life.

But while change is not easy, very often not changing, not facing up to the challenges of life, only produces more suffering in the long run. We may wish there was an easy path through life but holding on to such a hope is likely to end in disappointment. Rather we would be wise to view life for what it is, a journey that is sometimes exciting, sometimes dangerous, and very often uncertain, or as Fitzjames Stephen poetically put it:

“In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark…If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril…We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? “Be strong and of a good courage.” Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes…If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” (James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity)

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

'Dream of Italy' by William Louis Sonntag, Dayton Art Institute
Paul Gauguin - Landscape of Brittany - Google Art Project
Hans Thoma - Der verlorene Sohn
Thomas Eakins - Portrait of Thomas J. Eagan (1907)
Matthias Grünewald - The Temptation of St Anthony - WGA10765
Self-Portrait by Henry Luyten Roermond municipal art collection 0600
Einar Hein - Children picking berries on the moor - Google Art Project
Carlo francesco nuvolone, sant'antonio da padova, 1643 circa, dal palazzo dei giureconsulti a milano
John George Brown, 1888 - The Shoeshine Boy
Luigi Russolo self-portrait-with-skulls-1909
Attributed to Frank Duveneck - Study of a School Boy - Google Art Project
Edgar Degas - Self-portrait ca 1857
Eilif Peterssen - Self-Portrait - Google Art Project
'Self-porrait' by Frank Duveneck, Cincinnati Art Museum
Vincent van Gogh - Head of a man - Google Art Project
Antoine Wiertz Two Young Girls or the Beautiful Rosine
Vorobev dubRazbityMolniey
Giuseppe Canella Küstenlandschaft 1840
The Dressing Table by Frederick Childe Hassam, 1918
Иван К. Айвазовский - Великая Пирамида в Гизе (1871)
Henry Scott Tuke - Looking out to sea
Ludwig Knaus - Porträtstudie eines jungen Herrn
Brooklyn Museum - Portrait of a Man (Richard Creifelds) - Frank Duveneck
Ludwig Knaus - Der Unzufriedene (1877)
Hermann Herzog - Storm in the mountains