Identifying and Breaking Down the Hidden Barriers to Change
As we are coming out of the “first quarter” of 2013 I am hearing from clients concerning where they are in their change efforts. Some are moving along at a steady pace; others report struggling and experiencing much frustration as they come up against resistance and other barriers, which present difficulty in being able to move forward towards their goals. This is common as many of our barriers are merely habits, in that we respond in the same way each time a certain type of challenge presents itself. For instance, the person who grows anxious when dating or at the possibility of a close relationship may encounter intensive anxiety, maybe even panic becoming obsessed with self-protection and, in turn, isolate in order to self-soothe. This person may want to have a relationship and feel comfortable with someone, but has a habit of giving up, cutting off ties, or becoming completely consumed in some other activity, which defeats his or her efforts to take the opportunity to change and become emotionally available. Every time this happens the habit gets reinforced and the belief that change is not possible becomes strengthened.
Our core beliefs, assumptions, and reactions intertwine making for a strongly reinforced response to a given challenge. Many of these habits are not all that unfamiliar and have been at the base of our behavior and in the way of being able to create the lives we wish to lead. However, we can feel ill-equipped to deal with the emotions that come along with these habituated responses and throw our hands up in the air and just give up. We need to be able to understand ourselves and identify our barriers to change in order to move through difficulties and achieve our goals.
Internal vs. External Barriers to Change
When people come into therapy they are looking to have something change. Sometimes this includes wanting someone else or a situation to change or involves knowing that something inside of them needs to change. Regardless, we must first start to assess what needs to be accomplished and the barriers that may get in the way as we move forward. For instance, a person may wish to lose weight and to eat healthier, but their spouse may not be a healthy eater and choose to relax in front of the television with chips or ice cream each evening, as the other person struggles through food cravings and feels worn down at the sight of the snacks, while growing angry and feeling unsupported.
The external barrier is the snack food and having it be visible and readily available, as well as the spouse’s lack of awareness or potential insensitivity to the other’s desire to change. The internal barrier for the person wanting to lose weight is the lack of awareness and, perhaps, willingness to remove him or herself from the situation – such as going into another room or to request that the snacks be kept in a less visible or accessible area. Or, the feeling of resentment or anger at the snacking spouse, resulting in passive aggressive behavior or binging or picking an argument. These two barriers can play up against each other and be used as an excuse for not following through with behavior change. This is what is called a “Therapy interfering behavior.”
We often wait for perfect conditions to occur for us to be able to embrace change. Of course, this never happens, because we create the conditions both inside and outside of ourselves for change to become possible. Our thoughts, feelings, emotions may serve as internal barriers. The environment around us may also contain unhelpful aspects which may negatively impact our efforts, which may need to be renegotiated. Our journey through change is a series of awarenesses and small choices which add up to continued progress and the bigger changes we want to see happen. We need to be able to identify these hidden barriers and cultivate a mindset of willingness to move forward, regardless of mood and environmental interferences.
The Most Challenging and Hidden Barriers
Some time ago, I treated a client for alcohol abuse. He presented as intelligent, articulate, and desiring change and had suffered tremendously from the repeated relapse and negative fallout. However, he also had many courses of treatment at some of the finest facilities in the United States. As we talked it became clear that he had never really accepted his addictive behavior and felt insulted by the label of being chemically dependent. As we dug more deeply, it also became clearer that he had a history of being invalidated by family and bullied by peers, and that he could not accept yet another form of invalidation – especially one that came with such a strong label, which put him in a group of people who had “something wrong with them” and again made him feel like an outsider and “less than.” Hence, he resisted change and could not benefit from treatment.
When human beings are angry and feel invalidated it is more difficult to accept solutions to problems. It can feel as though change means giving in to someone or something which may have hurt a person in the past (or in the present) – feeling like an injustice. This is a form of oppositional defiance – a strong willfulness presenting as a permanent grudge. However, it is really rebellion at the expense of self – meaning that the anger is misdirected back at self and scapegoats the person, just as they experienced at the time(s) of the shaming.
These repeated grudge-bearing acting-out behaviors lack real power – asserting needs and impacting outcomes. They hold the person hostage to negativity and repetition which is demotivating and self-defeating. As humans facing change we need to understand process and the ebb and flow of change in order to prepare ourselves for what is in store. We also need to understand that there is no linear process and that there is no “good” or “bad.” What is important is that we learn from our experience and know how to talk more positively to ourselves. There is also no such thing as perfection!
At times, human beings forget that there will be no justice and that the guilty parties will never truly pay in the timeframe and in the manner we would like them to. In the meantime they continue to channel the anger at one’s self – reinforcing inaccurate beliefs about self and others and strengthening self-defeating habits.
When we leave such dynamics unidentified and continue forward we can set ourselves up for failure as we tend to give up. Shifting these patterns that impact our ability to accept change is the change, meaning that this is a core issue at the base of a person’s frustrations and setbacks. Willfulness is inflexibility, often a passive aggressive tactic at times, performed out of fear, anger, and shame. It can prevent a person from adapting in ways that can make their lives better. And, adaptation is the key to survival. Change is constant.
Working Through Barriers: Tips and Tools
When faced with the following challenges, try our suggested approach:
Willfulness – Feeling stuck, disbelief, angry, and fearful. Ask yourself if your way has worked in the past. What happened as a result of maintaining your will? Was it effective? How did you feel about yourself afterwards? What are you really angry about or fearful of? Contemplate.
High expectations – Many goals, wanting big change immediately. List out the mini changes that need to happen to get to the change you desire. Note the possible barriers both within and outside of yourself. What has happened in the past when you approached big goals? Where you effective? Are you setting yourself up for success? Do you know how?
Extreme thinking – Looking at things as good/ bad, right/ wrong, and black/ white. Extremes keep us stuck and polarized. Ask yourself instead “What am I learning?” instead of “Was that right?” Be aware of self-judgment and noting whether you are allowed to make mistakes and what it means if you make a mistake. Are you shaming yourself? This is about developing your wisdom to become your own authority. You observe, correct, and direct yourself.
Over compliance vs. rebellion – Following the directions and not reflecting for you vs. pushing back and feeling controlled. Be aware that you are developing your own winning formula – you are experimenting with new behavior to see what the possibilities can be for yourself. This is not about anyone one else but you!
If you find it too difficult to navigate these barriers on your own, Integrated Treatment Solutions would be glad to help! We are dedicated to helping our clients develop greater awareness, sense of confidence, and personal control in work and life.