Overcoming Common Obstacles to Change

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Change is hard. One big reason is that old habits are stubborn. (The adage “old habits die hard” couldn’t be truer.) “When we decide that we want to change, we’ve probably been repeating the same habits for decades,” said Gail Brenner, Ph.D, a psychologist for over 20 years. “These patterns become deeply embedded in our thoughts, feelings and bodies, and we define ourselves by them.”

Our old habits, even if they’re unhealthy, may help us avoid shame, unhappiness or hurt, said Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, a licensed professional counselor who works with clients on making lasting changes in their lives. Naturally, it’s harder to part with habits that are protective. For instance, Derhally has worked with clients who don’t date, apply for jobs they want, or pursue new friendships because they fear rejection.

Change also brings the unknown. We cling to habits that aren’t serving us because they’re familiar, which brings us comfort, Brenner said.

Change may mean doing things that initially are uncomfortable. “We feel ill at ease in our bodies when we try out a new way of being.” Sometimes, we’re not even sure that we’d like to make the change. We don’t have the motivation or we’re intimidated by the process.

Even when we’re ready and willing to take action, obstacles still abound. People often think that change is easier than it is, said Brenner, author of The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brollant Life. 

Plus, change requires time. “It involves an ongoing awareness to recognize when the old pattern starts taking shape so they can make a different choice in the moment.”

People also get discouraged when they regress, said Derhally. But regressing is normal. After all, change isn’t linear, she said. The good news is that you can overcome these common obstacles and pitfalls. Below, Derhally and Brenner shared how.

Navigate negative thoughts. 

Derhally uses techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to help her clients work through negative thoughts that prevent positive change. Because negative thoughts and self-beliefs are typically irrational and false, she asks clients these questions: “What is your evidence for this belief?”; “Is this objectively true?”; or “Is this belief something you came up with on your own or was it through messages you received?”

If a person fears taking action, Derhally helps them consider the worst-case scenario: “What’s the worst that can happen?” or “What would be so bad if the worst case scenario came true?”

“Most of the time, the worst-case scenario is hardly ever as bad as people think it is in their head. And they realize they would be able to cope and move forward if the worst-case scenario came true.”

Welcome your fear. 

“Be honest with yourself about the parts of you that are afraid to change,” Brenner said. Welcome this fear without letting it take over. This means recognizing that you’re afraid. For instance, you might say “Hello, fear.” This starts a friendly relationship with fear, she explained. Fear creates a scary story in your mind about what might or might not happen, and physical sensations in your body.

Brenner shared these examples: “I won’t know how to relate to people if I stop pushing them away” or “I won’t know what to do if I stop trying to control everything.”

Instead of dwelling on these thoughts, refocus on what is true: You don’t know what’ll happen. Then be aware of the physical sensations in your body without attaching a story to these sensations, she said.

When you’re aware of the fear, it doesn’t drive you, she said. That is, it gives you the space to connect to what you really want in the moment.

Become an expert in your old habits. 

Brenner suggested focusing on the content of your thoughts, the emotions you experience and the physical sensations associated with an old habit. “These details will help you to recognize the old habits when they occur so you can make positive, life-affirming choices.”

Brenner shared this example: In order to quiet your inner critic, you need to know how it works. You explore what your inner critic says to you; what triggers it; what emotions are present when your inner critic starts roaring; how you feel in your body when it’s in charge; what it tells you to do and not do; and how it influences your life.

Knowing how your inner critic works makes it much easier to identify, Brenner said. “Rather than getting involved in it, pushing it away, or hating that it’s present, you can gently say, ‘I see you, but I’m not going there,’ which you may need to do a thousand times a day, but that’s OK.”

“Eventually, all it takes is one thought or the beginning of contraction in your body and you are aware enough to stop, take a breath, stand in your truth of what you really want, and let the inner critic pass by you.”

Take baby steps.

“Change is very hard when everything seems so overwhelming so I like to help people break things down into small steps,” Derhally said. She gives her clients homework assignments they can easily perform.

For instance, for a client who wants a new job, the first step is taking a week to research career coaches. In the second step they take another week to contact three coaches. During the third week they update their resume — and so on until they’re able to apply for new jobs. How can you separate your change into tiny steps?

Change is rarely easy, so if you’re running into obstacles, know that it’s part of the process. “Be kind and patient with yourself and reach out for help and support if you need it,” Derhally said.

change image from Shutterstock

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., is an Associate Editor at Psych Central

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