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Why is Change So Hard?

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, quit smoking or exercise? You have a goal in mind, but for some reason you don’t meet your goal. That is frustrating isn’t it? I have set many well-intentioned goals in my life and often not met them. I have tried the “should” incentive: Tell myself, “I should eat less calories” or “I should start walking every day.” Breaking bad habits or starting good ones is often hard and frustrating. Why is that? All sorts of experts have theories about why people change or don’t change. One of the common reasons for not changing is lack of motivation. There is an old saying, maybe you’ve heard, “until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change” a person will not make the hard choices to change. If that is true, now it feels like an even MORE hopeless prospect that I will change to meet my goals! I am LESS motivated to change because now I have to wait until I am completely miserable before I can change.

One noted psychologist, Dr. William Miller, has spent a good deal of his professional career studying and looking for ways to increase motivation for change. He doesn’t agree with the “pain of staying the same…” theory—also known as the “hit bottom” theory. He believes people can find the motivation for change before they “hit bottom”. Miller believes that ambivalence is one reason people don’t change. Miller believes that people often hold two opposing desires at the same time. E.g. “I want to eat healthy, but I love eating unhealthy foods.” Ambivalence is a normal human phenomenon. Don’t we all have ambivalence about many things in our lives? I may love lying in bed, but I also love having the money to pay for the roof over my bed—therefore I force myself up and go to work. Dr. Miller and others have also found that there is another old saying that is more helpful to use for change: “ready, willing and able.” Thus, if a person has enough willingness, readiness and ability they will have the motivation needed to change. If they do not have it at present, the can INCREASE whichever one is lacking. So I may be willing to change my eating habits, but not able or not willing. I need all three at a high level before I take change-action. Let’s explore the three and then look at ways to measure and increase these three—not in the order cited above:

Willing: To be willing asks, “How important is the change to me?” I may or may not know the health benefits of changing eating habits or of quitting smoking. To be willing to change it is vital that I know how important a change is for me. Knowing the importance (reason) for change is good, but IT IS NOT ENOUGH in most cases to elicit motivation. I still need ability and readiness.

Able: How confident am I that I have what it takes to make the necessary changes to meet my goal? i.e. How confident am I that I can change? Is it physically possible? Do I have the resources? Do I have the emotional, psychological and/or spiritual strength? If my answer is “yes” to all those questions, AND I know the importance (willing) I still need one more component before I take action.

Ready: Am I ready to do this? In other words, is making this change a priority right now? If it is, how high of a priority? If it is at the bottom of my priority list, then odds are I am not going to be ready enough to actually take change action. Being ready enough means it is the right time for me to do this. It is a high enough priority that I want to make a plan today.

How do I know if I am ready, willing and able? I may see that change is important and believe I have the ability and even “feel” ready to make change, but is it enough? Do I need a certain amount of readiness or willingness? Those who advocate these ideas believe the answer is “yes.” One does need a high amount of these three before making changes. How can I measure these ingredients? One suggested measurement is the good old 1-10 scale. You can ask yourself—or do this with your counselor if you are in therapy—things like; “How important is this change to me?” [1=not important at all and 10=very important.] Do the scale for ALL THREE. This will help you gauge where you are on all three. If you discover you are a 10 on willingness, 9 on ability and 3 on readiness then you know your strong and weak areas. The score in my example is very positive—I’m already 2/3rds of the way to change!

What can I do to increase my numbers? That is the key isn’t it? But before we look at this we need to go back to what was said earlier about ambivalence. I have to realize that part of me wants to change and part of me DOES NOT. The more I like the status quo the harder it will be for me to want to change. I will “yes, but” myself out of every suggestion to change. You may be familiar with the “yes, but…” scenario. I listen to the reasons to exercise daily then say, “yes that sounds important, but I get up really early in the morning already—I would have to get up even earlier and it is not good to be sleep deprived right?” Due to this ambivalence, it may be helpful for some of us to work through these things with help. Working through motivation and change with a therapist may be the best option for you. For others you can do it on your own.

Ok, let’s talk increasing my ready, willing and ableness. Since this is a blog and not a book, I will offer some examples.

Increasing the amounts:

Willingness: Do research on the subject—become more informed. Having knowledge about the costs and benefits of your change (or no change) is helpful. Talk to experts if you can. Become an expert ON YOURSELF. Why? Because it is important to know what is going on inside you—remember the “yes, but…” due to ambivalence. I may want to find information that only supports the part of me that DOESN’T want change. (if you look hard you can find it)

Able: Here again research is helpful. Find out what others have done or what one needs to do to make the change you are planning. Look at your past history. Have you ever made this change in the past? If so, then you were able one time, maybe you can do it again. Is there help available? Many times I am NOT able to make a change on my own. There are usually support groups etc… for many change goals people set.

Ready: Here you may want to explore the costs and benefits of change. What does not making the change cost me? Make a detailed list of physical, spiritual and emotional costs for staying the same. Make the same list of benefits for staying the same. Then make the same two lists if you DID change. Maybe you need to talk to people in your life to see how they are affected by your not changing. Many times people that are hurt by my bad habits may be trying to tell me (or have tried) how they feel about my behaviors, but I justified it or did something else to tune them out. Really listen (see last two blogs on this site) to them so you feel their impact.

Change is hard, but not impossible! And the final—yet not least important—motivation to change is God working in us! Many of my changes are not just physically or emotionally beneficial, but they may have a direct connection to my relationship with God. In other words my behavior that needs changing is a sinful behavior that hurts my intimacy with my Lord. Whether it is a sinful behavior or just something I want to change I can always ask God for help. Paul tells us in Romans,”. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. (Romans 8:26-27)

– Dave Chatel, MA, LLP

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