Friday, October 07, 2022

“It’s easier said than done!” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard clients tell me this. I usually hear it after I’ve yelled at them to make more progress in therapy. (OK, I don’t yell at my clients. That was a joke…maybe.)

Humor aside, I hear it most often from the inmates I treat in prison, but I also hear it from people in my private practice. After I’ve given them my spiel about how they can improve their emotional health by changing how they think, my clients sometimes reply with a sense of hopelessness, “It’s easier said than done.”

What they’re saying, in not so many words, is that I don’t really understand just how difficult it is for them to change. Because if I truly understood, I wouldn’t suggest such nonsense. What they’re saying, in not so many words, is, “Change is really, really, hard!” And they’re right. It is hard, especially when we’re trying to change habits.

When we talk about habits or routines, we usually refer to behaviors. But we also have routine ways of thinking and feeling. Perhaps I routinely feel rejected when people ignore me as they walk past on Shabbat. Or, maybe I frequently interpret other people’s actions toward me as signs of disrespect and disregard.

As I’ve suggested in this column previously, our thinking can become distorted and unhealthy over time. For example, we might fall into the habit of making negative assumptions about ourselves (“I’m unlovable”) or we might tend to catastrophize; i.e., to assume the worst-case scenario is going to happen (“I’ll never get a job”). When such ways of thinking become a habit, they take on a life of their own.

But, why is change often so difficult? There are many reasons, to be sure. On the most basic level, when we’re talking about changing our behavior, it may be difficult because it’s physically uncomfortable. When my wife made it known to me that my new responsibility was to change the cat litter box several times a week, I graciously agreed (as if I had a choice). However, saying “I do” and actually doing it are different matters entirely.

When we’re talking about more meaningful change, what often holds us back is fear, such as fear of the unknown. In the process of doing something or thinking a certain way for a long time, it becomes familiar and comfortable to us. We grow to rely on our routines and habits because they’re predictable and reliable. Change, on the other hand, requires us to move out of our comfort zone and give up our old ways. This can be unsettling, frustrating, and even scary because we’re opening ourselves up to the great unknown.

But why, you ask, would anyone resist changing negative and unhealthy things? Why would anyone want to keep doing something that is harmful? The answer is that even unhealthy habits serve a purpose.

There’s a fundamental concept in psychology that is as true as the day is long: People do what they do because it serves a purpose for them. Regardless of whether or not I prefer to do something, if I do it, it’s because I’m getting some kind of payoff. So, I might say that I shouldn’t eat any more cake, but if I do it, it’s clearly for a reason. Perhaps it’s simply because the cake tastes delicious. Or, more significantly, maybe my will breaks down because of an emotional need that is filled by eating the cake.

Let’s say I’ve had very few close friends throughout my adult life because I have great difficulty trusting others. I’ve felt let down and betrayed too many times, so I tend to completely shut people out rather than risk being hurt. Therapy might help me accept that life comes with risks and that there is always the possibility someone may say or do something hurtful or insensitive to me. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a hurtful person and that a friendship with him isn’t still a good thing. Therapy might also help me come to think of myself in a different light. I might learn that I’m stronger and more resilient than I think. So, if I decide I want more meaningful friendships, I may need to change how I think about people and myself. I’ll need to take risks by opening myself up to others, which leaves me vulnerable in the process.

“Sure,” you say. “But that’s easier said than done.” And to this, I reply, “Of course it is! But so are most things in life.” Assuming you know how to ride a bike, how did you come to be able to do so? Like most people, you likely learned when you were a child from a parent, uncle, etc. If you had had the mouth of a sailor at the time, you probably would have hurled expletives at the person for suggesting such an absurdly impossible thing. “You want me to balance my tush on a tiny little seat attached to something with only two wheels? Are you crazy? I’m going to fall down and it ain’t gonna be pretty! No way!”

But, you didn’t curse (or maybe you did) and you stuck with it. Sure, you fell down an awful lot, but ultimately you learned how to ride a bike. It’s the same thing with changing how we think, feel, and behave. Sure, it’s scary because it takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to do things we’re not used to doing. But, isn’t it comforting to know that positive change, however difficult, is possible, and that with it can come a fuller and more satisfying life? Yes, change is hard. But, it can also be incredibly gratifying and rewarding!

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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