As a therapist, I have to believe that people can change. Otherwise, what’s the point of psychotherapy if a person will feel miserable for the rest of his/her life because of his/her personality? Also, what can “I,” as a therapist, do, to facilitate the change? Or, in another word, based on the research result, how can I assist a person’s motivation to change?
It got me to think about the question: why don’t we take action to make changes even when we stuck in the miserable place?
Reason # 1: The old pattern used to be a survival strategy or to serve some purpose.
The most common example of this reason is “comfort food.” The first time you ate a certain food (potato chips for me), the crunchiness and the salty flavors eased my stressed and suddenly made me feel better. It was a grey Sunday afternoon in the library, and I was struggling with writing my paper. Gradually, it became a habit whenever I felt stressed out, I just “felt like” I “needed” that potato chips to helps me ease that anxiety.
Before I knew, a bag of potato chips was part of the grocery list.
It served a purpose to make me feel “better” (whatever that means) to get the job that made me anxious done.
Anyone who struggled with addiction, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, etc. will tell you that the substances they used are to provide a sense of relief, but the aftermath is a sense of guilt and shame.
The other commonly seen example is protection turning into avoidance. For example, a child got burned by the stove and afterward, the fear of getting burned turned into “be careful” to protect this child. However, if a person is severely burned by the fire, “being careful” can become “avoiding the fire” and all for the same reason: “preventing from being hurt again.”
This pattern is especially commonly seen in the child abuse and neglect experiences. Few examples are coming into my mind but let me be brief. The first one is “prediction.” I have many clients coming into therapy because of “interpersonal issues” at work or with significant others. They often expressed frustration that they can predict what would happen but no one listens to them to prevent it from happening, and when their prediction occurred, they have to help to clean up the mess they predicted would happen.
My first reaction is often: “is there childhood neglect or abuse experience?” Often, the clients are shocked to hear me asking this. For children growing up in the abusive family, they have learned to pay attention to all the verbal and nonverbal cues as well as their surroundings to protect themselves. For example, they knew that the father would be home by 5 pm and would start to drink. By 6 pm, the father began to get tipsy, and if the mother didn’t have the dinner on the table, yelling would start. They learned to find ways to avoid those situations to be the casualty of their father’s drinking and physical abuse.
The keen observation started out as protection and is a useful skill to have. However, as these adult children bring these skill to the workplace or intimate relationship, it might become a power struggle with their superior or their intimate partner if people around them don’t appreciate the ability.
The other example of childhood abuse trauma is avoidance. Children growing up in the abusive home learned certain behaviors as a danger. For example, when the abusive adults yelled at you, and you cried, it might make the abusive behaviors escalate. Therefore, some adult children become people pleaser to avoid being yelled at. They might also isolate themselves to avoid the conflicts as it raised anxiety and fear. Even when the isolation is so significant that increases the depression level, some people are more willing to tolerate depression than making contacts with others.
Reason # 2: Change is too scary and unknown.
The other reason for not changing is simple: unknown. Unknown brings up anxiety and excitement. As a child, we are encouraged to explore the unknown within limits to grow. In the perfect world, parents provide the boundary of safety for the children to explore within the boundary. The children learn to differentiate the danger and safety while exploring. Once accomplished unknown tasks that have not been done before, it brings the excitement and motivation to continue to grow.
As an adult, hopefully, we all know how to differentiate the danger vs. the safety when we explore the unknown. Still, as people grow, our tendency to open for new experiences tend to stabilize. From the graph of this study, it was clear that adults’ openers to new experiences stay pretty similar until around age 55 and then started to decline. From the graph of this study, it was clear that adults’ openers to new experiences stay pretty similar until around age 55 and then started to decline. My haunch is that, as people grow older and the physical ability starts to decline, their openness to new experiences also decline due to the fear of the physical capability.
Not every child lives in the perfect world. When a child is left to explore the unknown and faces danger, no matter they were able to overcome the unknown or not, they might walk away with more anxiety than excitement. We can’t predict every children’s reaction and interpretation of the childhood trauma and its impact on the adulthood openness to the new experiences. This 2016 study found that: if a child is more open to new experiences and is an extrovert, even with childhood traumatic experiences, this adult is more likely to experience positive life experiences in adulthood. This study also found that childhood neglect experiences are related to introvert and closeness to the new experiences.
From this study, it further confirms my observation of the fear/anxiety to change in my adult clients who are childhood trauma survivors. They didn’t have enough support as a child to tolerate the anxiety of the unknown and to experience the excitement of the change. As an adult, the unknown outcome of change further aggravates the anxiety of unknown and change.
So, what’s the take away points then?