Overcoming blocks to change

There are two types of blocks you may come up against: symptoms which make it hard to get into action, and ways of thinking that keep you immobilised. We will look at each of these in turn.

Symptom blocks

Most people have downers from time to time. The best way to deal with them is to get physically and mentally active, but there is an all-too-common state known as clinical depression which can make it hard to get moving. If you are depressed, you may feel unmotivated and have trouble concentrating on self-help work.

Given time, many depressions will come right of their own accord. There are two good reasons, though, for taking some action. First, you can hasten your recovery. Second, by addressing the underlying cause, you can reduce the chance of a repeat. Most people will be able to help themselves, though some will benefit from outside assistance. There are a few symptoms which, if you experience them, will require professional help as soon as possible:

  • You wish to harm yourself, and make plans to do so.
  • You lose a lot of weight, or stop eating entirely.
  • You have thoughts which are out of touch with reality. For example, you think you are responsible for some natural disaster, that your body is full of disease and will contaminate others, that people can hear what you are thinking, that your mind is under the control of external powers, that you receive messages directed at you from the radio or television, or that you hear voices speaking when no one else is there.
  • You become highly agitated and cannot settle at all; or you become extremely apathetic and almost immobile.
  • You feel depressed for a time, but the depression suddenly swings to a feeling of elation. You feel high, become hyperactive and hardly sleep.

These symptoms are all treatable, so don't put off getting help. Certain disorders, such as manic-depression, paranoid psychosis and schizophrenia, may require medication. Hospitalisation could be needed at times, as will continuing contact with a professional helper to monitor any periods when your thoughts lose touch with reality.

Irrational-thinking blocks

The more common blocks to self-help efforts are ways of thinking. Like most people who seek personal growth, you will probably find that it is painful in the short term. It may seem easier to forget the long-term benefits and simply drift along with things as they are. It isn't that you are lazy or unmotivated — you probably do want to change — but let's face it, most of us don't want to spend the time, do the work or experience the pain of change right now. The immediate gain from avoidance can get in the way of achieving long-term goals.

Low-discomfort tolerance

No one likes pain. Unfortunately, many people turn this into a demand: 'Discomfort and pain are intolerable and I must avoid them at all costs.' If you think this way, you are unlikely to do much changing. Why? Because personal change will be uncomfortable in the short term.

For a start, it means confronting the negative labels you apply to yourself. Few people want to admit to their self-ratings of 'worthless', 'useless', 'rotten' and so forth. It also means challenging your demands. To admit that the world doesn't have to be the way you think it should — and accept the reality that it isn't — will be hard at first.

Taking responsibility for your own emotions instead of blaming others won't be easy. Neither will making yourself do the things you have been avoiding through fear.

Wanting versus doing

Fear of discomfort may reveal itself in the 'I don't want to' block. You probably see it as a good idea to work on yourself, but you may not want to take the required action right now. Unfortunately, many people think that before you can do something you have to want to.

Jane, for instance, wants to lose weight and feel better about her body. She plans to achieve this by going on a diet and avoiding junk foods; but when confronted with a delicious-looking piece of cake, right there and then she doesn't want to deprive herself. In other words, in the short term she doesn't want to stick to her diet. She pretends that while she knows it would be better to avoid the cake, she simply 'can't help' herself. The real reason, though, is that she does not want to experience the pain of self-denial right now.

Craig has the same problem. In the long term he wants to feel more confident in social situations. He has decided it would help him towards this goal to attend a party, but he is anxious. He sees it turning out like many others he has been to in the past — sitting by the wall, feeling uncomfortable, scared to talk to anyone in case he doesn't know what to say. As a result, he does not go.

Jane and Craig are both making the same mistake: they believe that before they can do something, they must 'want to'. But Jane isn't going to want to resist tempting food until she has been doing it for a while and gets the urge for junk food out of her system. Craig won't want to attend or enjoy parties until he has been to a few and practised mixing with other people.

You can do things you don't want to: not by telling yourself you have to or that you should, but by choosing to — then doing them.

I don't enjoy washing the dishes, but I do it anyway — because I dislike even more the idea of eating off dirty plates. Jane could do what she does not want to do (deny herself the cake) by choosing to work towards a long-term goal rather than enjoying a short-term satisfaction. Craig could choose to go to the party — even though he does not want to — for the same reason.

You can choose to feel unwanted discomfort now in order to make progress toward something better in the future. Wanting does not have to come before doing.

Myths about change

There are other irrational ideas about change which can hinder your self-help programme. Here is a list of the more common ones to watch out for:

Somewhere there is a magic key.  This myth asserts that somewhere, deep down in your unconscious or your dark distant past, there is a full explanation of the origin or real cause of your problems. You think that you cannot change unless you discover this 'key'. You will find plenty of support for this myth. Many psychotherapists still work on the 'insight principle', and it appears in many popular media portrayals of therapy. It makes for exciting drama to discover that your wicked, uncaring parents are the cause of all your problems — but it will not change anything (except, perhaps, to add resentment to the list).

Humans cannot change.  Do you believe that you have been made the way you are and that you cannot, or should not, change? This belief does not stand up to the evidence. People do change — through maturing, and sometimes by deliberately choosing to. Anyway, who says you 'shouldn't' change?

It is too late to change.  This is a more subtle version of 'humans cannot change'. It is based on the notion that as people get older, they become fixed in their ways. But this is not necessarily true. As people age, their experience of life usually broadens. As they discover how much there is to learn, they often become more open to change and growth.

I have little control over my problems.  Some people pay lip service to the idea that they cause their own reactions, while underneath continuing to believe they are not really responsible — other people and their circumstances are.

There is a quick solution somewhere.  This myth keeps people searching and searching for a magic therapy — one that will zap them into emotional wellness in a flash, without all this nonsense about hard work and long-term change. They go from therapist to therapist, latching on to the latest fad, but giving up after a short try when the magic cure does not materialise.

I won't be a real person.  Do you avoid change through fear of becoming 'artificial'? You might think that learning self-control will make you cold, unemotional and unfeeling. In reality, though, self-control will give you confidence to experience a greater range of emotions. Furthermore, giving up your emotional defences will free you to reveal aspects of yourself you have always kept hidden.

All these obstacles to change are nothing more than beliefs. You can change them, as you can any other type of irrational belief.

Strategies for overcoming blocks

Here are some tips and techniques to help you get on with making effective changes:

Do a self-analysis whenever you feel blocked

Dispute vigorously any myths like those listed above. Watch out for catastrophising about how you will feel if you try to tackle things you have been avoiding. Put an end to any self-rating about being 'useless' and therefore incapable of improving yourself. Deal with any fears about what others will think if you change or take steps to achieve your goals. Dispute the belief that you cannot stand or should not have to experience discomfort. Be prepared to tolerate a short-term increase in discomfort in order to better yourself in the long term.

Ask for help

A friend can join you in developing self-help skills. You can share and discuss ideas about the principles of rational thinking and remind each other to put into practice what you have learned. If you are depressed, your friend can help by making bargains with you to do things which involve getting active and mixing with other people.

A counsellor or psychotherapist can help you explore blocks and find ways to overcome them, as well as structure a treatment programme. How do you choose a therapist? If you can, get recommendations from people who have overcome problems similar to yours; but check whether they have achieved long-term change. There are many therapies which can help people feel good quickly, and these tend to become fads, but often the effects do not last. Another approach is to look for a therapist who can produce evidence of formal training (and supervised practice) in one of the recognised helping professions. Your family medical practitioner could probably refer you to a suitable therapist or agency. Your doctor may also be able to help if you experience depressive symptoms like early-morning waking, poor concentration and significant loss of appetite.

Finally, if you feel suicidal, tell anyone: doctor, friend, minister, neighbour, telephone counselling service, Citizens Advice Bureau — just make contact.

Use medication when appropriate

Mood-altering drugs are sometimes used for problems like depression and anxiety. Properly prescribed medication can be helpful in some circumstances. Antidepressants are an example. Usually these are given only for a limited period, and they seem to blend well with psychotherapy and self-help work. Make sure, though, that you don't use them to avoid dealing with the underlying causes of your problem.

The drugs used to treat anxiety — tranquillisers — are a different story. They can be problematical if used over a long period. Some people become addicted, and there can be undesirable side effects. For example, one of the most commonly used sedatives will interfere with memory formation for up to six hours after a normal dose is taken. That isn't going to help you cope with examinations or job interviews. Furthermore, the relief provided by tranquillisers usually won't last. Anxiety creeps back, along with the temptation to increase the dose. I have worked with many people hooked on tranquillisers who still get anxious. If you are on a tranquilliser for longer than a week or so, then it may be wise to ask for a second opinion.

Medication is tempting: it promises immediate relief without effort. It can also help you avoid facing the real problem - which is your thinking, not some vague 'nervous' disorder. You will do better to use it only when prescribed by a competent medical practitioner, and to go beyond relieving your symptoms to working on their underlying causes.

Deal with any low discomfort-tolerance

Be alert to behaviours that suggest low discomfort-tolerance thinking.  Watch out for inertia, putting things off, drifting along with continuing bad feelings, demanding perfection before you will do anything, getting angry because you 'have' to make the effort, and similar reactions. Use self-analyses to dispute the thinking involved and design strategies to act against it.

Act before you feel ready

As we saw earlier, you can do something even when you don't feel like it. For instance, if you are afraid of facing certain things, go ahead and do them anyway. See the section on techniques for advice on this.

What if you aren't sure what to do? 

If there is a problem you don't know how to tackle, using another person as a sounding board or source of advice can help in finding new solutions.

Learn to manage your time

Is finding time to do your self-help work a problem? Ask yourself, 'Could feeling better be more important than some of the things I now treat as priorities?' Note, too, that emotional problems will make you less efficient in your use of time anyway.

Make sure you are not expecting perfection

If you tend to put things off because you are afraid you will not be able to get them absolutely right, reduce the performance level you expect of yourself. This will help you feel more motivated. Make sure, also, that demanding a perfect solution is not really an excuse for inaction. In the real world, perfect solutions rarely exist. Settle for the best you can obtain under the circumstances and get on with it.

Develop a system of rewards

Rewards can help you carry out self-help tasks. They can be either internal or external. Internal rewards are reminders to yourself about why you are doing all the work. Achieving your short- and long-term goals will bring intrinsic satisfaction and other benefits, but you may need to remind yourself of them from time to time. External rewards are things you find enjoyable, such as reading a novel, having coffee with a friend, watching a TV movie or buying something you want. Use your imagination in thinking up such rewards: ensure they are things you wouldn't have allowed yourself anyway. Plan them in advance, and make sure you only give yourself a reward when you have carried out the relevant task.

Develop a system of prompts to remind you to carry out self-help tasks

Write your reminders on small cards and place them where you can't miss them — on the bathroom mirror, in your briefcase or handbag, on the cupboard door, in the car, etc. Think up key-words that will remind you to stop and analyse when you are feeling or acting in ways you don't like, such as 'dispute', 'think', 'stop', and write them somewhere where you will often see them — for example, on a label attached to your key-ring or watch strap.

Everyone is different. Some things will work better than others for you. Try out the ideas from this chapter, develop some of your own, and note the ones that help the most. Then continue to use them. Don't expect instant cures: using a technique once will not make much difference. Practice it often.

Maintaining your changes

Continue to re-educate yourself. Be on the lookout for literature which will expose you to new ways of looking at yourself, your problems and the world. Talk to other people. Find out how they view the things that tend to bother you. Remember, though, that other people will have their own irrational beliefs, so do not accept everything you hear without thinking it through for yourself.

Watch out for the most likely way to slip back — thinking that once you start to feel better, you will always be like that. This will lead you to stop working on yourself. Things may be all right for a while, but old habits die hard. Sooner or later the problems will start creeping in again, and because it will then seem as if you are back where you started, you will think that all the hard work was in vain.

Bear in mind that there is no permanent 'cure' for many of life's problems. There are strategies for helping yourself feel and act in new ways, but they will only work if you use them.

Of course, as you chip away at your irrational beliefs, over time you will need to use these techniques less and less, and to some extent you will be able to avoid being disturbed in the first place. But you are a human being, not a machine, and you will always have ups and downs — so keep on the lookout for irrational thinking. Don't just drift along, with the undesirable consequences — act.