On lasting changes

Why do some folks absolutely refuse to do things that are in their obvious best interest?  Why do other folks absolutely refuse to do stop doing things that are not in their best interest?  The mystery of mysteries….

Years ago I remember reading about something called the theory of inadequate justification.  The basic idea was really simple.  All of us are constantly trying to make sense of what we do.  We are always trying to find the ground to justify our behavior as sensible, or at worst, at least as necessary.  This theory says that people first look at external justification.  They did it because it paid money.  They did it because it got them something or prevented them from losing something.  In some way we try to justify our behavior by the consequences it brings.  We do things, or so we would like to believe, “because they make sense.”

The problem is that sometimes the external justification is inadequate.  It doesnt account for the choices you make.  Sometimes we dont want for our behavior to be reduced to external justification.  Then we look for internal justification.  We did it because it was the right thing to do.  We did it because we are the kind of people they do things like that.  And all this supplies important clues.

Some people believe let people taste the consequences of their action and they will do what they need to do to stay out of trouble.  But what happens when they stop thinking about staying out of trouble?  What happens when they are not scared anymore?  What happens when they convince themselves, as we all frequently do, a little bit wont hurt or maybe no one will notice or they wont get caught or any of the other things we tell ourselves to do stupid things?  What happens we just get worn out on the consequence and you just dont care anymore?

What happens is that change is short lived.  The key question about change is not just why you want to change or how you want to change.  Those are essential.  But what maintains your change in the end may be as important. 

Change is more persistent, more generalizable and more effective when one thing is true.  When we decide a particular kind of change is how people like us behave in situations like that or when we decide that the kind of person I would like to become behaves like this change sticks.  It becomes “part of being me.”  To start change you may have to “make it worth while” to someone.  To maintain change it needs to become a matter of identity.  “This is what I do.”

Good leaders- rather they be positive or negative- know this.  They try to give people an identity to base their life on.  It is one of the reasons that the idea of recovery is so important.  It give people a story that says failure is an opportunity to to learn, that success is possible, that other people have made it, that you can make it, and that other people care.  It says that no matter what your issues are, you matter and have dignity and value.  Therapists, too often waste their time, trying to teach people to do things that “work better”, when in every word or gesture they confirm to the people they are trying to help that there is no hope, mental illness is a “terminal illness,” and not to expect too much from life.  For too many people, their experience of treatment has been that they dont matter, that life will never get better, that the obstacles are too big and intractable.  And then when they fail we mark them off as unmotivated or resistant.

I believe that learning about how to live and gaining the tools you need are an essential part of recovery.  But equally important is getting a new sense of who you are and what you can be.  Consequences may start things, but identity, I think more than anything, maintains the kind of changes most of us spend our lives trying to make.

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2 thoughts on “On lasting changes”

    1. Thanks, Larry. As always, you raise a vital point to consider. I have to say that my experience over the years, both as a social worker and within my own family, has been that change, no matter how positive and needed, is quite threatening. The status quo being shaken up kicks up all kinds of responses of resistance… often from everybody involved. I believe the resistance itself, and the process of resistance must be embraced with its own sense of legitimacy. It is as natural as breathing air. It may not be what is wanted, and it may, in fact, be quite dysfunctional, but new beliefs, new behaviors, new ways of looking at situations… well, change is hard. Merely committing to it is only step one… and it is only step one for those who agree! Getting others to agree to change is step two… and my experience is that step two is a doozy. It just is. I recently read somewhere that a change in behavior, even minor ones like making your bed… takes about 30 days of continual doing… or shall we say “practice,” before it is possible to take hold. To be honest, I haven’t made my own bed 30 days in a row for my entire adult life… but then again, it’s not something I’m particularly invested in.

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