CHANGE - Why it's hard, and what it takes to make changes

Change is often hard for people. People often try repeatedly and don’t, or do and then slip back into their old ways of thinking, feeling, saying and doing things, and then just give up. I believe much of this is avoidable, and happens largely because people don’t fully appreciate what they’re up against when they do try to change. Knowing what they’re up against can help people plot a more effective strategy, and better tolerate setbacks or falling short of their goals.



People often want to change the way they behave in some way. For example, stop smoking, drinking too much, using drugs, or overeating. When they want to stop doing something, I think it’s important for people to see and remind themselves that behavior of any kind starts and continues because it serves a purpose.

A common purpose served by unhealthy behavior of all kinds is that it gives people relief from a dysfunctional amount of emotion they generate. I define a dysfunctional amount of emotion as more than is helpful or necessary, more than someone wants to have, and more than a person knows what to do with. Smoking, drinking and using drugs can give people temporary relief. As long as they continue to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, using such substances and engaging in such behaviors will continue to serve a purpose in peoples’ lives. As long as doing so does, they will probably keep doing such things, and have difficulty stopping. If someone wants to stop, an important question is “What are they going to do with all the feelings they have?” that they previously dealt with by doing those things.


This is why the “War on Drugs” has largely been a failure. There have been many successes at interdicting drug trafficking. However, the demand for drugs is as high as ever. The thing that creates that demand is that drugs can and do serve a purpose in millions of peoples’ lives. They do because so many people generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their life events. As long as people continue to do that, drugs will continue to serve a purpose, and there will continue to be a demand. As long as there is a demand, there will be people willing to risk their own lives and others to meet that demand, either in their own lives, or others.


Many unhelpful behaviors are driven by anger. For example, arguing and fighting more than is helpful for a relationship you care about, or snapping at others. People often generate more anger than is necessary or helpful to their lives. Anger also serves a purpose in many peoples’ lives. It gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. If people feel powerless in many ways, getting and staying angry will serve a lot of purpose in their lives. That powerlessness can come from being on the receiving end of abuse of some sort in the past, but it can also come from simply not being able to feel the way people want to or being able to get their lives to turn out the way they'd like. When people have heard much more about what they do wrong than right, anger’s false sense of righteousness can cause it to serve a major purpose in their lives. The same is true when people have had a lot of things done to them that they didn’t like. The false sense of permission allows them to feel justified in trying to get payback. Finally, if people struggle with anxiety, depression, shame and guilt, anger will also serves a big purpose in their lives. As long as they stay angry, they don’t have to feel these other feelings.

The problem with anger is that it's emotional nitroglycerin. That's the way nature intended it to be to deal with real threats to our lives. It's half of our fight or flight response. Anger causes people to react instead of respond to life events - it makes them less response-able, or less able to respond to life in the best possible way. If there were some real threat to peoples' lives, that might be a good thing. The problem is that people too often needlessly plug into their fight or flight response and make themselves angry because they imagine threats where they don't exist, or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality. They do that simply by the way they choose  to look at things before, while or after they happen. For that reason, anger can make otherwise smart people do stupid things. It also makes it hard for them to see the error of their ways because of the false sense of righteousness, permission and protection it gives people. 



Another way to say that behavior is always purposeful is that behavior is always goal-orientated. People do what they do in hopes of getting something out of it. But people often have “mistaken” goals that get them off course from getting what they might really want in life. They get something out of what they do in the short run, and satisfy their mistaken goal(s), but make getting what they really want less likely in the long run.

For example, a common mistaken goal is revenge. People can believe they got even with someone they’re angry at, but in doing so, make having the kind of relationship they want to have with that person less likely in the long run. Another example: people get temporary relief from feelings they don’t like having by smoking, drinking, or using drugs, but end up addicted and make their lives even worse, and make having the kind of life they’d really like even less likely.

As long as people keep getting something out of what they do, as long as it continues to serve a purpose, they will tend to keep doing it, even if there are untoward effects. It's why people keep behaving in unhealthy ways even as their health suffers, and why people keep fighting and arguing even as they sense a relationship that's important to them is slipping away and falling apart.


Whenever feelings are involved, we always want to look at the FREQUENCY, INTENSITY and DURATION (FID) of those  feelings. When generating a dysfunctional FID of emotions is what gives purpose to behavior, i.e. smoking, drinking, using drugs, overeating, then it only makes sense to try to reduce the FID of the emotions involved to reduce the purpose served by unhealthy, unacceptable and self-defeating behavior. People can change the way they behave without doing so, but it's always a lot easier if they do. If they don't reduce the purpose served by doing what they do, they often just substitute one behavior for another. For example, it's common for people who stop smoking to start eating more and gain weight, perhaps even an unhealthy amount because of it. They can substitute a healthier behavior for an unhealthy one. For example, exercise for smoking, or eating too much. That's improvement, but people can overdo anything, including something that's good for them, like exercise. People can become addicted to any activity, including exercise, if it gives them relief. Do too much of anything and you start to see untoward effects, or at the very least diminishing returns. 


Dr. Albert Ellis used to always make an important distinction between temporarily FEELING better, and GETTING better. There are a lot of ways to temporarily FEEL better. Some are healthy, i.e. yoga, exercise, meditation. Many are not, i.e. smoking, drinking, using drugs. GETTING better means permanently reducing the FID of troublesome emotions. The only way to do that is to change the way we think. It's called cognitive restructuring. How to do that is beyond the scope off this article, so I'll simply refer you to some links where you can learn how to GET better.  The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life  An article about the "tool kit"



A third important thing for people to know and keep in mind is that human beings create cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” in their brains from practicing and rehearsing thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the same way for long periods of time. These “ruts” are as easy to slip into, and as hard to stay out of, or get out of as real ruts on a dirt road when you’re biking or driving.

Ruts make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions the “ruts” lead to. When thoughts, feelings and actions become automatic, it can free us up to attend to novel things in our life and develop new and helpful responses - in other word to learn and grow. But ruts are why people recreate their pasts, and why their histories can become their destinies. That can be a good or bad thing as well. It’ depends on what their pasts and histories has been.


Here’s the catch. Once people create such “ruts”, they can’t get rid of them. Short of some trauma to the brain, people are stuck with their cognitive, emotional and behavioral ruts for a lifetime. Again, that's a double edged sword. People wouldn't want to forget all the helpful thoughts, feelings and behaviors they've had or accrued over a lifetime. Memories can be sweet and as people get older, they often become peoples' only consolation for doing so. People certainly wouldn't want to forget and have to relearn how to do the many things they take for granted now. That's what people who suffer strokes or brain trauma often have to do. But the downside is that people are stuck with all the unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviors they've practiced and rehearsed so often during their lives as well. Practicing and rehearing such things was understandable given what had happened to them, but people are stuck with their "ruts" even if they lead to unhelpful thoughts, feelings and actions.


The only thing people can do to counter the effects of old unhelpful cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" is to create new ones, and hope these new ones will compete for use with their old ones. The way they create new ruts is the same way they created their old ones. First they have to make a new connection between nerve cells in their brains for thinking, feeling, saying and doing something differently. Then they have to practice and rehearse that new way until it becomes a “rut” in their brains.

But people can always slip back into old ruts, and they often do. Brain physiology is a double edged sword. For all the wonderful things it allows us to do, when we try to change the way we think, feel, say or do things for the better, it can be a curse. It's important to accept and allow for the fact that people can and will slip into old "ruts" and revert to old, unhelpful ways of thinking, feeling, saying and doing things - even when they've learned new, more helpful ways - even after they've seemed top change for the better permanently.



It’s also important to remember something Dr. Ellis used to say - that “shame blocks change”. Shame comes from believing you don’t live up to expectations in some way. Shame is often what people seek relief from in the first place. Many people who use and abuse alcohol and drugs do so to get relief primarily from shame. They often have had lifetimes of believing and being told they don’t live up to expectations. As long as they continue to generate shame, especially a dysfunctional amount of it, using and abusing alcohol and drugs will serve a purpose in their lives, and it will be difficult for them to stop. Actually, using and abusing alcohol and drugs becomes one more way they don’t live up to expectations and reason to feel shame.  When people try to change and fail, it also becomes one more way they haven’t lived up to expectations, and one more reason to feel ashamed and seek relief from it.

Shame is also the reason people refuse to seek or accept help that is available to them, and that might be able to help them with their thoughts and feelings that give purpose to their behavior. They believe that accepting such help would reflect badly on them – and that not being able to deal with something on their own would be one more way they don’t live up to expectations. Shame also causes people to keep what they think and feel secret for the same reasons. Keeping secrets allows them to rehearse and practice thoughts without challenge or questions from others. This “ruts” such thoughts in their brains, makes them automatic. This causes simple opinions to start to feel like facts. This can exacerbate any emotion they already generate, and just give more purpose to unhealthy, self-defeating behavior.   


The solution to shame is to learn to have what Dr. Ellis called Unconditional Self-Acceptance or USA. It means

1) Choosing to see anything we think, feel, say or do as being understandable given that we’re human, and fallible, and what we have each been through in our lives so far. In other words, believing that if others had experiences the same life events as we had, they’d probably think, feel, say and do much the same as we do.

2) Choosing to accept that we’ll never be the first or last human being to think, feel, say or do what we do. We’ll always have a lot of company, which simply proves that it’s part of being human to think, feel, say and do certain things.

3) Reminding ourselves that no one’s perfect, and we all make mistakes.

4) Choosing to see ourselves as what Ellis called FHB’s or Fallible Human Beings who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives worse instead of better.

5) Choosing to believe that we do the best we can at the time given that we are human, fallible, and what our lives have been like so far, and what we have to deal with at the moment. 


It's always best I believe to get people to arrive at USA via the Socratic Method. For example, I suggest a thought experiment. "Suppose on the day you were born, we took 100 other babies, and from that day forward put each and every one of them through every single life event you've been through. What do you think they'd think, feel, say and do at this point in their lives?" I then talk about bell curves, and how we always get a few people who do poorly or have little of something, a few who excel and have a lot of something, and a whole bunch in the middle. Then I ask "Don't you think most of those babies would grow up to think, feel, say or do much the same as you do now?" Then I add, "Is it even possible that you might have ended up at the top of the class, and just don't realize it because we never ran the experiment?"

I also suggest that we should all come with movies of our lives that other people can watch, and have to watch if their first impression of us is negative in some way. Then I ask, "If someone watched a movie of your life, would they see the understandable reasons why you think, feel, say and do what you do now?


Choosing to have USA also means accepting the fact that we have cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts", that we can never get rid of them, that we can and probably will slip back into them, even after having  changed  for the better. If we don't accept this  and allow for it, it's easy to start beating up on ourselves for reverting to our old unhelpful ways of thinking, feeling, saying and doing things. It's easy to start SHOULDING on ourselves, and feeling ashamed or guilty, and even start wallowing in it. That never helps, and doesn't change what's already been thought, felt, said or done. It just exacerbates an already bad situation needlessly. 

It's very much like people driving to work. Suppose someone finds a new way that's faster and more scenic. However, one morning, he mindlessly takes his old way and gets stuck in the traffic he hated so much. It won't make traffic move any faster or if he yells or screams, or beats up on himself for making a mistake. At that point, he has a choice. One, just accept that he did what people often do - mindlessly take their old way, and just vow to go his new way the next time. Or, he could immediately turn around and head back to the junction where he made the wrong turn and go his new way. Those are the same choices people have when they slip into their old "ruts" as well. 


That's not to say that experiencing regret and/or remorse would be a bad thing. They can be helpful energy to move. Regret makes us want to try to avoid repeating mistakes, and to make life better for ourselves and others. Without it, we might not be motivated enough to do so. Remorse makes us want to make amends to others for wrongdoing or transgressions. That's helpful as well. But shame and guilt are more often than not like "too much of a good thing". When people generate shame and guilt it too often plays out in untoward ways. For example, they believe they deserve to be punished in some way, and might even do destructive things. They're more likely to try to seek relief from the shame and guilt in some unhealthy way they've used in the past. Finally, they are more likely to want to run away or hide from what they've done, or people they've transgressed against, rather than face them. 


Here's the difference. Picture a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat. The face of the thermostat is divided into 3 columns, and 3 rows, one column each for THINK, FEEL and DO. In the THINK column, the bottom row is DON'T CARE, the middle row I WISH (WISH I HADN'T), and the top row I SHOULD (I SHOULDN'T). In the FEEL column, the bottom is CALM, the middle is REGRET and REMORSE, and the top is SHAME and GUILT. In the DO column, the bottom is DO NOTHING, the middle RESPOND (in the best possible way), and the top is REACT.

Here's the way it works. If I DON'T CARE about what I've thought, felt, said or done, it's easy to stay CALM, and I wouldn't be motivated to do anything. My DO thermostat ends up set at DO NOTHING. But if I WISH I HADN'T thought, felt, said or done something, or I WISH I had thought, felt, said or something different, I'd feel REGRET and/or REMORSE. I'd have some energy to move that would motivate me to take action, perhaps make amends, but not so much that I'd REACT. I'd still be free to RESPOND in the best possible way. The amount would depend on how strongly I WISH I HADN'T, or I WISH I had. But if I instead choose to think I SHOULD HAVE or I SHOULDN'T HAVE, I'd feel SHAME and/or GUILT. The amount of shame and  guilt would depend on just how strongly I SHOULD on myself. This would cause me to be more likely to REACT. That could play out as punishing myself in a host of way, some even lethal, or running away from what I've done and those I did something to instead of facing them. Neither of which would be helpful to me or others.


Dr. Ellis would always tell people "Stop SHOULDING on yourself". I always add, "It just makes you feel SHOULDY", and that never helps. A young teacher at our school had a mental meltdown her first year and was hospitalized. I always remember that when she returned, she did a presentation about stress to faculty, and was wearing a T-shirt she got in therapy that said "I'm not going to SHOULD on myself today". Good advice for all of us.

WISHING, preferring or desiring to have done more, or done better, or to not have done poorly or what we did can be helpful. But SHOULDING on ourselves is too much. REGRET and REMORSE is enough energy to move to motivate us to make constructive changes. SHAME and GUILT too often have the opposite effect. 


This means choosing to take the above attitudes with what others think, feel, say and do. That doesn't mean we have to like, agree with or even tolerate what they do. It simply means that we choose to see what they think, feel, say or do as also being understandable given that they too are human, fallible, and what their life experiences have been so far. It means reminding ourselves that they're certainly not the first human being to think, feel, say or do what they did. That they're not perfect either, and are entitled to make mistakes just like we are. It means choosing to believe that they did the best they could, and are doing the best they can at the time - that they will have a tendency to slip into their old "ruts" just like everyone else, and probably will.

When I ran my "Tool Time" groups my guys would often come in with their heads hanging down because they had a tough day, or even tough week since I saw them last. They were appreciative of the work I did with them to help them have a better life, and they would often feel they had let me down by having a bad day or week. In fact, it's why some didn't show up for group at times - beating up on themselves made them want to avoid me instead of face what they had done, as they assumed they would have to if they came to group. My response was always simply to say "Sounds like you just slipped into some of your old ruts. Welcome  to the human race. Let's see if we can keep it from happening again". I also would urge them to stop beating up on themselves because it never helps. 

Practicing having UOA with others is good for us as well. The more we practice looking at what others think, feel, say and do in these ways, the more likely it will be that we will choose to look at ourselves the same ways. Looking at others this way, and letting them know that we do, encourages them to have USA. It also makes us someone they'll feel more comfortable being around, especially when they could use some support and help from others.



When people want to start doing something new, i.e. lose weight or start exercising more, and struggle to, it's often because they have what Dr. Ellis called LFT or Low Frustration Tolerance. The essence of LFT is that they tell themselves they CAN'T STAND doing something - something they don't like doing, something they see as hard, something they find boring.  People have a right to like or DISLIKE anything they want to. But when they tell themselves they CAN'T STAND doing something, they're exaggerating or lying to the part of their brains that controls emotions. This causes them to want to avoid doing something, even something that might be could for them. By choosing to perceive it as something they CAN'T STAND instead of just don't like, they needlessly make it into a threat, or bigger chore than it really is. In this way, people can talk themselves out of anything.

The way to dispute, question or challenge LFT is to ask some simple questions. For example, "You CAN'T STAND it, or just DON'T LIKE it?" It's okay to not like something. That's every human being right - to like or dislike whatever they want to. But when people tell themselves they CAN'T STAND doing something, the implication is that they'd die if they did. Obviously that's not going to happen just because people tell themselves they CAN'T STAND something. A person could have a heart attack and arrest if they did too much. But simply telling themselves they CAN'T STAND something won't do that. It just needlessly inflames them, and makes it harder to do something that might be good for them, and that they really do want to do. 

There are also implied demands with LFT. For example, "It shouldn't be so hard", "It should be easier than this", "I shouldn't have to do this" or "I should be able to eat whatever I want". My answer to the first two demands is "That's why they call it WORK (as in a WORKout)". The answer to the third demand is "You DON'T have to do anything". Of course, if you don't, then you'll never get what you really want either. The answer to the fourth demand is "You CAN eat whatever you want". But if you consume more calories than you burn, you're going to gain weight, and never lose any. The reality of life is that no one HAS TO do anything, and people CAN do whatever they want to. They just have to live with the consequences.


I like to pose some simple questions to people, and encourage them to pose them to themselves.

 1) What do you really want?

Variations of this question might be "How would you like to feel instead?" or "What would you like your life to be like instead?"

2) How's it working for you to think or look at things the way you do now, and to make yourself feel and do what you do now because of it?

Does it help you get what you really want? Does it help you feel the way you'd like to feel? Does it help you have the kind of life you'd like to have, or just make that harder?

3) If you keep thinking or looking at things they way you do now, and feeling and doing what you do now, will it be easier or harder to get what you really want in the future? To feel the way you'd like to feel? To have the kind of life you'd like to have?


Change can be hard because:

1) Behavior always starts, and more importantly continues because it serves a purpose in peoples lives. It will tend to continue as long as it serves a purpose.

2) People often have "mistaken" goals that get them off course from getting what they really want - they get something out of behaving in unacceptable, unhealthy, self-defeating ways, but make getting what they really want in the long run less likely.

3) People generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion that gives purpose to their behavior, and that becomes the driving force behind behavior intended to satisfy "mistaken" goals.

4) People have congitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts". "Ruts" make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. They are as easy to slip into, and as hard to stay out of, or get out of as real ruts on a dirt road. Once they create such "ruts", they can't get rid of them, and slip into them at any time.

5) People SHOULD on themselves and generate shame and guilt. "Shame blocks change"

6) People have LFT or Low Frustration Tolerance for doing things that might be good for them

To give themselve their best shot at changing, people need to:

1) Remind themselves that behavior always starts and continues because it serves a purpose

2) Identify what purpose their behavior, or anger as well, may serve in their lives

3) Recognize when they have "mistaken" goals

4) Strive to reduce the FREQUENCY, INTENSITY and DURATION of troublesome feelings in their lives that so often give purpose to unhealthy, self-defeaing behavior, and that are a driving force with "mistaken" goals. The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit can help tremendously with this task.

5) Remember that we all have congitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" that we can't get rid of, and will always have a tendency to slip into - that to change we need to create new "ruts" and hope they compete for use with our old ones.

6) Choose to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA) and not SHOULD on themselves, or beat up on themselves. Practice having Unconditional Other Acceptance (UOA) with others.

7) Challenge their LFT


03.12.2016 03:14

Ray Mathis

Then you want to practice disputing them. Check this link:
Do it until it becomes automatic like grammar check on a computer

03.12.2016 03:13

Ray Mathis

Paul, our cognitive ruts that cause us problems follow a pattern identified by Dr. Albert Ellis. Check this link out:

05.02.2016 12:30


This article is fantastic, it gets down to the root of why we as humans do get into these ruts what I would like to know is how I can find ways of getting out of them .