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I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

2015 May 16 to 23 Bar Harbor 052

Root to the earth and rise to the sky like a tall straight tree.

It is difficult to feel centered sometimes. We are scattered by all sorts of distractions – perseverating thoughts, loud noises, flickering lights, and most often these days from electronic devices like phones and tablets. There seem to be multiple things at any given moment getting us scattered mentally and emotionally, and also physically. Pay attention to your body when you are feeling scattered. Are you grounded and relaxed and in harmony with gravity? Or are you tense, stiff, tilted forward or to one side with gravity pulling you down.


Our bodies and minds are one and when you are scattered in one, the other is out of balance as well. In taijiquan and qigong, your center is your lower dantien. That is the energy center about three finger widths below your belly button and three finger widths inside your body. Essentially, it is your center of gravity, and we move around and breathe from that center. I sometimes say in taijiquan class that life is a struggle in finding balance with gravity. It is always there. Astronaut Scott Kelly was two inches taller after spending about a year in space. Gravity compressed his body back that two inches after his return to earth. When you are out of balance with gravity, your body pays a price. Your neck, your lower back, and your spine all struggle to keep you upright. The outcome is increased pain and an increased risk of falling.

When you are out of balance, you also do not breathe as efficiently. Beginning about age 6 or 7, our breathing tends to start moving from our belly towards our upper chest. This style of breathing is less efficient. We get less oxygen, we have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe more quickly. This “upper chest” breathing engages your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight/flee/freeze/faint system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing rate all rise. You get tunnel vision. Your blood moves from your internal organs and brain out to your arms and legs to get you ready for action. Your ability to think and improvise goes away and you automatically “go with what you know.” Your adrenalin and cortisol levels rise and form a feedback loop between your adrenal glands and your brain that causes the levels to continue to rise. Take a moment and put one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now breathe like you normally breathe. Which hand moves? Are you breathing from your abdomen or your upper chest?

You can practice getting your center – finding your balance and breathing efficiently. You will move better. You will feel better. You will function more from the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest way of being. You might even be more likely to use the other response to a threat – tend and befriend – when you are balanced.

This is an exercise we do at the beginning of classes to find balance with the earth and harmony with gravity.

There are articles, web sites, and books galore on self esteem and the need to have it.  If you don’t, some of those articles say there are dangers that you will become depressed and anxious and in general lead a miserable life.  But what is self esteem?

The popular definition is something like, “I feel good about myself.”  It is having a confidence and satisfaction with your ability. Too often, though, we focus on the feeling good about one’s self without regard to one’s ability. Samantha Clever in an article called, “Too Much of a Good Thing” says, “In 2004, according to Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, 70 percent of American college freshmen reported their academic ability as “above average.” But, once ego-inflated students get to college, they’re more likely to drop out, says Twenge, when their skewed sense of self and overconfidence affects their ability to make decisions.” She also cites studies about US students rating their math skills as very high while Korean kids rated their skills much lower. In test scores, the Korean students far outpaced the Americans, though the Americans felt the best about themselves.

I think that self confidence is more important than the concept of self esteem.  You earn self confidence by what you do. What you do also gives you indicators of what you can achieve, and also what you need to do to get better.  Praise for mediocre performance does not improve performance and it does not boost confidence. What it may boost is a sense of entitlement. Praise for nothing is just not believable. Similarly, affirmations do not boost performance or mood if the person does not believe the words are true for them. It may actually make them feel worse. There are brain changes as you learn and get better. You are setting up new neural pathways for the new behavior. The more you practice well and improve (and learn from the inevitable mistakes) the stronger that pathway becomes. Empty praise does not do that. Mistakes are good. They teach you.

If you want to feel better about yourself, work on what you want to get better at. Realistic praise can reinforce the improved behaviors and skills. Work in incremental steps that challenge you but are not impossible. Sometimes a little doubt that gets you motivated is a good thing.  It can even help boost your confidence when you do succeed leaving you feeling good in a realistic way.

The end of the year is near on the Gregorian calendar.  There are other calendars – Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, and others including some structured so that dates fall on the same day of the week every year. But, like the metric system, our culture for the most part ignores the way others measure time.  Theoretical physics says that time should be able to go backwards as well as forwards and is not linear. But we experience time linearly and we look for causes from the past and long for or dread the future, and often miss the moment we are in. We resolve, especially at this time of year, to change.

Often people want to know the “why” of problems they have, or of behaviors. They feel they must know the why before they can change, or to make the change permanent. I sometimes tell the story of a research psychologist I once worked for. He swore he would never do clinical work because of an experience he had in rotation during his doctoral program. The rotation included a clinical track. He had a client who was afraid of plants. He tried the standard exposure therapy but got nowhere.  Eventually she came up with a story of being frightened as a child in the presence of a plant. He had no idea if the story was true, but it worked. Too inexact for him. He went into research.

But how exact is research?  Does the why or the cause matter? There is an article in Wired well worth reading at  It is called “Trial and Error: Why Science Is Failing Us” by Jonah Lehrer.  He looks at the story of the cholesterol drug torcetrapib and how what should have easily worked failed miserably. Causes are shortcuts, are stories, that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. We are wired to try to make sense of the world, and we do this with stories.  What we forget is that they are stories and we sometimes make them unquestionable truths.  They matter, but in the end, they are our constructs. Statistical analysis in research can help, but too often the questions are asked in ways that affect outcomes, or the wrong tests are chosen or funding affects outcomes. At best, we can predict with probability.

Jonah writes:

“David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty.”

One problem with a cause is that there is always a cause for the cause – an infinite regression of “why.” Often we have difficulty with randomness and ambiguity and shades of gray. But things happen. One of the interesting things about quantum mechanics is that subatomic particles can disappear and reappear somewhere else for no apparent reason.  We may long for the certainty of predictable waves in the flow of life, but to live, we need to be able to surf. To swim against what we think should be the tide is to wear ourselves out and risk drowning. And realize that nothing is permanent.

Jonah concludes:

“… (W)e must never forget that our causal beliefs are defined by their limitations. For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.”

What we can do is flow with the mystery in the moment we have and the story we tell. And a new year can start any time we choose in our lives. Calendars are constructs for marking time. Lives are for living.

Over twenty years ago, Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross came up with the transtheoretical model of change. Every person has some theory of how people change, including the person himself or herself changes (though they may not be consciously aware of their own self theory). Counseling theories have their basis on how a person changes. Cognitive behavioral theory looks at self talk and whether beliefs are rational. Solution focused theory has you come up with how you want to be and find ways to get there. Some people change for others. Some change for themselves. One study used college teachers with no counseling background to help students work on personal problems through talking. Each professor came up with a theory of how they did the work and helped facilitate change. The transtheoretical model is not a theory, but a picture of how change occurs regardless of the theory.  The authors observed people quitting smoking on their own and documented how they did it – the stages they went through during the course of change.

What they found was that people went through several stages. The first was the pre-contemplation stage in which the person was not aware of the issue that needed change or rationalized that it was okay. “Cigarettes don’t hurt you, my grandfather smoked every day and lived to 90.”  At some point the person did start to think about the issue, and that stage was named contemplation.  The person would start to actively learn about the issue and start to frame it as a problem. The third stage was preparation in which the person would start to make plans on how to make the change and set a date to begin. Next came the action stage in which the plan was put into play. Lastly was maintenance in which the change endured. What they found was that people did not progress through the stages in a neat linear fashion, but typically in a circular way. One would go from pre-contemplation to contemplation back to pre-contemplation to contemplation to action to contemplation, etc. Our thoughts and actions are dynamic and subject to change. We can understand that when it is our own change we are working on and can rationalize what are seen as setbacks.

When the change is in someone else, though, we can get frustrated. “Why did they relapse? Can’t they see what they are doing?” Yes, but you are not seeing it through their eyes. It is much easier to judge someone from the outside.  The authors have suggestions for activities at each stage to help with change – things such as conscious raising at the pre-contemplation stage.  They wrote a book for people to use who are trying to change on their own called Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. The sixth stage is termination. You are sure the change is permanent.

At times our frustration comes from wanting change to occur quickly and wanting people to skip stages. We want them fixed now and want it to be permanent. Why can’t they go from pre-contemplation straight to action and maintenance?  Steven Johnson has written an excellent book called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He discusses the process of the fruition of ideas and with that, change, in individuals and in culture. A major part of the book is the work of Stuart Kauffman and his idea of the “adjacent possible.” There really are no isolated “aha” moments. Those moments are the accumulation of years and sometimes decades of a person putting together pieces of ideas internally and looking at them from different angles. One of the examples he uses is reviewing the process ofDarwin coming to his theory of natural selection for evolution. It literally took decades. You can picture the process by visualizing a room with four doors. To get to the adjacent possible, you open a door that takes you to another room of four more doors. You can go from room to room but you cannot jump rooms. When people try, the change does not occur. Johnson uses the example of Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine of the 1830s. It was amazing and so far ahead of its time that it could not have worked in its own time, though now computers like the concept of the Analytical Engine are commonplace.  When we try to jump straight from a pre-contemplation mindset to action, the odds are stacked against us no matter how good the intentions. We have not set the groundwork for succeeding. We have attempted to jump past the adjacent possible.

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