TIFT #35 Supporting the Will to Change

Nov 02, 2021


This post covers two more of ten therapeutic objectives: supporting change in thoughts and change in behavior. Let’s turn the discussion on its head. Most accounts start with why one should change. Instead, let’s ask why not? Change is hard, for a reason. The aim of this TIFT is to get to the heart of the forces against change and how to deal with them.

Reptilian reasons not to change

Among the hardest are the behaviors that support physical survival. Giant Businesses base their success on promising satisfaction of human instincts for eating high calorie food, avoiding pain, and passing on one’s DNA. When we have the audacity to try to go against these instincts, of course we run into resistance. More interesting, evolution has given us not one, but several layers of resistance to change, each one ready of the previous one fails.

Addiction hijacks the brain’s methods for maintaining the status quo. As a result, work with addicts clarifies this impressive tool chest of survival strategies. The brains of people with addictions:

  • Produce apparently rational ideas to justify their use of the substance. Intelligence produces even more effective rationalizations.
  • Make use of the principle that one thing leads to another. The brain proposes some small exception or an innocuous first step. Soon that leads to another and eventually a full blown loss of control.
  • Produce impulses. For example, when offered a drink, or passing in front of a liquor store, the alcoholic, before thinking, says, “Yes.”
  • Produce feelings like “I just don’t care, I want it.”
  • Become obsessed, “I just can’t get it out of my mind.”
  • Make use of social affinity through closeness to others who use.
  • Avoid those who have a different point of view.
  • Glorifiy the positive aspects of use.
  • Gladly relinquish responsibility to others willing to try to change the addict. (Between the cat and the mouse, the mouse usually wins.)
  • Develop a theory that those in opposition have selfish and wrong motives.
  • And perhaps we should include the power of habit. Nerve cells consume more energy by weight at rest than the cells of any other organ. When we follow the same pathway repeatedly, it requires far fewer calories not to re-decide how to respond. Maintaining a habit is low-cost, while changing carries a high energy cost.

No doubt there are more, but the point is that in changing these compulsive, but now maladaptive instincts, we are up against a very formidable, flexible, and well armed adversary.

Mammalian reasons not to change

Beyond addiction, resistance to healthy change also arises from our nature as a social species. An obvious example is the most common phobia, that of public speaking. One can imagine that in a small tribe, exposing oneself to possible ostracism would represent a very real danger. Similarly, challenging a dominant individual carries significant risk, as does behaving in ways that are not approved of by the group.

Group dynamics represent another source of resistance to change. Our personal identity is an important part of maintaining our role and position in the group. Consider, for example, how native American naming tends to emphasize personal characteristics and role. Personal branding is a more modern version of the instinctive level on which we make use of personal identity to support our instincts for seeking to belong and to gain position in the group hierarchy.

Identifying and combatting enemies is another way of supporting our clan. It seems likely that evolution has given us a tendency to experience strong antipathy towards those who are not part of our group, that is, hate. Rejection of outsiders, then, may have the backing of the same powerful evolutionary forces.

Social instincts also support self-devaluing strategies. Humans easily internalize the belief that, by seeing themselves as less valuable, they may become fore acceptable to those with whom they need to feel connected. In a similar dynamic, identification with the aggressor is a very basic self-protective mechanism, presumably useful for situations of extreme oppression or abuse by one who is in a position of power.

Thus, among the reasons not to change in the direction of greater health and more satisfactory life, social instincts provide additional resistance broadly based on the fear of being rejected or abandoned by those we most need for survival.

Understanding why not promotes compassion for the inner self

One way the evolutionary point of view can be of help is in using understanding and compassion to reducing the shame that often blocks change. The very shame that arises from the need for group approval causes us to turn against the part of ourselves that (in the 21st century) is maladaptive. Shame about social anxiety or lack of assertiveness, for example, can actually lead to paralysis. Shame can lead to failure to grow and, not infrequently, to self-devaluation and compensatory reptilian pleasures like excess food and mood altering chemicals.

Being able to help clients show compassion for the part of the self that is misguidedly seeking protection, we can help clients develop a more loving attitude towards themselves, leading to greater flexibility. One example is the idea of taking the inner child by the hand and being a good and loving parent to that part of the self. (See references for one example of promotion of this approach.)

Antidote:  Harnessing positive instincts against negative ones

One patient had great difficulty stopping smoking. One powerful factor that reinforced his habit was his identity as a rebel and different from others. This was his personal brand. When he contemplated abstaining, it felt like betraying his cherished identity. Here is a place for more emphasis in psychotherapy on seeking a new positive, rather than exclusively focusing on what is not right.

In working with clients, one can help the individual explore new or alternative ideas about the self. An example might be embracing feminism or empowerment of women. Not only does adopting a new sense of identity help pave the way for changes in those behaviors and thoughts that once reinforced the old, but it also can lead to affinity with a more positive clan. In 21st century society, unlike that of 250,000 years ago, we can easily affiliate with a far greater variety of groups, with the benefit of a sense of belonging, connection, and camaraderie.

Just as a new identity and new social alignments can be of help, a new goal or new narrative of one’s life story can also engage the motivational (SEEKING) system to provide persistent and ongoing support for change, even when the process is prolonged. 

Beyond rationality

A brief scan of articles on the internet suggesting techniques to help with voluntary change shows the greatest number focusing on why change makes sense. Your thoughts are irrational, your behavior is maladaptive, so you should be motivated to make voluntary changes. As we all know, this is a good start, but when change goes against evolutionary programming it is often not enough. That is where understanding and working with instinctive resistance can add a dimension.

One clear example of dealing effectively with resistance is Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction is one of the most destructive yet powerfully self-sustaining behavior patterns known to man. As suggested above, it is so because use of the substance hijacks reptilian survival instincts. Their depth and power are mobilized to maintain the behavior in spite of its obvious disadvantages. Each of the mental products mentioned above (including both reptilian and mammalian instincts) can and will be used to hold tightly to continued addiction. When AA works, (which it regularly does) it is often because it makes use of the resistance-fighting principles outlined here. AA promotes embracing a new identity as a “recovering person.” It also provides support for new attachments a new group and new values supported by the group. When the addict “hits rock bottom” and is ready to admit to being “powerless” against the addiction, that person is uniquely ready to receive the support of the group. The individual pivots to a new set of values and affiliations. In this way mammalian social instincts are brought to bear against the power of both reptilian and mammalian drives in place for the purpose of maintaining the “safety” of the status quo.

The value of traditional change principles

My aim, here, is not to underplay the importance of more traditional principles of change, but to raise awareness of less often recognized ones. Among many resources available, the CBT tradition is rich in techniques for helping people see clearly the irrationality of their maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. Motivational Interviewing provides additional help with people who resist being told what to think or do.  John Norcross, in a book called Changeology, referenced below, summarizes principles proven helpful to those who resolve to change behavior.

In a world where our evolutionary past with its reptilian and mammalian survival instincts is systematically exploited for power and profit, we need all the help we can get towards success in trading in our entrenched maladaptive patterns for healthier, more satisfactory ones. 

Jeffery Smith MD


Norcross,  John. Changeology:  Five Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012.

Example of a website and product line based on being a good parent to one’s inner self: https://www.thehealingmotherny.com. 

 Photo by Bernard Dupont on Flickr.

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