When we find that we are doing well, being healthy, and improving ourselves, it can be difficult to see others that aren’t doing the same. This could be a friend suffering from depression who doesn’t seem to want to get help. It could be a loved one who was diagnosed with obesity, but shows no interest in losing weight or getting healthy. It’s frustrating to see that someone can change to be happier and healthier, but doesn’t seem interested in doing so.
When Societies Don’t Want to Change
Let’s face it, change is scary. Even if it’s not a healthy lifestyle, or we’re feeling down- when things stay the same they are predictable and we feel more prepared. You see this both in society, and in individuals. In psychology, there is a theory called System Justification; it states people have a motivation to defend and strengthen the status quo in society. In layman’s terms: People have a tendency to see the status quo as good, reasonable, and desirable. System Justification bias can create some odd effects as well. For example, studies have found that the more disadvantaged people are, the more likely they are to support a government, or system, that is less beneficial to them (Jost et al., 2004). This happens as a result of Cognitive Dissonance.
We experience cognitive dissonance when we hold two ideas that do not match each other, or when our ideals or morals don’t match an action we complete. When this happens, our brain creates reasons in our head why it’s okay to hold both opinions at the same time. Some common examples include:
- Knowing we need to lose weight, and not doing anything about it. We often say to ourselves: “I should work out tonight, but I … don’t have time, am too tired, don’t have the energy, I need to clean the house first, etc.”
- Knowing smoking is bad for us, but smoking cigarettes anyway, “I know I should stop smoking cigarettes, but too many friends of mine do it, so I won’t be able to quit. It’ll be to hard. I’ll just stop smoking in a few years.”
- Feeling depressed or down, and knowing that going to visit a friend will make you feel better, but not going to visit with them. Knowing this, you say: “I don’t want to bother her with my problems. I’m not worth having friends anyway.”
We get used to it
Sometimes, we get so used to a situation, that we’ve convinced ourselves (using cognitive dissonance) that it isn’t so bad anymore. It’s not that the situation has changed, we’ve just become used it! Think about if you have worked out in the past, at first each weight feels so heavy, but after time it feels like nothing. Our brains and bodies will rise to the challenge if necessary, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy in the long term. Our bodies habituate to sugar and begin to crave it, our bodies create tolerance effects around alcohol and cigarettes until we need more to feel the same effect. Just because our bodies have become used to it, does not mean it’s healthy.
Change is uncomfortable
As I said before, change is scary. We often worry, what if I’m giving up something bad, for something worse? We can play the “What if” game all day, but after a while, that gets tiring. Being able to predict our environment is a survival technique. When we lived as hunters and gatherers, if we didn’t know what to expect in our day, or a specific way to behave, that could be the difference between life and death. It could have been as simple as making sure you went to bed at a certain time, or in a specific place to avoid being another animal’s dinner. Even though that is not necessarily the case now, our brains don’t know that. Our brains still hold on to what is predictable, because it thinks we need to do this to survive. However, what if the change you make is greatest life decision you’ve ever made? While the change may be hard, it’s not impossible.
Whatever the change is, if it’s weight loss, smoking, negative self talk, etc., we often have had this in our lives for so long, it’s become a part of us and our identity. This is why after weight loss, it’s not uncommon for people to develop Body Dismorphic Disorder, where a person sees themselves as still being overweight despite their weight loss. Giving up a part of ourselves is difficult.
If it is someone else’s change you are having a hard time coping with, it is easy to start experiencing burn out with this person. When you see someone is going through a tough time, you often want to help them out. You want to do what you can to help them do better. However, over time it’s easy for this eagerness to help turns to burn out, tiredness and resentment. It can be hard to accept that although someone may seem to want to change, they may not be ready to make that change. It’s important to keep in mind that the only person you change is yourself, you cannot change anyone else. Make sure you mind your mental health.
It may be helpful to talk to the person you are worried about. Let them know how you are feeling and your worries. You may find that the other person does want to change, but is scared. If you have been trying hard to change the other person, keep in mind that they may be burnt out from that as well. They may be so defiant not to change just because someone has been pushing them to do so. Remember, this may be something that the person has built into their self-perception, so giving it up is more than changing, it’s changing themselves.
Have you found change to be hard for you as well? Did you find ways to overcome it, and how? How have you handled the difficulties surrounding when someone you know hasn’t wanted to change?
Works Cited & Suggested Reading
Jost, J.T., Banaji, M.R., & Nosek, B.A. (2004). A decade of system justification theory. Accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo.Political Psychology, 25(6), 881-919.
Psychology Today: Do we really want to change?
Psychology Today: Why changing somebody’s mind, or yours, is hard to do
Harvard Health Publications: Why behavioral change is hard, and why you should keep trying
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.