Sticky Problems: Simplifying Complexity

Most people would say that change is difficult. Many people have tried wholeheartedly to change things in themselves or their behaviour, but failed. Sometimes people have tried many things, and the lack of results has led them to give up on pursuing those things that really matter to them. For many, the subject of change elicits a sense of powerlessness. Why do people get so stuck?

I call these types of problems “sticky problems.” No matter what we do, they seem to stick. What’s up with that?

I have been fascinated by the complexity of many common problems and been obsessed with finding the difference that makes the difference in people’s efforts to change. I have witnessed people make impressive changes very quickly, and also seen people struggle with the same problem for years. I was one of the latter, hence my fascination. If I could figure this out, I could change things for myself too.

It took a long time, but through my own struggles and by working with dozens and dozens of people, I have uncovered the structure of stuckness.

First-Order Change

Have you ever considered what it is the makes change so difficult? It’s simple: Most people go about change in the wrong way. What we do instinctively to rid themselves of a problem usually makes it worse. Who would have thought? In psychology, this is referred to as “first-order change.”

Caught in this loop of trying to change and things getting worse it’s easy to conclude that change is hard, but in reality it’s the approach that’s ineffective. Try to shovel of driveway of snow with a rake and you can easily conclude that snow’s tough to get rid of.

How come our efforts are ineffective?

Usually our efforts to “change” are really a form of resistance. We want to “get rid” of the problem, anything to just make it go away because it isn’t what we want. The anxiety isn’t how we want to feel, so we try to control the feelings. The addiction isn’t what we want, so we fight the behaviour. The doubt isn’t helping us, so we try to repress and suppress it. Try as much as you want to fight the symptom, but it will fight back. In this case, what you resist persists and what you’ll find is that the more you try to change things, the more things stay the same… or get worse.

Why doesn’t resistance work?

Most of the time when we are struggling to change, we aren’t even dealing with the real problem. Consider how you know that something is a problem in the first place: something’s going wrong. But usually, what we are aware of is the symptom and not the real problem at all.

If you’ve ever tried to kick a habit or beat an addiction, you know how hard it can be. You try and try, but in the end, the habit wins out. Why is it so tough? Because the behaviour is driven by underlying psychological influences; it is the symptom of hidden causes. Depression and anxiety are not the problem, they are the symptom. Addictions and self-defeating behaviours are not the problem, they are the symptom. Feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless is not the problem, it’s the symptom. And resisting the symptoms gets us stuck in a downward spiral.

What happens when we get stuck in this loop?

It’s a fascinating aspect of human behaviour that even when something isn’t working, we’ll keep doing it in hopes that eventually it will. We do the same thing, again and again, and wonder why it’s so hard. Try to shovel a driveway of snow with a rake and you’ll conclude that it’s pretty tough to get rid of snow. But if what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s time to do something else – anything else.

When efforts to change fail, most people will conclude that change is hard and that theirs is “an impossible case.” They fall into the trap of “I can’t change this.” Almost anytime someone has a problem that they’ve failed to resolve, this kind of thinking will be in play. Because the problem has been resistant to change, we come to believe that it is permanent.

But is it really permanent?

Beliefs act as powerful signals to the mind and body. When you believe that your problem is unsolvable, what occurs? This has a solidifying affect on the symptoms. They are held in place, and you will actually stop yourself from experiencing any change or even doing what it takes. In this case, if you think you can’t change, you’ll prove yourself right.

In reality, failed efforts to change don’t mean you can’t. What they mean is that what you have been doing to change is not working and so you have to do something else.

Ambivalence to change

Why else are these kinds of problems sticky? Take any chronic problem- anxiety, depression, addiction, and if you dig deep enough, you’ll find ambivalence to change. Part of the person wants to keep the problem and part of them wants to change. Think about it; when it comes to addiction, part of the person want to use and part of them wants to stop. The inner conflict is what keeps the cycle going. Anyone trying to help will meet with resistance because the part that wants things to stay the same will fight to defend itself.

Few people will even be aware of the internal civil war. It’s easy to say change is hard when the reality is that change can only happen when all of you wants it. Part of almost every problem that sticks is a conflict like this. For change to occur you have to congruently want it, and in fact, it’s not difficult to resolve an inner conflict when we know how.

Linked to the above may be a fear of change? It’s so common for people to say and think they want change but to secretly fear it. People like to stick with what’s familiar – it is the known and so, it’s safe. Often we want to stick with what we know and what’s familiar, even if it’s not what we want. Why? What if changing makes things worse! People will only change if they are convinced the change will be beneficial.

It’s clear that fear of change will prevent change from happening. Wanting it yet fearing it is like driving with the break on.

Almost everyone with an unresolved problem will say, ” I know what the real problem is,” but in actuality they are aware of the sum total of the problem: the symptoms. The causes and the underlying structure of the problem are hidden from conscious awareness, operating behind the scenes.

David Kynan

David Kynan will get you there with practical cutting-edge methods for change and performance. President of Personis Coaching and Training (www.Personis.co) and Former Vice President of the Canadian Association of NLP, David coaches, teaches and consults on how to make change happen when change is hard. He also lends his skills to individuals, professionals and businesses on topics related to strategic intervention, problem solving, marketing and sales. His expertise has landed him training and consulting contracts with companies such as Sun Life Financial, Medisca Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Pure Water Technologies. He has been featured in the Montreal Mirror, interviewed on CTV and presented on his work at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.

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