Posted by: RealisticRecovery | May 15, 2009

What Makes Change so Difficult? Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.

What Makes Change so Difficult?
Barry Greenwald, Ph.D.

  • To introduce and define the concept of ‘resistance.’
  • To explain the reasons for resistance.
  • To explore possible means of dealing with a person’s resistance to change; intervention strategies that help people move beyond their reluctance to change.


by Portia Nelson


I walk, down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in

I am lost…. I am helpless

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again

I can’t believe I am in the same place but, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it there.’

I still fall in…. it’s a habit, my eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

The poet says it very well. Self-defeating behavior persists. Time after time, people repeat behaviors that will bring about hurt, frustration, dissatisfaction, and a loss of self esteem. We have all known people who have a knack for entering relationships with people who are likely to hurt and disappoint them. It seems that as soon as they get themselves out of one “hurtful” relationship, they set out to begin another. Often they seem to be doing it with their eyes wide open, knowing full well that the seemingly new relationship is really a carbon copy of an old, destructive one. To the observer, it makes no sense at all. The behavior is clearly maladaptive. It should be stopped and the person should move on to more satisfying and mutually agreeable relationships.

Problematic behavior persists for a variety of reasons. Important in those reasons are the stories or explanations we offer ourselves about what we do:

  • “I AM HELPLESS” — The firm belief that I can’t do anything about my situation is a powerful preventative to change. If you haven’t got the power, there is nothing you can do about your situation. Seeing yourself as “helpless” insures paralysis. Seeing yourself as “helpless” can provide a powerful rationale for doing nothing.
  • “IT ISN’T MY FAULT” — I’m not responsible for this misfortune. I had nothing do with it. I’m the victim. It all happens to me. This point of view is a powerful inhibitor of action. It allows for all responsibility to be denied. As long as it isn’t your fault there is nothing in your behavior you have to look at or understand.
  • “I PRETEND…” — The need to believe that things have changed is very strong and it sometimes takes the place of the effort required to bring about the desired change. Pretending is a way not seeing, of denying parts of reality that are unpleasant and unsatisfying. People who have pretended that things have changed are likely to say “I can’t believe it happened again…” when the pretense fails and the old, self-defeating situation replays itself again.


  1. Things that are learned early in life are the hardest to change or unlearn. Early conceptions of the world, even if lost to consciousness, remain a part of our memory and may influence our behaviors in some very interesting ways.
  2. Children attempt to explain and make sense of their world in terms of their experience. By the very nature of their limited number of years, their experience is not very wide or deep. Their interpretations of the world, why things happen, is extremely limited and often very inaccurate. Nevertheless, these early interpretations are often the groundwork upon which later, more accurate and sophisticated explanations are based.
  3. Exposed to poor or destructive parenting, a child is likely to explain the mistreatment as being deserved due to some lack, deficit or badness within him/herself. In other words, if someone has to be the bad or undeserving, the child is inclined to take the negative self view on him/herself. In this way a child protects his parents; they are kept perfect. It is not that the child has bad parents; instead he or she becomes the bad child who gets just what he or she deserves.
  4. People seem to have a need to repeat unrewarding situations in the present that are remarkably similar to unhappy situations and relationships that occurred in their childhood. It is as if they are trying, over an over again, to recreate a painful experience from childhood, but, this time, have it work out better. The attempt is to undo a painful history by redoing it successfully in the present.
  5. While one part of the personality seems to be actively engaged in trying to redo the past in a more favorable or successful manner, another part seems determined to make sure that the present turns out exactly the same as the past. This is certainly a more difficult motive to understand since it seems designed to continue a painful, frustrating, even self-defeating situation.
  6. Who we are, our sense of self is a product of all the experiences that have impinged upon us. Every time we say “I am good at writing,” or “I can’t play tennis,” or “I am not very good at arithmetic,” or “Athletics are really my great strength” we are making a statement about some aspect or ourself, our identity. Over the years, we add to and modify parts of that identity. The process goes on without our having to give it much thought. Often, discovering who we are becomes a complicated process of reviewing influences that have had an impact without our realizing it. Sometimes, the review process–the getting to know ourselves–holds some very real surprises as well as confrontation with some real contradictions that exist within our personality.

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  1. Awesome! I a graduate student at Midwestern University and working at Linden Oaks Hospital with older adult patients. I used this with one of my clients who lacked insight to why he continued to experience the same problems over and over. Thank you~Holly

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