There’s no such thing as standing still in life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.
It’s baffling how some people seem to identify a problem in their lives, decide they want to change themselves, and start changing; whereas others don’t seem to be able to take positive steps like that.
Some folks seem to stay stuck no matter how hard they try. They might read self-help books, talk to friends and family, go to therapy, or even see multiple therapists. But nevertheless, their issues don’t seem to improve.
If this is someone you care about, you might watch helplessly from the sidelines as she (or he) continue to be her own worst enemy. She may seem to be repeating patterns that are self-destructive, unable to hear or take others’ advice, or distant and unreachable. It is painful to watch.
It’s even more painful when it’s you, and you are watching yourself live this way.
In my 20 years of experience as a psychologist, I’ve identified six personal traits that can stymie and stall even the most deserving and lovable people. The last one, #6, is the least recognized and, I think, the most powerful obstacle of all.
6 Obstacles to Growth
1. You Can’t See the Path:
When you’ve spent years living a certain way, that way becomes your reality and your worldview. Other people seem to be living on a different planet, and you can’t understand how they got there. It’s hard to attain something that you can’t even imagine.
2. You are Walled Off:
Growing up feeling unloved, unaccepted or unsafe can force a child to erect walls around herself for protection. Those walls are helpful in childhood, but in adulthood, they block out the people who can help you the most. It can be difficult to trust the people who could be supporting you. You find yourself “safe” but alone; trapped within walls that are holding you back.
3. Comfortably Uncomfortable:
Self-destructive or damaging life patterns can be so entrenched that they’ve become a part of who you are. No matter what’s wrong in your life, you can get accustomed to it. Our brains store life patterns, and we have a natural tendency to settle into them. We are who we are, and on some level, we get comfortable with that, even if it makes us miserable. The idea of changing can feel very discomfiting and scary. It feels easier and safer to choose “the devil you know.”
4. Depression: Depression interferes with growth in three important ways. It saps your energy and motivation, which makes it harder to take on a challenge; it makes you isolate yourself so that you have less support to change; and it makes you feel hopeless, so there seems no point in trying to change.
5. Anger at Yourself: Self-directed anger has a way of breaking you down. Like drops of water on a stone, there is gradual erosion of your self-worth. How can you change when you don’t feel you’re worth the effort it requires?
And now for the big one.
6. Past Mistakes & Misdeeds: In order to truly change, you have to acknowledge and face your own painful history. Who have you hurt? What damage have you done to yourself or others? The guilt and pain that can result from looking at the past is a powerful force that can hold back even the most courageous people. I have seen that this factor alone is a tremendous obstacle in the recovery of anyone who has a personality disorder, or any other long-standing destructive life pattern. If you catch even a glimpse of how your past choices or mistakes have affected others, it may be so painful and guilt-inducing that you immediately look away. And there you are, right back where you started.
5 Requirements for Personal Change
- Enough discomfort with how things are
- Willingness to face pain
What to Do
- Read the list of obstacles, and think about which one (or ones) applies to you.
- Is “walled off” on your list? This one must be overcome first. Your walls are keeping you away from the support that you need. So start trying to let at least one helpful person in.
- Think through all the ins and outs of how your destructive pattern is harming your life. If you get pangs of pain or guilt, remind yourself that you are human, and that all humans are fallible. Treat yourself with kindness and take your time, but do everything you can to face the pain.
- Know that there is a path to a better place. The more you accept support and face your pain, the more clearly you will see your path.
- Put one foot in front of the other. Inch forward.
One step at a time.