Lesson 1 of 7 - free your true Self to guide you

About Two Levels
of Personal Change

Why Bad Habits Return

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this page is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/change.htm

Updated  02-03-2015

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      This article offers perspective on the two-level process of personal change. Thanks to Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, Dr. Paul Watzlawick, et. al. for this important idea.

      This brief YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site - I've reduced that to seven.

      This article assumes you're familiar with

      All animals, including humans, are ceaselessly motivated to reduce current or future discomforts (needs) and increase pleasures. Both of these involve changing something. A common vexation for many people is trying to change a "bad habit" - e.g. to stop using tobacco or alcohol, overeating, gambling, biting our nails, etc. - and failing. A similar vexation occurs when we try to change another person's attitude, perception, opinion, and/or behavior - and fail. Why do we (you) fail?

colorbutton.gif Premises About Change

      See how many of these ideas you agree with:

      Adults and kids change some of their beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors suddenly or over time. They (you) do so because their knowledge, needs, and environments continually change as they age and the world evolves. 

      Change can be chosen or imposed. Voluntary (intentional) changes usually aim to reduce or prevent discomfort and/or to gain short or long-term security and/or pleasure.

      People often unconsciously resist personal and environmental change because it causes anxiety ("worry") about the safety and comfort of the post-change world. The degree and duration of anxiety depends in part on whether a person learned self-confidence and trust  as a young child. Even planned change breeds temporary anxiety and uncertainty ("stress"). Sudden or gradual unplanned change can breed more stress longer.

      Changes effect different people differently, because of age, gender, values, personality, and prior experience. Some subselves and people can adapt to change (resume their balance) faster than others. This implies that successful change-management requires you to identify the slowest adapter among all affected subselves or people and adjust your pace to suit them, without resentment or blame. Do you know who among your inner and outer families takes the longest to adapt to changes?

      Some changes require grieving, and others don't. The former involve losing physical or invisible things to which you've bonded or attached. Can you think of things you've changed that didn't "bother you" much?  Too many losses at once can overwhelm even the most resilient, grounded child or adult. The moral: as you adapt to losses (changes) personally and as a family, help each other identify what you each need to grieve, and use self-improvement Lesson 3 ("good grief") knowledge together.

      The key indicators of reaction to inner and outer change are your emotions and related bodily feelings and functions (e.g. sleep, digestion, and elimination). As you monitor yourself and other family members for their change-comfort, discern between "calmness" due to emotional denial, repression and/or numbing (protective false-self strategies), and true psychological-mental-spiritual acceptance and serenity.

      Some changes occur suddenly, and others slowly. Some are foreseen, and others come without warning. Your family members have a better chance of adjusting to local and environmental changes if they know (a) what's going to change in advance and (b) how those changes will affect them and those they care about. This suggests the value of planning voluntary changes and discussing the plan with all affected people..

      Some changes occur in clusters, and others happen alone. Buying a new car or TV has far fewer family-wide effects than wedding, moving in together, conceiving a baby, moving to a new home or location, or changing jobs or careers. Adults and kids are at the highest risk of significant stress if they make too many major changes without planning. or allowing time to adapt and stabilize. Option - categorize changes as minor, moderate, and major to help you discuss and plan for them,

      Invisible changes can cause just as much stress as physical ones. Many small concurrent changes (or losses) can be just a stressful as a major shift.

      The effects of personal and family changes vary between predictable and unforeseen. The effects  of unexpected shifts (like a vehicle wreck) usually take longer to adapt to than foreseen changes like choosing a new school or family church. This is partly because adapting can start before the actual change.

      Note the difference between changes that are freely chosen, vs. those that are imposed by others. The latter can add hurt, resentment, and anger to the normal mix of change emotions that need to be felt, expressed, and released.

       Pause and notice what you're thinking and feeling now. Have you ever seen premises about human change like these before?

      With these ideas in mind - have you ever tried to break (change) "a bad habit" like smoking, using drugs, overeating, nail biting, or "shading the truth"? If you didn't succeed, do you know why? It is not because of a lack of "will power"! See how you feel about this explanation:

Two Levels of Change

      Premise - there are two levels of personal change: superficial (behavioral) changes ("I'm working to improve my eye contact"), and underlying attitude changes ("I'm working to improve my self respect"). Do you know how and when to distinguish these levels?

      Superficial changes are behavioral shifts that don't permanently achieve a desired result. Examples abound: diets that "don't work" over time, addiction relapses, persistent lateness, forgetting important names and dates, avoiding exercise or medical checkups, - i.e. broken New Years' resolutions. (Any bells ringing?). These problems (discomforts) keep returning because we shift our behaviors but not the core values or attitudes causing the behaviors.

      One reason some therapy, counseling, and mediation is unsuccessful long-term is that clients and professionals aren't aware of this distinction and what causes it - so they unconsciously aim for superficial behavioral changes. Most marital and parent-child conflict is ultimately fruitless battling over surface problems (needs) and demanding or expecting superficial changes - e.g. "I need you to listen to me more often" instead of "I need you to want to listen to me."

      Core attitude changes are permanent value-shifts that cause new behaviors. The trigger problem stays gone, and is not replaced by a new version (like giving up alcohol and starting a nicotine or work addiction). Non-voters become political activists. Atheists "come to believe" in a Higher Power. Workaholics become Zen masters. Criminals become peace-enforcement professionals. Hostile ex mates change to see each other compassionately as wounded and unaware, not bad. Scrooge becomes a jolly holiday benefactor of the poor Cratchit family. Attitude changes really happen!

The Real Problem

       The idea above raises two questions - "Can people change their core attitudes by willpower alone? If not - why not?" Sometimes they can if they have a compelling new experience - like quitting a nicotine addiction because of a lung-cancer diagnosis. Other times, willpower and logic don't work for long. The idea that normal personalities are composed of many subselves provides a credible explanation. If you're skeptical about this, read this memo and try this safe, interesting exercise after you finish reading this.

      If you or someone you care about wrestle with "habits I can't break," unhealthy compulsions, or "problems that keep coming back," you or they are probably controlled by several conflicted personality subselves. One says "Change (whatever)!", and the other says "NO - Don't change!" Making a permanent attitude change requires your resident true Self mediating between the opposed subselves.


      This two-level premise suggests several things...

      Asking, expecting, or demanding that you or someone else want to change an irritating or unhealthy behavior will probably result in...

  • "resistance," refusal, procrastination, and/or unrealistic promises ("I'll really try!"), or...

  • the person changing against their will, and feeling resentful and frustrated; or...

  • the person agreeing to change and being unable to do so, causing confusion, frustration, guilt, and shame.

Have you experienced each of these? 

      Asking or demanding an addict to stop their self-medicating compulsion ("get sober") will never work, until they hit bottom on their own and change their attitude about their health and well-being.

      Shaming and/or punishing children for not being able to correct "bad behavior" is abuse. Using force or punishment may stop the behavior, but at the huge price of lost respect, trust, security, and self-esteem. A better way is to calmly declare and enforce respectful limits and to allow painful natural consequences within reason. ("Alex, I warned you that leaving your bike outside would get it stolen, and it was. I guess you'll have to earn enough to buy a new one.") 

      Feeling guilty and ashamed for not being able to change a personal attitude or behavior is self abuse. Instead, use an  inability to change (the surface problem) as validation that your Self is disabled (the real problem), and you need to want to reduce psychological wounds (Lesson 1) to achieve permanent attitude changes.

       A final implication of superficial vs. attitude changes is...

      Solving relationship problems requires someone to change something. When problems recur, consider that the original "solution" probably was a behavioral (superficial) change caused by a disabled true Self. Most people are unaware of this, and focus fruitlessly on trying to "fix" surface problems rather than on identifing and filling the primary needs causing them. Do you do that? See this example of identifying primary needs, after you finish here.

       Option - to get a sense of whether your true Self is often disabled, identify any "bad habits" you've not been able to let go. Then spend a few undistracted moments reviewing this comparison and this worksheet after you finish this article. Keep in mind that false selves are experts at distorting (e.g. denying) reality to avoid scary changes and the unknown!


      This article offers perspective on "changing," and an explanation for why many attempts to change a "bad habit" fail. It proposes that people often focus on trying to change a behavior (like overeating), rather than changing the need or attitude that causes the behavior.

     The article suggests that it's rarely possible to change underlying needs or attitudes by willpower alone, because doing so requires a permanent shift in some key personality subselves. That requires (a) acceptance (vs. denial) of such subselves, and (b) knowing how to negotiate desired changes with them. Online Lesson 1 and its related guidebook provide a practical way to do this.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you used this worksheet. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?  

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