Resistance can sometimes be useful and protective (definition 1: the ability to not be affected by some adversity), and other times counterproductive and utterly misery-inducing (definition 2: the refusal to accept or comply with something). I’m talking here about the second definition, made even more awkward when the thing we refuse to comply with is ourselves, and our attempts at forming new healthy habits.
My ParticipAid co-workers and I have been working with Share Nepal to develop a program to promote healthy behavior changes in their community. We brought together representatives and stakeholders in health and education and worked with them to identify and articulate their priority community health problems. They were alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and reproductive health. We know that people have sufficient awareness about most of these problems, yet the behaviors remain. That begs the question – if everyone knows what’s good for them, why don’t they just change already?! We all know it’s not that easy. Here I want to consider just one aspect of the monumental task of public health behavior change – understanding the reasons that people resist change in the first place. And what better place to start than in our own heads and hearts. Let’s look at some common obstacles that generate resistance to making healthy behavior changes, and some tools we can use to lessen that resistance just a bit.
Perhaps the most obvious, bodily things like disabilities, medical conditions, and withdrawal symptoms can come between you and your healthy change. Material things like lack of time and money, a real common obstacle for many of us, can also be included here.To overcome these obstacles, we must be realistic and set ourselves up for success. For some, the support of a caring friend will be enough. Others may need to take some time off of work, or seek the support of a specialty organization or a medical professional. Generating more time and money is beyond the scope of this blog, and mostly beyond the scope of me to be honest, so if you’ve got tips please send them my way! I tend to think if there’s a will there’s a way, but say there is no will ….
The most common obstacle I see here is a belief system that is dis-empowering or debilitating in some way. This includes specific beliefs like “I’m not good enough”, and a more generalized state of depression, anxiety, or fear of the unknown. Though tempted, I refuse to list laziness as an obstacle here, as I think in most cases laziness is just a socially acceptable form of an embodied dis-empowering belief. Sometimes we just need more information to truly grasp what the change, or lack thereof, means for us and our lives. In these cases, a little education is all that’s needed to jump our mental hurdle. Those of us with strongly-held beliefs have a bit more work cut out for us. Self-reflection and contemplation, open conversations with trusted friends, mindfulness meditation, commitment to a spiritual practice, or a relationship with a good therapist can be hugely helpful to overcome these tricky obstacles.
Big changes don’t only impact you. You may find that the nature of some of your relationships will change, or you may lose relationships altogether. Making healthy changes might involve removing a social lubricant or crutch (alcohol, cigarettes, a particular attitude). When you first walk without crutches it is really uncomfortable. You may have to retrain yourself on the very basics - “How do I talk to people?”, “What do I do with my hands?” While you may want to avoid the awkwardness of crutch-less social situations altogether, we humans are social creatures. Most of us need each other to survive, to be happy, and to change. It shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize the relationships that will and won’t support your change. Focus on the ones that will support you, especially in the early stages. If you want to continue the relationships that tempt you away from your change, bring a replacement activity or substance with you. Knit, juggle, origami, drink tea, smoke candy cigarettes, walk around the block, whatever! Get creative and come up with something that has at least a chance of bringing you some joy.
When you boil it down, every healthy behavior change, no matter how big or daunting or obstacle-filled, is simply introducing a new habit. But simply introducing a new habit, unfortunately is rarely simple. It takes persistence, hard work, and most of all patience as you find out what works for you. As far as I know there's no secret or magic, we can all do it. Best of luck!