I/t Didn’t Work

Sometimes it’s not so much a case of “It didn’t work”, but rather a case of “I didn’t work”.

Making changes in our lives is an interesting business. If we were the goal oriented, conscious beings that we are often presumed to be, there would be few problems. We’d establish our goals and set about achieving them in rational steps. Barring accidents, we’d get there.

And yet we often don’t fully commit ourselves to the change we desire. We are decidedly half-hearted in our attempts to achieve the change. We don’t put in the effort to make the change and then decide that, “It didn’t work”. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it is truer to say that “I didn’t work”.

In my experience, our desire to change is a good deal more complicated than that presented by the goal-oriented-rational picture. (This approach usually has to deal with ‘motivation problems’ — people start off well and then stop making the change.)

In this post I’d like to think out loud about the process of change.

Change happens. Some change occurs without our conscious intent. We usually age, adapting to new relationships and circumstance, with little effort required. We often adapt to the food available to eat and some changes in circumstances without any deep trauma. Much of the change we go through is quite effortless.

Then there is the kind of change required to redesign our lives. This conscious change is trickier. In this kind of change, we want things to be different. Whether it is an alteration in our circumstances, relationships, emotions or thoughts, we want something different to what we already have.

So why doesn’t it happen?

1. It may be because we don’t know how. My schooling involved a great subject on Ancient Egypt. I love Ancient Near Eastern history, and one day I hope to see the pyramids. I had a fun time (rare for me at school). So, I’m not knocking studying Ancient Egypt. But there are some things my schooling didn’t include, such as how to listen to my body to know what to eat. We had Physical Education, but this didn’t teach us about cardiovascular fitness and how to make it part of our lives. We didn’t have anything on how to think (nothing even on how to study: we were somehow meant to magically know how to do this), and the idea of something on our emotions or how to listen was in another universe. In brief: if we don’t know how to improve our relationships, our thoughts or feelings, this isn’t surprising.

Having said that, there are now many courses and books dedicated to making up this deficit. We are so spoilt for choice it is difficult to know which ones to choose. In this situation, the simplest way I know is to talk to friends and people who have made changes and ask about the course or books that helped them. In this way it is easier to figure out which may work for you. (If you are dealing with a book or a brochure for a course, you can’t ask the questions that you want to ask, and you can’t ask about your own situation. But you can get a feel for these things by talking to someone who has read the book or done the course.)

2. It may be harder than we thought and involve things that we didn’t anticipate. This may be entirely sensible. We may not be getting enough return for the effort we are putting in. At this point it would seem sensible to quit.

3. There’s another reason, in my experience, why our lives don’t change. That is because all of who I am doesn’t want to change. This is the situation where we begin to change and give up or our efforts from the start are half-hearted.

In this situation we feel torn. We often feel that we should do something but that another part of us doesn’t want to. Or we feel that we want two incompatible things.

Perhaps the situation really should be different, but that doesn’t help us make it different. In this situation I think we need to recognise that we are in conflict. We can then begin to examine this conflict and whether there is a way forward. This leads to several possibilities:

  • Making the best of a situation we dislike. So far most people have aged and died. The score for mortality is pretty close to 100%. It may be that we don’t like this process. If so, we will need to find a way to make the best of it or a viable way to live forever. (I forget the book, but one scientist has written that we should try and live as long as we can because science will soon be at the point where we won’t have to die. We just need to live long enough until this is a possibility.)
  • Combining what seems at the moment to be incompatible. It may be that we can’t do everything now, but we can do them one after the other. You may be able to develop your interest in philosophy now and your skill in movement later. It may be that things which seem incompatible are not. This is especially true with personal attributes: weakness and strength can form a resilient softness; receptivity and aggression are both part of the creative process.
  • Rejecting what is not true to us. As we learn and grow, we sometimes follow others at the expense of our values and desires. It may be that we are torn because we are choosing between pleasing others and living to our own beat. It may be that following others has been bad for us and we need to stop doing this. It is also possible that our own and others’ needs are compatible. Both of us can benefit from a conversation or a shared meal.

When we feel torn I think it is worth looking for ways the conflict can be resolved. We certainly won’t find a better way forward if we don’t look for it. So I think it is worth putting in the effort to look, perhaps to read books or talk the situation over with others.

If we can do this then we will no longer be half-hearted, we will flow into the change we desire.

I’d like to hear your experience of making changes in your life. What has helped and what has not? Let me know in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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