Barriers to Change

In Michael’s case, hopelessness was the barrier to change. Other common conditions which pose obstacles to change include: feeling powerless, controlled, depressed and angry. There also is the compulsion to engage in competing behaviors, such as addictions. Identifying and trying to resolve whatever is driving the resistance is the first step toward creating an opening where change can occur.

Through discussion in therapy, Michael came to recognize that if his marriage in fact ultimately failed, he would feel guilty and unresolved if he hadn’t done everything in his power to try to make it work. This recognition was the leverage needed for him to be motivated enough to make the commitment to treatment. When he did make this decision, he was in fact able to have a positive effect on his marriage.

Fear often creates leverage, which is why sometimes couples cannot get “unstuck” until a crisis in the marriage leads them to the brink of destruction. Only then are they able to come face to face with the real possibility of losing their marriage. In such situations, in order to break through the resistance and provide the leverage needed to commit to do the work, the fear of loss has to become greater than the fear of change.

Finding Leverage

Identifying where the leverage is helps provide incentive needed to offset the risk and difficulty of altering familiar, “safe” patterns. Change is hard and takes people out of their comfort zone into new and possibly scary or risky territory. Why take a risk and do something unnatural? What will be in it for them?

In this example, the risk for Michael was that if he allowed himself to have hope, he might again be disappointed and rebuffed by his wife. The leverage, though, was helping Michael look into himself and project how he might feel in the future. In doing so he recognized that giving up now and not trying would leave him feeling more defeated and guilty, forever unresolved and uncertain. Also, he was then able to see that his hopelessness was self-fulfilling. Inadvertently, he had been setting up his marriage to fail rather than allowing himself to discover the actual truth about whether or not it could work out.

This process of thinking things through allowed Michael to be “onto himself“ which shifted what he viewed as risky in the long run, and helped him make a more self-protective decision.

Capacity Issues

The final ingredient in the recipe for change is capacity. For example, a man who is unable to recognize his own and others’ feelings will not be able to become more empathic to his wife until he gets help with this problem and develops these skills. A child with an executive function problem will not be able to will himself to “buckle down” and complete his assignments. Instead he will need help developing strategies to compensate for the capacities that are compromised, while those around him must adjust their expectations of him to accommodate his capacities. Men with sex addictions or women with eating disorders cannot simply stop being self-destructive. They need help understanding the function of these behaviors, learning strategies to deal with the underlying forces driving them, and developing presence of mind and alternate coping strategies.

Change is complicated and multifaceted. Motivation accompanied by an explicit, intentional commitment to work toward change is the foundation of any psychological, behavioral transformation.

This commitment does not exist by default and should not be presumed to be in place. In fact, it is often the missing, invisible saboteur that acts as a roadblock to moving forward. Many “helpers” naively assume a ‘treatment alliance” (meaning an authentic alignment toward a common goal, which has a sustaining function through the often difficult journey of therapy).

So when you, a loved one, or a client is at an impasse, ask yourself or the one you are trying to help whether in fact such a commitment has been made. Explore directly the possibility of [unconscious] psychological interference and learn how to find where the leverage is.

Finally, if those elements are in place but progress still is not on the horizon, the person’s capacity to effect the changes in question must be reconsidered.


APA Reference
Margolies, L. (2012). How to Overcome Obstacles to Positive Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2014, from
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on All rights reserved.