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Therapists Spill: The Keys to Creating Positive Change

Therapists Spill: The Keys to Creating Positive ChangeCreating positive changes in your life is tough. It can be scary.

“We fear the unknown, fear failure, even fear success,” said Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and expert in postpartum mental health.

Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, also noted that fear is a great obstacle to change.

“We’re afraid that we’ll try and find that we don’t have what it takes — that we’ll discover limits to our abilities that will feel devastating.”

We’re also afraid of what we’ll find with the positive change. For example, as Howes said, you’re very familiar with the challenges that come with your bad job: unreasonable boss, unfair paycheck and poor working conditions.

However, a better new position might mean unfamiliar challenges, such as “competition, hard work and an unknown X factor … You don’t like where you are, but in some ways these problems are known and comfortable.”

Sometimes we may be afraid of losing our relationships. Many people have relationships that are based on negative behaviors and unhealthy choices, Howes said. “Will your drinking buddies still be friends if you stop drinking? Will the lonely hearts club accept you if you find a relationship? Who will you sit with at lunch if you don’t want to gossip anymore?”

Other obstacles to positive change include lack of support, awareness, resources and role models, said Susan Lager, LICSW, a psychotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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While obstacles may be aplenty, positive change is possible. According to Lager, “Positive changes can occur in small, subtle ways, or in bigger, more dramatic shifts.”

For instance, she’s helped clients move from demoralizing or catastrophic self-talk to an affirming and empowering internal dialogue (e.g., from “Nobody ever comes through for me! Why bother trying to get close to anyone?” to “John behaved in a very disappointing way. I didn’t deserve the way he treated me. I’ll put my energy into other more dependable people, and lower my expectations of John.”)

John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens, has helped parents move away from an authoritarian, disconnected approach to one based in “trust, guidance, empathy and consultation.”

Howes has helped clients change their belief systems, response to conflict, tendency to procrastinate and “most importantly, their relationship with themselves.”

So how can you create positive changes in your life? Below, clinicians spill the insights that can help.

Developing Self-Awareness

“The main key is to develop consciousness about the current situation,” Lager said. Naturally, if you’re in denial about the issue, you won’t be motivated to make any changes, she said.

One way to develop consciousness is to pay attention to feedback from “people who care about you and have your best interests at heart.” For instance, if loved ones are saying you have a problem with alcohol, consider their words. You may not be an expert on yourself at all times, on all topics, she said.

“If the people close to you haven’t mentioned concerns about your drinking, then poll them, letting them know you’ve wondered about this issue, heard complaints from your spouse, or barely escaped a DUI, and want more non-biased feedback.”

If you’re uncomfortable with that step, research “drinking problems” online, and compare your own behavior with what you find, she said.

Another option is to keep a record of your drinking habits. Include “the times, amounts, and circumstances under which you drink, and log the consequences which ensue. You will then be more conscious about the impact of drinking in your life.”

Letting Go of Limiting Beliefs

“[M]any people believe deep down that they are limited in ways they are not,” Duffy said. This can prevent people from pursuing positive changes in the first place.

For instance, he worked with a young woman who believed she wasn’t smart enough to earn a college degree because of her poor grades in high school. She realized that those low grades were actually more of “a reflection of a lack of effort and commitment than [her] capacity to learn.” Relinquishing that false belief helped her refocus on her education.

Identifying your personal limiting beliefs can be tricky, Duffy said. “[Yo]u have to think about how you think about yourself … If you experience a great deal of difficulty doing so, a brief course of therapy would help rather quickly.”

Making Small Changes

“[People] need to see that they can make small, meaningful changes right now that can build to bigger changes in the future,” said Howes, author of the blog “In Therapy.” For instance, if you’re working on being more self-compassionate, at first, you might set alerts on your phone and place sticky notes on the mirror as reminders to speak to yourself in affirming ways, he said.

Not Giving Up After “Failure”

“We feel like we have failed if change doesn’t happen right away,” said Hibbert, author of the memoir This is How We Grow. Or we stop working on the issue because we run into stubborn challenges. “[C]hange is all about continuing to overcome and learn from the roadblocks. The only failure, as they say, is in giving up.”

Behaving As If

“Often behaving ‘as if’ you were in a more positive position [i.e., ‘faking it until you make it’] can create the neural pathways in your brain needed to make those very changes,” said Lager, author of The Couplespeak™ Series.

When her clients seem to be waiting for the motivation to pursue change to come first, she tells them: “Make your motivation the caboose, not the locomotive.”

In other words: “Become the change you envision. The motivation for more momentum will often follow.”

Having Non-Biased Support

Lager also stressed the importance of having “non-biased sources of support and coaching.” This might come from therapists, religious leaders or mentors. These individuals can provide important insights and “shifts away from fear, conditioning or lack of vision.”

Other keys to positive change includes seeing others who have overcome similar obstacles and gaining insight and making a decision, such as “my long-term health is worth making some uncomfortable changes in my life. People have to see that a better life awaits them beyond the relative comfort of their current problems,” Howes said.

“Change is an inevitable constant in life,” Lager said. “Sometimes it feels terrible, but it’s up to each of us to determine where and how it goes.”

But you can get there. As Duffy said, “Anybody is capable of change, and it is never too late for change.”

Therapists Spill: The Keys to Creating Positive Change

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Therapists Spill: The Keys to Creating Positive Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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