One of the most difficult things to sit with in therapy, and in relationships with friends and family, is to be with a person who wants to make changes, but can’t seem to do it. We all either know or have been this person at some point in our lives. This is someone in a toxic relationship, or soul-crushing work environment, or some other seemingly obvious destructive scenario, who for whatever reason cannot exit. Typically, this person has the resources and ability to make the change, and they have some level of insight around the problem—they’re not in denial that it’s bad. But this understanding does not lead them to make different choices, and they remain in the same toxic circumstances, sometimes for years on end.
A friend of mine once exited a very complicated, and ultimately unhealthy long-term relationship. As we were sifting through the wreckage, I asked her if there was something she, or any of us who cared about her, could have done to help her leave the relationship sooner. This was, frankly, an entirely selfish quandary; it was something I was struggling with, both as her friend, and as a therapist. Over the years I had begged her to address the issues related to her partnership. I spent hours on the phone with her—pleading, screaming, even threatening—now I wondered if there was some magic statement I could have made to help her get out earlier. And as a therapist, I was eager for insight into the age-old problem of what to do when a client wants to change but simply can’t muster themselves do it.
When I asked my friend this, she replied that part of the reason it had been so difficult for her to leave was that her role in the relationship was intricately connected to her identity. Leaving would have forced her to have to answer the question, if I am not the person I am in this relationship, who am I? Leaving would first require her to acknowledge her own unmet needs, and shatter her illusion of herself as someone who did not require those things from her partner. While exiting the relationship itself was hard to fathom in its own right, being the person who could ask for the things she needed was a mental chasm she could not cross.
And so, for a time, she stayed. As so many of us do when confronted with a problem that requires us to change, not only our circumstances, but ourselves. So how can we confront our own identity when it stands in the way of a better life?
It Starts with You
The first part of this is recognizing that identity issues are a factor in the problem at hand. It can be tough to see if you’re not actively looking for it, so if you find yourself struggling to make changes with a difficult problem, stop and ask, what parts of myself do I have to let go of to leave this lover or this job or this pattern of behavior? What idea of myself would no longer be true if I took this course of action? Asking yourself these questions will help you recognize if you have to let go of some piece of yourself in order to move forward. This will put you in a better position to understand why doing something different has been so difficult, and to acknowledge and address the parts of your identity that are being threatened.
What Makes You Stay?
When we’re in a difficult circumstance, we focus on the problem and how it negatively impacts us. I think it’s important, however, to take stock of whatever positives this situation gives to you. Consider the actual benefits this circumstance provides, and what makes it difficult to walk away. This is helpful for alleviating your guilt around not being able to make the change you want to make, and also figuring out how to fulfill those needs once you’ve extricated yourself from the problem. So often we become consumed by guilt and shame around our choices, draining the energy away from being able to do anything else. And the likelihood is that even an unhealthy circumstance fulfills some sort of need we have, so if we can get that need met elsewhere, perhaps it will help loosen the situation’s hold on us.
Often in toxic situations, we allow our lives to become constrained. The idea of change can be so intimidating that we limit our ability to grow in other parts of our lives, shutting down opportunities to do something different. To break out of this cycle, try changing literally anything. I am not being facetious here, make whatever changes you can—a new workout program, a new hobby or activity, a new routine for your downtime. Or, if doing all the things is how you maintain yourself currently, do less. Doing yoga instead of Soul Cycle won’t magically make the problem go away (obviously), but it will help you escape the inertia, and begin to view change as possible. Sometimes when we get stuck, we have trouble believing that we can ever be free: taking action brings change down from the level of abstraction to something tangible and real.
When facing a turning point, we often have to wrestle with fears—that we’ll end up alone, that we’ll make things even worse than they are, that we won’t be strong enough to follow-through. Those fears make it easy to forget that, as long as we live, what remains is ourselves. We are the only constant. If we can reconcile the fact that we are going to be different, if we can sit with what that means, and decide what that looks like, then we can empower ourselves to make choices that free us. We can manage the fears and live with the consequences of our actions because we have made a home for our spirits.