Are You Fully Ready To Begin Working On Your Social Problems?
It's very, very common for people to feel they want to change some aspect of themselves, but if you were to dig a little deeper into their motivations, you'd find they're actually pretty on the fence about it. When it comes to working to fix their social problems, sometimes people think they want to work on their issues, but deep down they're not 100% ready to.
I don't mean this in an accusatory or derogatory way. I'm not saying everyone should want to improve their social skills as soon as they can. I'm also not claiming that not wanting to change is a personal flaw that needs to be fixed. I think not fully wanting to change aspects of ourselves is the default setting in most people, most of the time. It's just a part of human nature.
Pretty much everyone has a list of changes they'd like to make, or feel they 'should' make, but which they're not in any huge hurry to seriously implement. It's easy to think of examples: Eating better, getting in shape, getting more organized, not procrastinating as much, calling your parents more often, reading more books, taking up new hobbies, not playing video games all night, quitting smoking, and so on and so on.
Pros and Cons lists
So why don't people change more easily? It comes down to a balancing of the Pros and Cons. Logically we all know what we 'should' be doing, but that's not as powerful a motivator of our actual behavior as the various rewards and costs we get from acting a certain way. If something gives us a lot of benefits and we don't perceive it as carrying a high cost, we'll keep doing it. If changing seems harder and less rewarding than staying the same, we won't want to change right at that moment.
That isn't to say the status quo doesn't often have downsides. It usually does, but their impact often isn't strong enough to really push us to behave differently. The negatives of not changing often aren't as bad as the perceived negatives of changing. For example, someone may believe they'd look and feel better if they exercised more. But if they decide that the effort, discomfort, and inconvenience of working out outweighs the benefits, they're not going to start. Inertia is powerful. The ease and simplicity of just keeping things the way they've always been can be a big motivator not to make changes. Even if someone's situation is quite painful, they may not do anything about it if they think the work of addressing their problems will be even worse.
Another way to put all this is that people are often ambivalent, or on the fence, about making certain changes. When the pros and cons of their current behaviors are closely balanced, they'll often think about changing, or go back in forth in their minds. They may even make short-lived initial steps toward changing, before reverting back to the usual.
People often aren't consciously aware of their motivations
A problem is that we're often not aware of the Pros and Cons lists we've made in our brains. One common scenario is for someone to logically feel like they want to change, but they just can't seem to do it. They'll beat themselves up and say things like, "I know this is bad for me. Why can't I seem to stop doing it? I don't get it." The answer is regardless of all the 'shoulds' that we're aware of intellectually, on that more basic Pros and Cons level there may not be enough incentives to start doing things differently.
I find mild procrastination is a good example to illustrate this. People can procrastinate for a variety of reasons, but one of the most basic ones is that regardless of the occasional stress and inconvenience it causes, it often works out just fine in the end. When people procrastinate they get the immediate benefit of getting to avoid something they find boring and unpleasant. They usually end up getting their work completed and handed in anyway. It may not even affect their grades, but if it does they often don't care that much. Tons of people will tell themselves they 'should' have better study habits, but when you break it down procrastination works for them, so why would they do anything differently?
When we unconsciously weigh the incentives of acting one way vs. another our minds aren't always being rational and logical. When we're young we can make inaccurate "kid logic" observations about how the world works, then live by these rules without even knowing it. For example, a child grows up with an abusive, volatile father. At some point they unconsciously learn if they're happy and energetic they'll draw their dad's anger, but if they're meek, and quiet, and hide in their room they'll be left alone. As an adult they just can't seem to get past their shyness and low self-esteem. On a hidden, visceral level they believe if they're lively and self-assured something terrible will happen. It's better to stay insecure to avoid that.
When someone's not aware of their true motivations they can think they want to change, but unwittingly act in ways that sabotage it. For example, someone may start seeing a counselor in order to get help in making a change, but then miss appointments, not follow the therapist's suggestions, and start distracting arguments with them (a therapy client may also do these things for a mix of other reasons, but in this example I get to say it's because they don't want to move away from the status quo).
Again, I don't think there's anything wrong with not wanting to change. For one, changing is often hard, and everyone has the right to not want to take that on right this instant. I also think social skills specifically are something people don't have to change. It's each person's choice whether it's important to them or not. I mean if someone is addicted to meth, that's a pretty blatant problem. But improving your social skills is more of an individual preference.
I do think that people should at least be aware of what their actual motivations are though, and then make an informed choice about how to continue from there. If someone was to say, "Yeah, I have a phobia of riding in elevators, but really, there aren't many elevators in the town I live in, and getting over my fear would be really scary and uncomfortable, so I'm just not going to do it", I'd have no problem with that. It can be tough though when someone is super hard on themselves for not being able to change, and they don't know why they're acting the way they are.
Stages of Change model
If you do a lot of reading about this topic, it won't be longer than five minutes before you come across the Stages of Change model. You may even have heard about it already. This model has a few variations, and how each stage works somewhat depends on the behavior in question. A quick summary of them is below. Like any model with stages, they aren't clear cut and people don't go through them in a neat, orderly progression. Even within a day a someone's motivation may jump around between them.
Pre-contemplation: This is when someone isn't thinking at all about changing. The behavior may not even be on their radar as something to change, or if it is, they don't think it's actually a problem. The classic example here is smoeone who's in denial about the cost of their drinking.
Contemplation: Here's where the ambivalence starts to come in. This is when someone starts mulling over the idea of changing, but they're still quite unsure about it. They could be in this stage for years, or never get out of it.
Preparation / Determination: Here someone is starting to lean more toward changing. They start doing some research into what they'd need to do to change, and how they'd do it. Motivation to change still isn't at its peak here, but it's stronger than in the previous stage.
Action / Willpower: This is when the person actually makes the change. It's the shortest phase in the sense that it doesn't take long to quit drugs, or start a diet, or begin going to the gym. Again, even here people will likely still have some reservations about changing.
Maintenance: The long part isn't initially making the change, it's keeping it going. It's about staying off the drugs, or keeping up a healthier lifestyle, or consistently practicing a new skill. And once again, someone may still feel some ambivalence about the change they've made. They may be tempted to go back to their old behaviors.
Relapse: This is when someone returns to their previous habits. A full, ongoing relapse is different from a temporary slip. Slips are common, and on their own aren't the end of the world if you can learn something from them and get back on track. For example, someone may have stopped going to the gym for a week, but then realized that it was unrealistic to expect themselves to go every day at 6:30am before work. If someone's relapse continues, then they jump back to one of the earlier stages. Maybe in six months they'll be a in different place mentally and the changes will stick this time.
Desire to change can come quickly
Sometimes people will gradually come to a decision to change. However, at other times they can quickly go through a mental shift that finally leads them to enact the changes they've been contemplating for so long. Often there's some external factor that pushes them over the edge:
- The classic example is a heavy drinker having something really serious happen to them, like getting arrested, getting into a car accident, or almost dying.
- A more mundane example would be someone who's thought about working out more for months, before finding out about a new exercise system that interests them and seems like something they could stick with.
- Someone may not care about losing weight, but then start dating someone they really like, and decide it's worth it to look better for them.
- When it comes to social skills issues, some people remember a key moment that snapped them into resolving to improve how they communicate with others. Like they may have gone through high school not really thinking about it, but then went to a college party, didn't know what to do, and then thought, "Whoa, I feel super-insecure and awkward. I'm not good with people at all. I gotta do something about this."
Some signs someone may not totally want to change
When someone is ambivalent about changing, but not totally in touch with that, there are some common things they do:
Actions don't match up with thoughts or words
It all comes down to this. If someone keeps saying they want to make a change, but over time their actions aren't matching up with that, it's possible that they're not fully ready. I think we've all known someone who has done this. There are other possibilities too. They may be lack the knowledge on how to go about changing, and that's why they're not going ahead.
Another sign someone may unconsciously not be ready to change is that they "Yeah, but..." every possible suggestion someone gives them about how to improve a facet of their lives. There are other totally understandable reasons someone may question a suggestion, but if they do it for every last option it's possible they aren't ready to take action.
A common social skills situation where people may "Yeah, but..." is when it comes to making friends. Under the surface they may just be anxious about the idea of putting themselves out there and possibly getting rejected. But if they're not aware of those worries what can happen is they'll shoot down every possible avenue for meeting people, every possible type of person they could be friends with, or every way to make plans with people - "Yeah, but joining a sports team is too expensive for me", "Yeah, but I just don't relate to any of the people in my dorm", "Yeah, but I can't ask a guy to hang out one-on-one, it would be too awkward." Again, having reservations about, say, some of the ways to meet people is to be expected, but if someone has a reason why everything can't work, you have to wonder.
People who aren't ready to change will sometimes feel defensive toward the suggestion that they have a problem, or about specific strategies on implementing new habits. If you take someone who doesn't want to change, and start telling them about how their behavior is hurting them, or what they should do differently, they're going to get annoyed at you and not want to hear it. On the other hand, someone who is ready to change may totally agree with you and be eager to hear your ideas.
I know sometimes when people read certain parts of this site they feel defensive. Now it's totally possible there are just concepts I just haven't worded in the best way, and those cases are my fault for not expressing my ideas well enough. But another thing to consider is that the defensive readers aren't completely up for changing their social skills. Maybe they thought they were before they started reading, but the defensive reaction is a clue that they really aren't.
Reasons people may not feel ready to work on their social problems
I just spent around two dozen paragraphs talking about readiness to change in a more general way. I'll talk about social skills specifically now. I can think of a bunch of reasons someone may not be completely keen to start improving their social life:
- The biggest one is probably a desire to avoid the anxiety that practicing their social skills or facing their fears may entail.
- Similarly, people may want to avoid other types of discomfort that come with changing: Having to push out of their comfort zone; altering their routine and having less room for old pastimes; putting time and effort into learning and practicing; the pain of making mistakes; occasionally getting rejected; having to dwell on their insecurities. An improved social life may also lead to new types of hassles, like dealing with unreliable friends.
- They may believe, unconsciously or not, that their social anxiety, worries, and insecurities are protecting them, and they'll be leave themselves open to unbearable rejection and humiliation with them gone.
- Someone may be discouraged and down and themselves and believe it's not possible they'll be able to successfully change. They associate the thought of trying to with the pain and failure they "know" would be inevitable.
- They may think that on some level they don't deserve to change.
- For some people better social skills may just fall into the category where they think it would be nice to have, but getting them isn't urgent. Kind of like how many of us could see benefits in being more fit, but aren't rushing to the gym. It can always wait. People who are less-social by nature and happy spending time alone often feel this way.
- Some people may not actually care that much about changing. However they may take steps toward it due to outside pressure, or because they feel it's something they should feel is important. For example, someone may not really see the point in making more friends, and that's why they can't seem to get motivated to try to meet some new people.
An exercise you can try is to make a Pros and Cons grid, comparing the costs and benefits of both changing and keeping things as they are in terms of working on your social skills. It can be easier said than done, but to do the exercise well you have to be really honest with yourself. Don't worry about how you 'should' think or act. Just straightforwardly write down how you're feeling. For example, someone might feel they want to make more friends on one level, but admit to themselves that they're really not that lonely just staying in most weekends and watching movies. They may also decide they feel it's too much effort to try to meet people at this time in their lives. Again, it's extremely common to feel on the fence about changing and there's nothing wrong with it.
Making yourself want to change more
Sometimes you'll realize you're ambivalent about changing, but intellectually wish you were more motivated. One thing that can help is to go back to your own personal Pros and Cons list and try to emphasize certain aspects of it to yourself. What would be good about changing? How you can make those benefits more salient in your mind? What are the costs of not changing? How can you make those stand out to yourself? Yeah, they may not do too much harm by tomorrow, but what's the downside going to be in ten years if you still haven't worked through them?
You may do this exercise and still not feel all that motivated. You may come to this understanding yourself, or your actions may do the speaking for you. In that case, don't sweat it. You weighed the various factors and came to a conclusion that works for you at this time in your life. Not a problem. Maybe down the road things will seem different.
Another suggestion is to research ways to make the difficult parts of changing more manageable. For example, someone may be reluctant to get more organized because they see it as hard and annoying. But if found a bunch of good, tested organization strategies, they may not see the task as that daunting anymore. Obviously when it comes to social skills, this site may help in that regard. This article may also give so some ideas:Overcoming Laziness And Inertia Toward Working On Your Social Problems
Finally, you could try cutting back on any coping strategies you're using which keep yourself from feeling the full brunt of your loneliness and unhappiness (e.g., distracting yourself with video games, using weed or alcohol to turn your brain off). It won't be pleasant to experience these unpleasant emotions in their uncut form, but they'll push you to act. That's why they're there in the first place, and they can't do their job if they're squelched. If you think your currently-suppressed distressing emotions are mild you can probably try this approach on your own. If you're worried they'll be too strong to cope with, you can face them with a counselor at your side.
A therapist can also help you unpack the unconscious factors that may be holding you back, if you've tried your best to change, or even get started, but some mysterious force seems to keep sabotaging you.