Why Healthy Choices Feel Wrong

Change for the better takes place in three stages. The first stage is when you admit that what you are doing is not working, and you ask for help if you need it. Then comes the second and most difficult stage of change: stopping what you are doing that is not working. If you persist in your efforts, you reach the third and final stage, making healthy choices. You may relapse occasionally, but you rebound quickly.

To add to your confusion in the second stage of change, people who feel upset by the changes you are making use tactics to undermine your resolve, such as trying to make you feel guilty or obligated to them. The anxiety can be so intense that you give in to the pressure and go back to what you know, even though it causes you pain. If you try again (and again!), healthy choices become familiar and comfortable. Then nothing can tempt you to go back to the past.

Fear of What “They” Think

Paradoxically, healthy choices feel wrong because they are the opposite of what you think you should or were taught to do. Whenever you do what you are not “supposed” to do, up come your worst fears: What if I’m wrong? What if I hurt someone I love? What if I wind up alone and lonely? What if there’s no such thing as a happy ending? To relieve your discomfort, you go back to what is familiar, as when you try to make someone happy and fail. (Failure is what you know).

If you stop trying to make people happy, that feels wrong because you think you are giving up on or abandoning them. You are afraid they will think you don’t care about them, or that you are selfish if you focus on what you want to do. Detachment is the solution, since objectivity allows you to see that others are responsible for their happiness, not you.

Once you stop trying to make people happy, they will create new problems to get you back into the struggle for power. If you get taken in by this tactic you will revert to trying to change them and you will be back in the past again. Now you are both unhappy. (You have heard that it takes two to tango?)

As an example of why healthy choices are so hard, one of my clients kept trying to change her husband into who she wanted him to be, behavior she copied from her mother and grandmother, who had tried to control the men in their lives. But this only fostered resentment on the part of the men being controlled, which they expressed by saying, “Stop telling me what to do.”

The battle for control ended when my client realized that what bothered her about her husband was what she needed to change about herself. By wrestling with his lack of confidence, for example, Ann was wrestling with her own fear of the unknown. In time, taking the risks that terrified her became the path of least resistance, but not without a struggle.

The Final Stage of Change

As was true for Ann, whenever you step into the unknown you feel confused and disoriented, like an actor who is auditioning for a role he or she has never played before. When change gets harder than you expect, you alter course, take shortcuts, or give up on the process. At this point remind yourself of why you wanted to change in the first place.

Navigating the often maddeningly slow second stage of change takes determination. When you get discouraged, pray or meditate, read uplifting books and articles, and watch movies about characters that triumph over adversity. Talk with people who are taking the risks you are taking. They will be a source of encouragement when your faith falters.

You will only slow down the process if you try to convince people who are threatened by change that what you are doing will work. Once your life demonstrates that change for the better works, they may copy your brave example. Or they may leave your life. When that happens, don’t be dismayed. The new people you attract will reflect the health you fought so hard to attain.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is workwithpassion.com.