The Secret to Lasting, Genuine Change That Sticks

Photo by Josh Levin

Photo by Josh Levin

It’s near the new year, the solstice has happened and the days are getting longer. This translates into you giving birth to another aspect of yourself, your vision, and what you want in your life.

Or, it leads to another year gone by….

For years, I worked in wilderness therapy programs for troubled teens. The kids sent to these programs were often kidnapped by “escorts” in the middle of the night and taken to a remote wilderness location for one to four months.

Ninety nine percent of the time, the kids sent to these programs didn’t want to be there. They were forced to be there by their parents and the expectation from the parents was  “fix my kid.”  From the beginning it was always a set up.

The kids would show up shut down, angry, scared, and very resistant. Within days or weeks, they understood that the key to leaving the program was to “play the game.” Many kids would fake it and others would genuinely try to change. Regardless, the fuel for their change was usually motivated by one or two forces:

  • External influence. Someone outside themselves such as their parents. “If my parents want me to change, fine, I will change and be different for them.”
  • Fear. Fear of consequences and fear of rejection and abandonment. “If I don’t change, then I might loose my freedoms and the people I love the most.”

Because changes kids actually did make were through one or both of these forces, change and gains in their treatment were often small and short-lived.

It is very common for anyone who works a program of any kind, be it addiction recovery, an eating disorder, a fitness/diet program, or a simple new year’s resolution, to “relapse” into their old ways a few months after starting. Why? Because the motivation for change did not come from deep inside.

Most of the kids in the wilderness programs lacked this fundamental intrinsic desire to transform.  They felt pressure from the grown ups and so they tried to change for them. We adults are no different.

The same is true in a relationship with a lover. It often goes like this:

A man is brought into couples counseling by a woman who is unhappy with the way her man is being. She is hungry for more of him. She sees his potential and yearns for him to reach it. But he is somewhat comfortable in “his way” and lacks tools to tap into his potential so he gets lazy and cozy watching sports and distracting himself by working on other “projects.” She gets frustrated and asks him to change. He feels pressured, caves in, and tries to change for her without really getting inspired  himself to be different. Know anyone like this?

Rarely does this kind of couples counseling work. Until the man is ready and willing to change he won’t change. Whatever small gains he makes will be for her. This eventually leads to resentments and further disconnection.

This set up also works with our relationship to ourselves. We have two parts. One voice says “You should change and go to the gym 5 days/week.” The other voice, mostly unconscious to us, with more power says, “Fuck you, you can’t tell me what to do.” And so goes our internal struggle.

Do you feel an inner conflict sometimes?  Or are you hiding out in some way? Coasting along in a mediocre relationship? Drifting from you own path in a dead-end job? Or do you claim you want something in your life to be different but you just can’t make it happen? What will it take for you to change?

In my article on spirituality, I mention 3 things it takes for men to “find” spirituality:

  • When things fall apart. Through a major life crisis or intense suffering personally or relationally.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Through intense longing and hunger for more in life
  • Solitude -Spending a considerable amount of time alone

It is the same with personal change, growth, and transformation. And this is the secret to lasting change that sticks.

Said in another way…

Option A-action

You must be willing to do whatever it takes to change the thing you want changed.

That’s right, whatever it takes and at whatever the cost.

So, if you are up to the task, make a commitment, both to yourself and out loud with another person. Something like this:

I commit to doing anything and everything in my power to change _______, and get the results that I desire. (this is commitment 11 of the 10 commitments to manhood).

Remember, this is not about changing another person or something outside of your locus of control. Pick something about yourself that you want to change.

For example, a client recently told me “I want deeper, more connected relationships. I want to work through whatever blocks I have to intimacy and love.” First he is clear on what he wants, next he can make a commitment to change it and put an action plan in place to work on it.

When I was 29 years old, I was in a lot of pain and I was suffering. My relationships would only go so deep. I longed for more. At the same time, I always blamed the woman and refused to look at myself.

But at 29 and with ten or more years of limited results and unfulfilled relationships, I hit a tipping point. My pain was so substantial and my desire for gain was so strong that I was ready. I remember saying to myself and my therapist at the time, “I am willing to do whatever it takes to get better results.”

That was a big moment in my life and it is what sent me on a personal evolution path that continues today.

Note: If you don’t take option A, you invite the default option B which may or may not happen before you die. Let’s look at option B.

Option B-passive

You wait for something bad to happen to you.

I have not shared this one in a while, but for years I wanted something bad to happen to me so in order for me to change, and then my life would have meaning. I wished that some doctor would tell me I had six months to live or that I had some rare disease and that I would lose my legs. Can you relate? Maybe I’m just weird.

I didn’t know about option A until the slow 10-year burn turned to unbearable frustration and reached a critical mass.  At that point I stopped looking outward and turned my attention on my own games and bullshit and asked, “What if I’m the problem?”

It was then that I realized that there was hope for me. But it would take some brutal personal work to get the results that I so yearned for.

Marketing experts know that you want to wait for option B and through this, they prey upon you. Mainstream ad campaigns promise to fix your pain and to do it with ease and little effort on your part. Think about drug companies. “Take this pill or buy this product and you will feel better.” They prey upon the bystander in you that wants someone to do it for you.

Well guess what? True change will only happen when you a) want it bad enough or b) when you wait for the shit to hit the fan. And if you are in mild discomfort, you are less motivated than someone in extreme discomfort and therefore less likely to change.

See if this is true for you and your own changes that have stuck.

Are you playing the victim, waiting around for something to happen to you?  Or are you going to take full responsibility for your life, man up, and get clear about the internal changes you want to make and start today in making them?

Let’s say you are motivated by an external factor such as wanting to be a better father for your kids, this is fine in the beginning. But at a certain point, you must change for you and the desire must come from deep within you. The benefits toward others will come naturally.

You have to want it.

You must be incredibly hungry.

You must want it bad enough or you are simply waiting…

So, here’s my advice for you brave souls who are considering change.

1.  Get very clear on motivation for change. Is it for your wife/spouse/partner? Is it external? Internal? Both?

2.  Next, how bad do you want it? Rate yourself from 1-10, 10 being “I will do whatever it takes.”

3.  Then, look at your thoughts and words and see if it matches your behavior. If you make a claim you are a “10” and want to change, but your actions are a “7” and speak a different message, then you are not congruent and your change ain’t gonna stick.

4.  Get congruent. The more congruent you can be, the more likely change is to happen. It might not be at the pace you want or in the way you want. Congruency means that your thoughts, words, and actions all line up and say the same thing. This leads to trustworthiness and deeper integrity as a man.

5. Once you are crystal clear, take full responsibility to make the change happen and commit to it.

6.  Make an action plan and get accountability from another man or a men’s group.

7.  Hire a therapist or coach and/or find a spiritual path and community that resonates with who you are to support you.

If you don’t know what you want to change, but you know things could be different, start by getting some feedback from trusted friends. What do people really think of you? What consistent feedback do you get that pisses you off? What have your intimate partners said about you that is the same every time?

The “how” comes after you are a 10 and after you are foaming at the mouth for change.

Special note to the helpers out there that want to change someone else

If you know someone who has a ton of potential and you just know they would benefit from a personal development workshop, a coach, a therapist or a book, rather than try to change them, please own how their behavior impacts you.

This will help them understand that the cost of their inaction. Advice and sneaky suggestions are not nearly as effective as truth telling about what happens for you when they are the way they are.

It is fine to make a request from a place of love and respect. “I care about you Bob, I want to encourage you to go hire a coach to help you get better results. I’m tired of the talk with no action. I am trusting you less as a man.”

At a certain point, wanting to change someone is an act of aggression and demonstrates a fundamental lack of trust in their path and their life. Who are you to know what is best for them? Who made you the authority on what is best for them and what would help them? If they want to keep stewing in their own bullshit, they have a right to do so.

Always come back to yourself. The more self-awareness you have, the more effective you will be in the changes you so desire.


  • Campbell

    Reply Reply December 30, 2009

    Great post. This one lands for me big time, this year. Thanks for the clear recommendations.


  • Duff_McDuffee

    Reply Reply January 4, 2010

    I've found that for me, intense desire to change doesn't always correlate with change that sticks. Sometimes I'd get all psyched up about making a change, keep it for a while, and then it wouldn't last. Other times I'd just very naturally feel congruent and do the necessary things patiently and persistently.

    I'm not sure I've found any secret key–sometimes a little gusto definitely helps get things moving, other times it's a waste of energy and covers over deeper incongruence. Or at least that's what I've found for myself. I'm always curious to hear from others what works best for them.

  • christaylor505

    Reply Reply January 14, 2010

    This year I am trying to walk my talk. In trying to build momentum for change/action it is so important for me to be clear about what I want, what my motivation is, and to realize how much I want it. Thank you a hundred times for the motivation and guidance to act.

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