Why Some People Can’t Change. 5 Ways to Move Forward

growth and change

There’s no such thing as standing still in life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.

Do you ever wonder why some people seem to identify a problem in their lives, decide they want to change themselves, and start changing, whereas others don’t seem to be able to take positive steps like that?

Some folks seem to stay stuck no matter how hard they try. They might read self-help books, talk to friends and family, go to therapy, or even see multiple therapists. But nevertheless, their issues don’t seem to improve much.

If this is someone you care about, you might watch helplessly from the sidelines as they continue to be their own worst enemy. They may seem to be repeating patterns that are self-destructive, unable to hear or take others’ advice, or distant and unreachable. It is painful to watch.

It’s even more painful when it’s you, and you are watching yourself live this way.

In my 20 years of experience as a psychologist, I’ve identified six personal traits that can stymie and stall even the most deserving and lovable people. The last one, number 6, is the least recognized and, I think, the most powerful obstacle of all.

6 Obstacles to Growth

1. You Can’t See the Path.

When you’ve spent years living a certain way, that way becomes your reality and your worldview. Other people seem to be living on a different planet, and you can’t understand how they got there. It’s hard to attain something that you can’t even imagine.

2. You are Walled Off From Your Feelings.

If you grew up in a family that devalued or discounted your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect), then you likely learned that your emotions are useless or a burden. You probably walled off your feelings as a child and have been living for years without full access to the richness and guidance they should have been providing in your life. 

Although the wall blocking your feelings may have been necessary for your childhood, it now blocks out a vital source of information for making good, authentic choices for your life; it also holds at a distance the people who could help you the most. You may find it difficult to trust the people who could be supporting you. You find yourself “safe” but alone; trapped within walls that are holding you back.

3. You are Comfortably Uncomfortable.

Self-destructive or damaging life patterns can be so entrenched that they’ve become a part of who you are. No matter what’s wrong in your life, you can get accustomed to it. Our brains store life patterns, and we have a natural tendency to settle into them. We are who we are, and on some level, we get comfortable with that, even if it makes us miserable. The idea of changing can feel very discomfiting and scary. It feels easier and safer to choose “the devil you know.”

4. You are Depressed.

Depression interferes with growth in three important ways. It saps your energy and motivation, which makes it harder to take on a challenge; it makes you isolate yourself so that you have less support to change, and it makes you feel hopeless, so there seems no point in trying to change.

5. You are Angry at Yourself.

Self-directed anger has a way of breaking you down. Like drops of water on a stone, there is a gradual erosion of your self-worth. How can you change when you don’t feel you’re worth the effort it requires?

And now for the big one.

6. Your Past Mistakes or Misdeeds. 

In order to truly change, you have to acknowledge and face your own painful history. Who have you hurt? What damage have you done to yourself or others? The guilt and pain that can result from looking at the past is a powerful force that can hold back even the most courageous people. I have seen that this factor alone is a tremendous obstacle in the recovery of anyone who has a personality disorder, or any other long-standing destructive life pattern.

If you catch even a glimpse of how your past choices or mistakes have affected others, it may be so painful and guilt-inducing that you immediately look away. And there you are, right back where you started.

What to do? Don’t feel helpless! You’re not. Read on below.

How to Change

5 Essential Ingredients for Personal Change

  • Motivation
  • Enough discomfort with how things are now
  • Persistence
  • Willingness to face painful events and feelings
  • Support

What to Do

  1. Read the list of obstacles, and think about which one (or ones) applies to you.
  2. Is “walled off” on your list? This one must be overcome first. Your walls are keeping you away from the support that you need. So start trying to let at least one helpful person in.
  3. Think through all the ins and outs of how your destructive pattern is harming your life. If you get pangs of pain or guilt, remind yourself that you are human and that all humans are fallible. Treat yourself with kindness and take your time, but do everything you can to face the pain.
  4. Know that there is a path to a better place. The more you accept support and face your pain, the more clearly you will see your path.
  5. Put one foot in front of the other. Move forward.

One step at a time.

To learn much more about how your childhood wall may be blocking you from growing now, plus how to accept, manage and face your feelings and mistakes, see the book, Running on Empty.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.


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Anon - October 7, 2021 Reply

Wow, this list describes my dad to a T. I watch him struggle everyday to meet his basic needs of shelter and food while working non stop at a very slow inefficient pace. He would rather work hard than smart and it is so hard to watch. He is so miserable and hopeless, constantly playing the victim and never taking any initiative. So I try to make everything in his life easier. I help him with his taxes, yardwork, do his laundry sometimes, grocery shop, make meals, fix anything that breaks, etc. And he works and watches TV, and does the dishes… which he complains about all the time but refuses to fix our dishwasher that has been broken for 10+ years. It’s like everyday is a sad Groundhog Day.

Leo - August 9, 2021 Reply

@ Dr. Jonice Webb
That is an amazing article/insight, on why some people do not have the will to change, and the second half you show how to get past that blockage, of course if the person is willing to make a change.
Thank you for sharing.

jfk - September 14, 2016 Reply

I guess I’ve built walls. I call them my impenetrable shield. I just can’t feel love from people, Sometimes I don’t even want it, like I never want people to feel sorry for me because it makes me feel vulnerable. I was sexually molested as a very young child and it made my mother angry with me for allowing it to happen. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone because I was threatened by both my mother and the abuser. She may have been angry with the abuser but I never noticed. He stayed living with us so she couldn’t have been too angry. I became numb and knew better than to think people really loved each other. I stopped speaking around strangers and at school, I think it’s called selective mutism. I was terrified to speak out loud but I could do it at home and I could do it at school if everyone was talking together like during prayers or songs. I remember having an accident at school where my mother had to bring in fresh clothes for me, she was very angry. That night she tried to put me in a diaper so that I could wear it at school, luckily it didn’t fit, she said if I was going to wet my pants like a baby than I should be treated like a baby. If I cried, she’d tell me to “stop feeling sorry for myself” so I stopped crying and let my body become numb to anything that might make a person cry. I was also raised by strict Catholic parents so everything girls did was sinful unless it was being wholly submissive and a virgin. I suppose she saw me as a whore for being molested. I still have trouble with that. I say why didn’t I say no, why did I let him do it. I suppose it was because he was a relative and someone I wanted to love me and be my friend. When your four or five you can’t make those decisions. I was also afraid to tell on him because my mother had told me not to let anyone do that but what she neglected to say was that if I did, it would not be my fault. I wish other kids parents would add that on about if it does happen, it’s still not your fault, that would have helped a little. She did other cruel things to me as well but I won’t make my comment so long like that. My shell is still on me and I don’t think it will ever come off.

Marcelo - September 12, 2016 Reply

You forgot problem #7: Other People. (Or, as Sartre would put it, hell.)

Think of life as some card game. I have no idea how to play, while everyone else not only knows the rules of the game, but they also have varying levels of proficiency at strategy – that is, knowing what to do to win.

In other words, at present, there is absolutely no way I can win. If I try to join the game (let go of the “walls that are holding me back”), the only thing that’s gonna happen is I’ll repeatedly lose. And I can’t even learn from the defeats, because the root of the problem is that I was conditioned to think I was bad if I won, because that meant that other people had to lose (it was my fault, as the winner, that they ended up without the resources they were competing for and are now starving; it’s not just something that happens.)

That’s when other people = hell. Because none of them will invite me into the game and then teach me how to play and win. Some of them will just get puzzled with my incomprehensible behavior and walk away, while others will actually take advantage of my being a chronic loser to gain easy victories at my expense.

All that shrinks ever do is try to get you into the game, with some kind of painkillers to take to withstand the pain of defeat, instead of helping you to become capable of competing and winning. They’ll try to convince you that winning isn’t really all that important, when every time they collect their fee from you they’re winning. I’m getting really, really tired of that.

    Sylvie - July 25, 2021 Reply

    The seventh problem is a revelation, completing the whole portrait to me. I am whaat you say, it brought me pain when my mom died because it did it to get the attention I rarely got and because the rest of the demanding siblings got her place filled with their own demands. I estranged myself since mom died, I still have this card playing behaviour though. I sticks, very hard to resolve…

Little Drummer Boy - September 12, 2016 Reply

In a way such was the jolt to me in 2008, that there wasn’t any other option than to move…It was a terrifying time.
No fiscal power or real knowledge of my crippling condition probably apparent to everyone else, yet requiring me to “do” something or spend the rest of my life being a rabbit in the headlights waiting for the usual squish…
Here is a tool I used with some success…Such was my anger at the unfairness of what had happened it was making me physically ill.
The protagonists who had caused my CEN/PTSD had long slipped off their mortal coil, so I resorted to synthesis. The poison of unrequited anger into medicine, so to speak.
Quite hard not to jump up and down and whinge ” Oh poor me” , but that would have meant passing the toxic waste of my experiences onto other peeps, and that would have pushed them away when I needed to learn new connections and just plain use the tools available on the web and books on the subjects.
Luckily I’m a fair actor and my apparent cool through this period of adversity, which included divorce, covered the foment .
The turning point came when a new anger issue appeared.
As my evolving inner calm became calm and my habit of having something to fight became redundant..Then the penny dropped, I wasn’t broken any more. Didn’t need fixing…So it was now stop fighting and just live and let live..
If it helps I’m now past 70 and a right old happy bunny.
Lots of nifty life moves, headlamps no problem now…and advancing my communication, social and creative skills…
Nothing special about me at all, no more than any of you and your specialness in the eyes of the Creator …Just bear that in mind ..Your first step towards happiness will have that very subtle hand guiding you..No one ever walks alone…

Kathleen - September 12, 2016 Reply

I know I am a coward, I will just sacrifice what I want in order to give others what I think they want…even though it is not good for them. For example, how do I tell someone I don’t love them as an intimate partner? He is a great guy, good friend, but I love someone else. When you are brought up to be responsible for your mother’s happiness it is hard to stop trying to fulfill others…even when you know that you are not being real with them.

    Lmatos - September 12, 2016 Reply


    I’m sorry to hear that you’re in this situation but I think it’s important to remember that not only are you holding yourself back but you’re holding your friend back from being with someone who wants to be with him. I’m not giving advice and I’m not qualified to, I just have my own experiences to speak on. I left the comfort of my marriage, big beautiful home, family and friends to live in alignment with my heart. I really shook things up and while it got bitter and ugly for a short amount of time, it didn’t kill me. In fact it made me stronger and I realized that I COULD stand up for myself and come out ok. I’ve been able to start over and live within my values and haven’t looked back. I’m not suggesting that you create chaos but it sounds like you’re hurting and maybe you need to figure out when you’re going to begin to love yourself. I’ve been where you’re at and I can totally empathize. Reading your post tugged at an old wound and I want you to know that you are worthy of love, but it starts with you giving it to yourself. Big hugs to you!!!!

Freedun - September 12, 2016 Reply

I think 1-3 are all connected somehow. Since you’re walled off (#2) but SAFE you feel comfortably uncomfortable (#3), leading to not being able to see the path (#1). I’m now actively trying to overcome my avoidant mentality, and I think the first step is to open up. But how do I do that? There’s only one person I feel safe around who I can open up to. But I know I need a bigger support network. I can’t just go making connections out of thin air when most of my friendships are very very superficial. That’d be something from nothing, and there’s not really anyone I’m interested in being friends wit anyway.
I guess I should just take small steps, and be more open with my friend and stop repressing/rationalizing my feelings. I feel better since I told my friend I have intimacy issues, but we didn’t talk about it as much as I would’ve liked. How do I bring it up again without sounding needy/whiny? And how do I tell the difference between whining and seeking support?

Whoo, that was all over the place. I’m sorry.

    Lmatos - September 12, 2016 Reply

    I’m always looking for connections with others. It’s difficult having conversations with people who haven’t experienced what we have. You can email me at lisa@lisamatos.com. You’re not being whiney, you’re looking for answers. Be gentle with yourself and take care of yourself. You WILL get through this.

      Freedun - September 18, 2016 Reply

      Sorry, I saw this reply in my email but thought it was to someone else. Whoops! Anyway, I think I will. Thank you and have a nice day 🙂

    Kimi - September 18, 2016 Reply

    I too relate to asking for help as being needy/whiny and somehow that has always been perceived as a negative thing. I have spent my entire life helping others and find there is no one for me to go to for help….

    Kimerk - September 20, 2016 Reply

    I have struggled with intimacy in most of my relationships. But I think one important factor is determining to be a good friend to others. That means honest, open relationships that you are invested in, caring about them regardless of what they feel for you.

Anne H - September 12, 2016 Reply

How can you move forward when you can’t see a way out?

H.W. - September 12, 2016 Reply

Guilt is the real beast on that list. It comes unbidden, has profound effects on your life, and doesn’t release even when recognized.

Lmatos - September 11, 2016 Reply

My family also handled issues and conflicts with avoidance and silence but when they were vocal they made it a point to blame others. Usually me as the scapegoat. Leaving my unhealthy family and goof no contact almost instantly brought clarity into my life and my brain fog cleared up. I was able to define, plan and navigate the path from broken and angry to having self love and confidence. Having the support of a few close and understanding people was also critical in the early stages. Leaving a family is looked down upon and being shamed by the public can further damage a person with CEN. I learned how to be gentle with myself and change my self talk and I no longer beat myself up or even judge myself for my thoughts, emotions or decisions. Learning these new skills has also helped me to be a better wife, mother and friend. Thank you for your work in this area. You are truly changing lives!

    Jonice Webb PhD - September 12, 2016 Reply

    Dear Lmatos, it takes great courage to distance yourself from a family that harms you over and over. You are right about how much society can judge you for taking a necessary and healthy step. I wish you all the best moving forward.

    Kimi - September 18, 2016 Reply

    Yes. Avoidance and silence. I find myself doing that when faced with an emotionally charged conflict with someone. I feel “getting into it” with them to try to solve the issue would be emotionally overwhelming… I just can’t go there.. I would rather end the relationship with that person than face the emotionally overcharged problem.

      Jackie - October 29, 2016 Reply


      I can relate to what you feel. My friend whom I adore and connect to very much just would not show his emotions to me. At times he would show it then back off. He said he trusts me and all that and have feelings for me. But seems to need a lot of space. At timea he told me ge loves me but when I told him I love him he either dont response or ask me why. He is such a good guy and I wish he will let me in. Be and his dad had bad relationship nd he is divorced twice. But I just really care for him.

Jsteck - September 11, 2016 Reply

It has been difficult to achieve new goals, new responsibilities due to a debilitating fear at times of making a mistake, incurring conflict or having someone get angry with me. Anger, sadness, emotional distress was all handled the same way when I was a child and adolescent—- that is— silence and dismissal/avoidance to the point that our extended family structure was and is destroyed

Footloser - September 11, 2016 Reply

So veru well said, I’m sharing it. People in my family look at me like I am lucky or have had some kind of help to be where I am in life. I try to follow your steps above and expect growth in my life for as long as my mind allows. My past brought me too many life threatening and changing events in my 53 yrs but I still manage to manage. They avoid me like the plague and it’s hard to take. I refuse to get into their bad news regurgitation or diarrhea and so we have little to talk about. I share and encourage good news and supportive gossip only. They do not celebrate my success nor show care about my struggle. I am working on building a newer and better family that includes both blood and non blood humans. Any volunteers? 😉

E - September 11, 2016 Reply

Dr Webb your book is really bringing change! Although it hurts bad let me explain my father was controling demanding and very abusive pysically emotionally.He screamed and yelled all the time.So growing up any one that yelled at me the fight was on!!! So after adulthood started i still had walls erected to protect my heart.I thought!!! But after years loseing jobs because a bosses that yelled at me.I had to make a change.But until this year i never really did.I just made myself believe i had.So now i have a boss that cusses and yells and i am still friends with him i wish i could say it still doesnt hurt at times but it does but less frequint and not as deep and able to regain peace !!! We all get together after work and fellowship and of cource he still is the charactor he is but we laugh and joke and i am not mad.Am i growing or changing and tearing this wall down how do u know when the walls are coming down?Ithink his father did the same to him his father was a state trooper!!!

    Jonice Webb PhD - September 12, 2016 Reply

    That’s wonderful E! Keep up the good work. It sounds like your walls are indeed coming down.

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