in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

Podcast #657: Why You Don’t Change (But How You Still Can)

Anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight, curb their temper, quit smoking, or alter any other habit in their lives knows that personal change is hard. Really hard.

Most self-help books out there treat people like machines, blitzing past this difficulty and offering mechanical 5-step formulas for changing your life.

My guest today says such simplified solutions hugely miss the mark. He argues that if you ever want to change, it’s more fruitful to understand why you don’t, than figure why you do, and to understand that, you’ve got to go deeper, existential even.

His name is Dr. Ross Ellenhorn, and he’s spent his career facilitating the recovery of individuals diagnosed with psychiatric and substance abuse issues. In his latest book, How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t), he’s taken what he’s learned in his work and applied it to anyone trying to change their lives.

Ross and I begin our conversation with some of those reasons we don’t change, including the existential pressure of feeling like you’re solely in charge of making change happen, a dizzying amount of freedom and number of options for what to do with your life, and day-to-day factors which influence our level of motivation. From there we turn to the role of hope and faith in psychology, and how these forces can both boost and restrain your ability to change. We discuss the way a fear of hope can constrain your life, why you sometimes need to embrace staying the same in order to ever change, and the difference between good faith and bad faith. We then discuss the idea that you don’t develop hope, but can develop faith, and how you build your faith in yourself through embracing humility and taking small steps. Ross then explains why he doesn’t really give advice on how to change, beyond finding the good in a bad habit, but how patience and your social environment can also help.

This show’s got some counterintuitive advice that will help you see your struggles differently.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight, curb their temper, quit smoking or alter any other habit in their lives knows that personal change is hard, really hard. Most self-help books out there treat people like machines, blitzing past this difficulty, and offering mechanical five-step formulas for changing your life. My guest today says such simplified solutions hugely miss the mark. He argues that if you ever wanna change, it’s more fruitful to understand why you don’t, than figure out why you do. And to understand that, you’ve gotta go deeper, existential even.

His name is Dr. Ross Ellenhorn, and he spent his career facilitating the recovery of individuals diagnosed with psychiatric and substance abuse issues. In his latest book, How We Change and 10 Reasons Why We Don’t, he’s taken what he’s learned in his work and applied it to anyone trying to change their lives. Ross and I begin our conversation with some of the reasons we don’t change, including the existential pressure of feeling like you’re solely in charge of making change happen, a dizzying amount of freedom and number of options for what to do with your life, and day-to-day factors which influence our level of motivation. From there, we turn to the role of hope and faith in psychology and how these forces can both boost and restrain your ability to change.

We discuss the way a fear of hope can constrain your life while you sometimes need to embrace staying the same in order to ever change, and the difference between good faith and bad faith. We discuss the idea that you don’t develop hope, but you can develop faith, and how to build your faith in yourself through embracing humility and taking small steps. Ross then explains why he doesn’t really give advice on how to change beyond finding the good in a bad habit, but how patience and your social environment can also help. This show’s got some counter-intuitive advice that will help you see your struggles differently, after it’s over. Check out our show notes at

Alright, Ross Ellenhorn, welcome to the show.

Ross Ellenhorn: Thank you.

Brett McKay: You work with people who’ve been in and out of the psychiatric system and trying to get help, and they haven’t been able to make changes. But this book is also geared just to regular people who have found change to be hard. And I think we’ve all experienced that to one extent or the other. Trying to quit smoking is hard, trying to lose weight is hard, controlling your anger or your temper is hard, and you always have this desire that, “I’m gonna… This is the time. This is the thing it’s gonna be. I’m gonna get it this time.” But then a week later, [chuckle] you’re off the treadmill. So what’s going on there? Why is it so hard to make personal changes like losing weight, quitting smoking, being more patient with your kids?

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, and so I learned why it’s hard from these individuals who were having such profound problems with motivation and with accepting help. But it really is applicable to all of us, including you and me. No one’s free from this. And it’s basically that every time you’re trying to change something in your life, you’re exposing something that’s really terrifying, which is that you’re kind of driving the bus that’s your life. And that’s what existentialists would call existential accountability, and that causes anxiety. There’s nobody really making things happen for me. I’m in charge, and if this life’s gonna have any depth or meaning to it, I’m in charge of that.

And so every act of changing yourself is really this profound act of shepherding your own life. It’s very interesting because, think about what people did, at least at the beginning of COVID, in response to that. The massive agility that people showed in changing their lives, but they did it in a group, and they did it because they had to. That’s actually easier, even though it’s more massive than dieting, ’cause dieting’s like, “I’m on my own. I’m in charge of my life, and I’m making this happen.” And so there’s always that pressure of having to look at yourself and your own accountability every time you try to change something.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s definitely existential. Freedom is so scary. I’d rather have someone tell me exactly what to do so I don’t have to think about this.

Ross Ellenhorn: Right. There’s this fascinating work on, why is it that Scandinavian countries, their people are so much happier? And there’s all kinds of reasons, but one reason is less choice. In the United States, when you walk in, there’s 20 different cereals. You walk into TGI Fridays, and there’s an enormous menu. And that level of choice actually can become depressing.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, and we also have just choices on how we wanna live our lives. A hundred years ago, your choice was like, “My dad was a farmer, his dad was a farmer, I’ll be a farmer.” Now, it’s like, “Well, I can be a blogger, I can be a lawyer, I can be an accountant, I can be whatever.” And that can be really terrifying to have to make that choice.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, that combined with a culture that says that because you’re free, something’s wrong with you if you don’t achieve those things. So there’s also a mythology in that, that everybody’s seen as this free agent that should be able to make their life become whatever it should be. So there’s two things going on at the same time in our culture. One is this idea that wherever you are is an expression of who you are. And the other is you’re in charge of your life, ’cause there is some truth to that, the second part, that you’re in charge of your way you respond to the world. You’re not always in charge of how, where you end up.

Brett McKay: Alright, so there’s this deep existential reason why it’s hard to make personal change, ’cause it’s scary to accept the fact that you’re the one who’s driving the bus of your life. And you have all these options to choose from as to where to go. There’s also more a day-to-day things that can either make us more or less motivated to change.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah. And so there’s this field around us. And let me give you an example from the book, and then I’ll explain why that example’s important. So I have a goal in my life to give more honest, critical feedback to my employees, ’cause it’s not something I’m very good at. And one day, I needed to give one of my managers some feedback. And I really felt like this was the opportunity to change that behavior, but I didn’t sleep well the night before. It was kind of a muggy day. I felt lousy. All the excuses for not doing it started entering my head. “Maybe I’ll just do it next week, or I’ll kick the can down the road some other way.”

And I was in New York City, and I got on this elevator with a group of people. And while we’re going up, this woman spills her coffee. And somebody in the elevator says, “I’m gonna sprinkle a little sugar on that to make it congeal so it doesn’t spread through the elevator.” Another person grabbed some napkins from their pocket and put it on it. And we got to the fifth floor and this guy got out and said, “That was the best elevator ride ever.” And everybody started cracking up. And then we got to the 10th floor, and this business man gets out, and he yells back to us, “Same time, same date next year, let’s all meet here on the elevator.” And we just lost it. And I got off of that elevator, and I was totally prepared to give this manager feedback.

Now, what happened in that elevator ride? Well, we all live in these fields, and the fields are very complex, and you cannot predict when those fields will shift. In the fields are basically, there’s a bunch of forces moving you forward. There’s self-esteem, there’s all kinds of traits. Your own self-confidence, your own mental agility. But there’s also things like how good your day is going, what happened to you yesterday, what’s on your mind at that time, what’s your socio-economic class, what else is going on at that point. And then there’s all these restraining forces, all these things holding you back, your self-doubt, socio-economic reasons, all of those things.

And so what happened to me that day was there was enough of an extra little bit of good stuff going on, sort of a sense of faith in humanity, that pushed me over to the ability to actually change my behavior. And that’s why one day you might be planning to diet, and you can’t diet. And then the next day, you wake up, and you’re completely able to diet. That’s because something has shifted in this field around you, all the forces holding you back, all the forces pushing you forward. And the way to think about it is each of us is sitting between those two forces at all times. Sometimes, we’re closer to our goal because either the positive forces are stronger and the negative forces are the same, or the negative forces are less for some reason, and we’re pushing towards it, and that we’re always in this field between these two things, moving back and forth.

Brett McKay: And then as we just discussed earlier about this existential anxiety, that’s a restraining force. But what’s interesting about that, just the fact of wanting to do something, to achieve a goal, make a personal change actually can cause a restraint ’cause we start freaking ourselves out.

Ross Ellenhorn: That’s right. That’s so great you point that out. That’s exactly right, that the thing that changing comes with its own built-in restraining force. There’s other kinds of motivations where it’s just basically these two fields. But change always has that existential accountability, and it also always has hope. So hope is always there. If you’re gonna plan, “I’m losing weight,” you’re hoping to lose weight. And so there’s always hope as a positive force forward, but the problem is that hope too has its restraining element, because hope can lead you to profound experiences of disappointment and helplessness. And so if you’ve had enough experiences of disappointment, hope is actually scary. And that’s part of why hope is both a positive force and a restraining force.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into this idea of hope more, ’cause it is the first book of psychology that I actually read where it deals with hope very seriously, ’cause you often read about hope in terms of a religious book or something like that. In this realm of psychology, humanistic psychology, what does it mean to hope for something? You just want something that you don’t have or can’t see? What is it?

Ross Ellenhorn: First of all, I wanna point out what an insane world we live in, that hope is not a central element of what we’re talking about in psychology, and that we have all these weird terms that psychology and psychiatry has made up that have very little meaning like depression, anxiety, that they don’t really have a meaning attached to ’em when hope does. “I’m hoping for this thing. I am experiencing despair ’cause I didn’t get it.” These words have been removed from therapeutic practices. It’s very sad in a lot of ways because it treats people as if they’re like these broken things instead of recognizing they’re dealing always with the same things everybody’s dealing with, which is “How do I hope for things, and how do I deal with the despair of not getting them?”

So hope is not quite an emotion. It’s sort of an emotion and a position, if that makes sense. So hope is, in a way, it’s similar to other things that are emotions and positions like paranoia. Paranoia is not just a feeling. It’s a position towards life. And hope is this attitude in which you place importance on something you want, and you start moving towards it. So every time you hope, you are actually attributing to something, an importance. So an example is your parents ask you what you want for Christmas or Hannukah, and you say a bike. The minute you say bike, that thing becomes this important thing to you. You also notice at that point that you lack a bike.

So two things are going on at the same time when you hope for something. It becomes important, and you recognize you lack it. That means that hope always implies risk, because if you don’t get it, you recognize something you’ve now appointed as important you don’t have, and you recognize you lack it. So every time you’re trying to change something about yourself, you’re gonna be recognizing if you don’t get it, you lack that thing that you wanna change, and it was important. And hope is this thing that moves you through uncertainty. You don’t hope for something and know you’ll get it. That’s what makes it so evolutionarily important because hope is getting you through uncertainty to a goal. It moves you to the goal, through uncertainty.

It’s kind of very different than a cheaper emotion, which is optimism. Optimism is, “Everything’s gonna be great.” Hope is, “I don’t know if everything’s gonna be great, but it’s gonna drive me, move me towards that thing.” And there’s two very important qualities to hope. And if you take a survey on hope, you’ll be taking Charles Snyder’s survey, typically. And there’s two things he’s looking for that hopeful people do. One is they have a belief in themselves. There’s a sense of, “I can do this.” And the other is they find alternative pathways.

So hopeful people, when you see a barrier, you try to figure out your way around it. And when you think about hopeful politicians, they’re often talking about how we’re gonna work our way around something. They’re not promising, “We’ll get there.” Churchill’s famous speech about, “We’ll fight here, we’ll fight there, we’ll fight there,” he never says, “We’ll beat the Germans.” He’s just talking about, “We’re gonna try every way possible to fight them.” And that’s hope, that’s where hope rest. It’s this emotion we experience through uncertainty.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you mentioned one element of hope is this belief in yourself that you’re capable of doing something, that belief like that’s… Faith comes up. So hope and faith are also connected. And again, faith is one of those words we typically associate with faith, and religion, and spirituality. But in this model of how people change, what is faith?

Ross Ellenhorn: So again, this is a real problem that we would think of these things as important in church, and in synagogue, and in mosque but not important in therapy. So faith is very similar to what Bandura, a social psychologist, calls self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that you can make things happen, that you’re competent enough to control your life, and to fix things and make things, and be able to take on something and make it work. That’s different than self-esteem. And that’s really what faith is in yourself which is that “I can get through this, I can figure out how to get through this.”

And so hope has that kernel of faith in it, because it’s that element, what Snyder is pointing out, is this sort of belief in yourself, that’s kind of faith. That’s faith. And when you’ve been met with lots of disappointments, you lose that faith in yourself. And if you lose that faith in yourself, you become afraid of hope, because you’re saying “Hope’s gonna bring me to that point again, where things are gonna fall apart, because I’m gonna get disappointed, I’m gonna fail. And I don’t know if I have enough faith in myself to handle that.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a good point. So these things, faith and hope, they drive us. They help us move forward in uncertainty. But as you said, it’s a double-edged sword, ’cause once you experience that defeat, you don’t get what you wanted, or you had faith in yourself and your ability, and it didn’t work out, you can fall into despair.

Ross Ellenhorn: Right. And also despair, the other term I would use for that is helplessness, the experience I can’t get my needs met, I can’t make my life work. That’s a profound experience. “I’m driving this bus, and I’m no good at making things work.” That really beat you up. And so that’s why the next time you’re ready to hope, you’re like, “I don’t wanna have that experience again that I’m not able to make my life work.” That’s a very profound terror.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a good point. You mentioned, when you were talking about hope and giving the example of hope and the kid hoping for a bike at the holidays, if you don’t get the bike, it’s a bummer, but you move on. But when you say you hope to lose weight for the 20th time, that can be even more devastating, ’cause just like it’s about you. It’s not a thing. It’s about you as a person.

Ross Ellenhorn: Absolutely, that’s right. Think about COVID again. What were we hoping for when we massively adjusted our lives? We were hoping for the status quo. We weren’t hoping for some great thing to happen. So the challenge of hoping wasn’t that great. It was just like, “Let’s get through this thing.” But to say to yourself, “I’m gonna lose weight,” that’s like “All the responsibility is on my shoulders, and I’m hoping for a thing that makes me better than I am right now.” And that makes that really kind of serious, because the pitfall is, “I’m not able to diet. If I’m not able to diet, simply do that, am I capable of doing other things? Who is this person driving the bus that is my life? Can I have faith in that person?”

Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s existential stakes whenever you make a goal like that.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yep, yep, exactly.

Brett McKay: And I thought it was interesting, your research on hope and this fear of hope. So hope can cause a fear of hope, because there’s always a chance it’s not gonna happen for you, what you wanted. What you found is that people who are the most hopeful are actually the most afraid of hope. Or is that did I get that right, or did I read it wrong?

Ross Ellenhorn: Almost right.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Ross Ellenhorn: People who are very hopeful and have fear of hope are very agitated. They get engaged in these things called counterfactuals where they’re constantly thinking, “I should have done this, I should have done that,” or “This should have happened differently.” They’re less likely to see a positive event coming up, than a person who doesn’t have hope. That kind of makes sense. A person who doesn’t have hope, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, my graduation is coming up, big deal.” A person who has hope, they’re going, “Oh, my God, I’m gonna get excited about this, and then I’m gonna be let down.” And they get scared of it, they don’t wanna look at it.

So what we’re finding is that the relationship between hope and fear of hope is this sort of difficult, difficult situation. And what that means on some level is we might be actually diagnosing people as depressed or even in despair when actually, they’re people with a lot of hope, but they’re afraid of it. It scares them. They’re like a high diver who’s afraid of heights.

Brett McKay: And you make this case that’s really… It’s counter-intuitive that, okay, when you decide that hope is in me, you also have this fear of hope, and you decide to let the fear drive your decision. We often think, “Well, that’s not good.” But you make this counter-intuitive case that sometimes, that’s what needs to be done. Sometimes, you have to just stay the same, because you’ve still got some work you have to do before you can make that big change you’re hoping for.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, so this gets a little con… Not convoluted by complex, maybe. Let’s think about this for a second. So I’m afraid of trying something that will change my life, because I’m afraid of that feeling of helplessness that’s gonna happen and despair if it doesn’t happen again, and I’m afraid my hope’s gonna coax me into doing it, and then I’m gonna be let down. What am I protecting when I do that, when I don’t change? I’m protecting my hope. In a strange way, I’m protecting my capacity to keep hoping. I don’t want it injured anymore, so I’m actually doing something that’s nurturing of myself. I’m trying to make sure that what hope I have is safe, so I’m playing possum. I’m not moving forward because I don’t want that injured again. I’m staying still so that I don’t get whatever motivates me more hurt.

And so in the book, that’s really what I’m talking about is: Can you find a way to have some affection for staying the same? That’s sure a better attitude towards staying the same than hating it and being shameful about it. That’s such a disrespectful way to look at the fact that you didn’t diet or you didn’t work out or anything like that. It’s not respecting that there’s parts of you that are trying to take care of yourself that aren’t working, and they come from self-love, and all love is messy and inaccurate and screwed up, and sometimes goes overboard. Love is not some pure state, and so sometimes you go overboard and you protect yourself too much, but it’s coming from the right place.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, something you say about people who have a fear of hope, the thing they do to protect the hope that they have is they severely constrain their lives, and time kinda gets compressed. The only things you’re worried about are things that happened a few months ago, and the only things you’re kind of maybe excited about are the things that will happen in a few months, but you’re not really hoping, “What’s my life gonna be like in a year, two years, three years? What are my kids gonna be like? Grandkids?” Because you don’t wanna hope that far in the future because there’s a good chance it might not work out the way you hoped for.

Ross Ellenhorn: Exactly, right. And so then what are you doing there? You’re trying to protect what hope you have from another injury, and that kind of makes sense. It’s not great, you end up staying the same, but on the other hand, you’re doing something that has some sense to it, and the more you can respect that, maybe even find it kind of beautiful that you’re doing it, the more likely you are to change. It just doesn’t work to hate yourself for not… That just doesn’t work. Shame, if you wanna really be stuck, be shameful, that’ll keep you stuck.

Brett McKay: This idea of hope and being afraid of hope reminds me of that saying… I don’t know if it’s connected, but it sounds kind of the same… “Cynics are just idealists who have been disappointed over and over again.”

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Right? It’s like any people, like hopeful people, they’re just like people who are afraid of hope, they’re just they’re hopeful people, but they’ve just been… They feel like they’ve been burned so many times that they get kind of like, “I’m not gonna put my… I’m not gonna hope this time, ’cause it’ll feel bad.”

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, I would just adjust that just a little bit from people who are… You and I are afraid of hope. Some people are just more afraid of it than us. There’s not a single theologian out there that says, “Go hope, it’s easy.” They’re always talking about it. Hope and courage go together, that it takes some strength to face hope, and if it takes some strength to face hope, there must be something scary about it, and what’s scary about it is hope is always about risk, and that that’s not something I made up. Every theologian’s talked about hope is a risky attitude. You’re climbing a mountain, and every step you take towards hope means a bigger fall if the thing doesn’t work out, and that’s why religion has always been about hope and faith. It’s trying to get people to act on hope. It’s a really evolutionary thing.

Brett McKay: So, okay, staying the same. So say someone makes a goal to lose weight, or maybe they wanna change their job, but they haven’t made the move because there’s a whole bunch of reasons, and you give a whole bunch of reasons. In the years you’ve been working with people, you found different reasons, different things that people are protecting. When you say when they decide, they might not know they’re making the decision, but yeah, when they decide, “I’m not gonna move forward on that change that I hoped for,” and one of ’em is just pain. Yeah, we’ve been kinda talking about this, but this pain of… One pain is just the fear of existential freedom, and we’d rather just, like we talked about it earlier, just escape from that. Any examples of people you worked with where the reason why they stayed the same is ’cause they were afraid of that existential freedom?

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, I would say that most of the people I deal with… Now, this is me applying my ideas on them, and I’m pretty much against people deciding what other people’s experiences are, but…

Brett McKay: Sure.

Ross Ellenhorn: But my way of looking at things is that most of the people I’m dealing with, this is what they’re struggling over. They’re having a major existential crisis, partly caused by the fact that they’ve had a massive disappointment because of having been diagnosed with a psychiatric issue, and so they’re dealing with, “If I’m free, I’m accountable, and if I’m accountable, can I actually get my hopes up again? Can I have another experience of loss regarding this?” And so for most of them, I think this is going on for them.

Brett McKay: And you also talk, you bring this other existential idea of bad faith and good faith. Good faith… I think this is from Sartre who…

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah.

Brett McKay: He said that good faith is when you recognize that you are accountable. You might not be responsible for the hand you’re dealt in life, but you are responsible for how you respond, and that’s the scary thing. Bad faith is whenever you pretend you don’t have that ability or accountability or responsibility, and I remember you talked about one person you worked with who did something that looked like good faith but was actually bad faith. I guess what it was is he set up this system of accountability where people checked in with him, so he had people check in with him. So it looked like good faith in that he was setting up this system, but it was actually kind of a bad faith move because he wanted other people just to take care of it. He wanted to set up the system, and then he didn’t have to think about it after that.

Ross Ellenhorn: Right, right. That was a fascinating thing. That’s right, that’s right. So he wanted these… We kept telling him… Because I run this program that it’s 24 hours, so he just kept telling me, “You could call any time if there’s a crisis,” but he wanted check-ins to make sure he wasn’t in crisis.

And that’s bad faith, because what he wanted was the sense that people were there, automatically responding to him, and that he was this sort of passive person that they were taking care of, ’cause passivity is kind of the art of bad faith. And to call us would mean that he was an agent, he was making this happen, so that’s a really significantly injured person, that they knew that they had this service where they could call any time, but they didn’t wanna use the service ’cause they were so terrified of actually being an agent, making things happen. And that’s classic for a lot of the people I work with, but right now, you and I are talking, that’s a good faith interaction. I’m feeling completely like I’m my own agent in my life right now. I feel like I’m spewing out words and ideas that are my own, and I’m accountable for those things.

And when I leave and I walk home, I’m gonna be thinking about how I have to be home at a certain time. And that “have to” is bad faith, because I’m acting as if that time I have to be home is something I have to do instead of I want to do because I don’t wanna piss people off that I’m late, and I’m making that decision. So our days are filled with these back and forths between good and bad faith, and some of that’s just functional. You can’t just go through life seeing everything as a choice, but some of it’s because we just are terrified of this idea that there’s a lot of choices in front of us.

Brett McKay: So, going back to this idea where that can actually be useful, because I think people are hearing that like, “Well, that’s not good. Bad faith sounds not good, where you pretend like you don’t have accountability for your life,” but say, we talked about this guy who set up this system, it’s not like it was useful for him. Can that be a way where he sort of works his way up to building good faith?

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah. I tell this other story about… And these are extreme stories, ’cause these are people that have been under extreme experiences of disappointment, but this is another example. I had a guy in a group, and I hated this, but I was a junior therapist at the time, so we had to ask them to give a number to their mood, which is sort of dumb, and he would always say every week he was a two, which is really low in depression. He was a two, with 10 being doing really well, and he’d say a two every week, but there were these women in the group who went to church with him, and they’d come into my office and they’d tell me things, like he was starting to date, like he spoke at the church the other day, like he got his own apartment, and he got a job. And then one day he didn’t show up, and he never showed up again, and so he needed us to kind of stay in this place of seeing him as a two, not scare him with our expectations going up about his own agency, that he can make his life work. In order for him to escape bad faith, he couldn’t have us be part of it and get excited for him, and so that was sort of his method to get out of it.

Brett McKay: So that’s another one of the 10 reasons why we don’t change, the fear of just expectations from ourselves and others. Once you tell people, your wife, like, “Oh, I’m gonna… I’ve been losing weight. This is the time I’m gonna do it,” and she’s like, “Yes.” And then a week later, you’re got the burrito taco enchilada meal, and she’s disappointed, and you feel it, and you’re like, “I just don’t wanna experience… I’m not even gonna say I’m trying to make a change.

Ross Ellenhorn: Right, exactly, that raising other people’s expectations means raising them seeing that you’re the master of your life, and having other people witness that is scary because then you can let them down, you witness yourself letting them down, and you feel bad about yourself, so you try to avoid that, and one way to avoid that is to not change. You stay miserable so that you don’t have to face the misery of a disappointment in front of them. And the same goes with our own selves. We don’t wanna raise our own expectations and we sort of stay in this state, this possum like state, because we don’t wanna have that experience of raising our hopes and then having them dashed.

Brett McKay: So this one guy you talked about who went to your group therapy session said he’s a two, that was kind of his way out of it. And so…

Ross Ellenhorn: It was smart.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it was smart, but how else have you seen people overcome this fear of just expectations? Does it come naturally? Does it come when you’re ready? What happens there?

Ross Ellenhorn: I think that it’s a couple of things. One is that I really don’t think that you can develop hope, you have to develop faith. So the more people get better at things, get better at life, the more willing they are to risk hoping again, and so the more willing they are to face the fact that things might not work out, but they’ll survive. So I’ve seen that in my own life. The more I’ve gotten good at things, anything, the more I feel like I can survive other disappointments. And I’ve seen that in my clients. The more that they can take care of themselves and be in charge of their lives, the more willing they are to take greater risks.

I guess the one story I tell in the book is this guy I used to know back in the punk scene in LA who wanted to quit smoking, and he did actually the opposite of the guy that gave the two. He took pictures of himself looking like an idiot smoking, and he called these idiot cards, and he plastered them… And he was really well-known in LA and people loved him… So he plastered these all over the clubs, and the bathrooms in the clubs all over the place, and it was his way of reminding himself in a way that continuing on with this behavior wasn’t actually working for him. It was his kind of reflection of this thing, but he also made it into kind of a performance, ’cause he got all these other people involved and in a way where they were reflecting to him, and it held them accountable in this other kind of way that helped him finally quit. It was kind of a beautiful little piece of performance art in some ways.

Brett McKay: You mentioned one thing that people get out of overcoming these fears of expectations or freedom is they start taking small steps in different areas of life. It might not even be related to the big issue in their life, whether they think they’re depressed or they’ve got something else, but they decide, “You know what? In this one area of my life where the stakes aren’t that big, I’m gonna make these small steps,” but then another reason people don’t change is ’cause small steps, that’s kind of undignified, it’s like, “That’s for babies. I’m a grown man. I’m gonna make big changes now.” And so a lot of people think, “Well, it’s not even worth it, if I have to do these little minuscule steps and not make much progress, then I’ll just stay the same.”

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, yeah, so here’s another word that you don’t hear in therapy enough, which is humility, that. When you head out towards a goal, if you find every small step to be insulting because every small step reminds you where you are, it reminds you how far you are from the goal. As a matter of fact, if you don’t take those small steps, you can dream all you want that you’re really close to the goal and never change. It’s really easy to think, “Oh yeah, I could do that tomorrow,” but to take the small steps is this kind of painful event of having to look at where you are in relationship to your goal.

If you’re afraid of hope, you’ll never take those small steps, or if you have this kind of overblown version of yourself where you think you can achieve it right away, you’ll never take the small steps, and the danger in that is that every small step once it’s completed, actually adds to your faith in yourself. If you can do it, it adds to your faith, and the next day you’re gonna take the next step, but you gotta get on those steps along the way in order to keep going. You have to… These fuel each other, if you can get on the track, but the problem is you’re terrified and it’s painful because each one is an insult.

Brett McKay: Right. So I’m trying to think of a problem. If you’re trying to get a promotion at your job, a career that means a lot to you, it might mean you have to take some sort of remedial course or go through some continuing education class that you think is really easy, and you’re gonna look like an idiot, and you’re just like, “I’m not even gonna do that ’cause it’s… ” But if you had hope and you wanted to act on that hope, and you had the humility, you would do it.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, that’s right, it’s exactly right. And then so the humility is needed at that point of the small steps. The story of Icarus is really fascinating because Icarus’s dad, who was the God of craft… Which is amazing, ’cause craft is all about small steps, you have to really get skilled at craft… And he built Icarus these wings, and the wings had two problems with it. One was we know about the sun, they’d melt if he had hubris, if he got too close to the sun. But if he got too close to the ocean, they’d get wet and get destroyed, and that’s humiliation. And so you have to float between those two things. You can’t be worried all the time that, “I’ll feel bad about myself and humiliated if I take this small step,” and you also can’t be living in this world where, “Oh, I’m above those small steps.”

Brett McKay: So we say we hope for change, but sometimes we just stay the same because we’re afraid. We’re trying to protect ourselves from all these things we’ve been talking about: The fear of freedom, the expectations, the indignity of small steps. So I think we kinda hit on it, but it’s like… The first step is looking at these things as maybe not as a negative, ’cause that will just, I don’t know, kind of taint things and make you feel worse about yourself, which just creates this vicious cycle that’s not good. So what is the solution to these tensions that’s created of hoping and then hope causes fear of hope? What do you? When you work with a client, what does that process look like of change when it finally happens for him?

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah. So I’m in this awkward position of writing a self-help book that gives no advice because I really don’t believe that advice on what you need to do to change works. What I think works, and what science shows, is contemplation from a non-judgmental space. In other words, I’m doing this for this reason. That’s why I have 10 reasons not to change. I’m doing it for this reason. I could do it for this reason, and I’m looking at both and I’m weighing them. You’re not gonna do that if you look at sameness as bad. You’re never gonna look at the reasons for it, and so real change happens, real sustainable change happens when you’re able to say, “There’s some good in this behavior I wanna change, and I have to say goodbye to that good in order to move forward.”

If all you say is that lie to yourself, that everything about this thing is bad, it’s very hard to move forward. That’s really what is happening now in some ways with people with problematic habits or what people call addiction, is that we’re discovering that if a person can discuss and think about why they like using, why it’s important in their lives, what it does for them, they’re actually more likely to give it up than somebody where it’s just about, “You’re screwed up because you’re an addict.” And that’s what I’m trying to do in the book, I’m trying to say, “Spend some time looking at this thing and appreciating it,” ’cause if you do that, you can probably leave it behind, you can retire it. You’re never gonna retire it if all you think is it’s bad and that you’re bad because you’re doing it.

Brett McKay: Well, it sounds like, this is a good analogy, would be an overprotective parent. An overprotective parent, they’re not doing it out of they have this urge to be a totalitarian, they’re usually doing it out of a sense of love and they wanna protect you, but at a certain point, they have to realize, “That’s actually not gonna help my kid. I need to back off if I really do love ’em.”

Ross Ellenhorn: Right, exactly. Yeah. I have a 22-year-old son who’s planning a big road trip right now, and my wife and I are discussing whether it’s a good idea for him to do it, and it’s like, “What are we doing? This kid’s 22.” [chuckle] But we love him and we’re worried about him, and if we were to intervene on that in some way, we would be doing something not good, but it would be coming out of our love, it wouldn’t be coming out of anything bad. It would sure piss him off, and it wouldn’t feel good, but it’s not bad, it’s just love that’s not being controlled right.

Brett McKay: So let’s recap, big picture overview, of what we’ve talked about so far. Whenever you want something, you hope for something, automatically, there’s a tension that’s created between where you are, you don’t have the thing, and where you’re at, the thing you’d like. And by thing, we’re talking about personal change here, so I’m not talking about a bike or an iPad or whatever. And then whenever you start hoping, that’s a driving force towards the thing you want, but then also there is a countervailing restraining force, which is the fear of hope, and then there’s also faith that is driving us towards it. We have this capacity, we have faith in ourselves and the ability to do what we want or what we need to do to achieve that thing we’d like but there’s also a countervailing restraint to there that’s like, you mess up and your actions don’t give you the results you wanted, and embedded in that, there’s all these other driving and restraining forces, like you were talking about earlier. You’re in a good mood, or your family’s supportive, the weather’s nice, but also restraining things like you just… People are annoying. [chuckle] A customer service experience that went bad. That can all affect things as well. Did I get that right?

Ross Ellenhorn: That’s great, man. That’s awesome. Thank you. That’s great.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and then the other thing, sometimes we decide in all the midst of these tensions and driving forces just to stay the same because that’s easier, and sometimes it protects where we are now.

Ross Ellenhorn: That’s right, that’s right. And I think the only thing I wanna add to that is that sometimes those restraining forces are out of our control. And so I give this example or story in the book about a woman who works in the cafeteria who wants to go back to college, and has to drive to her college through rush hour to get to class, and then has to drive all the way home, has to find parking on campus, is dealing with having to take care of her kids too. And she may be filled with hope and have low fear of hope, and still not do as well as the person with high fear of hope and lots of hope who’s the executive in her company where the cafeteria is, and someone drives him to the class, and someone helps him with his homework, and all those sorts of things, so there’s all kinds of other restraints than simply our existential choice. There’s all kinds of other socio-economic restraints, gender restraints, all kinds of restraints on us as we move through life. I definitely don’t want this book to be something like Tony Robbins. I just don’t believe that we can think things and beautiful things will happen. I don’t believe it. There’s plenty of political and economic forces against us as we move forward in life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s true, but you also make this point, like Sartre would say, he’d say, “Yes, there are restraints, but we have the ability.” We can navigate. It’s gonna be hard, but we can take a posture towards these restraints that’s hopeful, faithful and… I’m not gonna say positive ’cause I don’t wanna get… But, yeah, you have efficacy in the world.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, in your response to the world. That’s right, that’s right.

Brett McKay: And then also, it just sounds like too… I think it’s interesting we’ve been talking about faith, hope, humility. I think another thing that’s required for change is patience, and that’s something that’s not really talked about. Oftentimes, when you go to a therapist, they’re like, “Well, here’s our plan. We’ll meet for three weeks, and then once a month after that, and then you’re done.” And it sounds like your idea is, No, it could take a year or two to… I don’t even know if you solve things completely, it doesn’t sound like you solve things completely… But for things to get better.

Ross Ellenhorn: You know this book Zorba the Greek? It was also a movie.

Brett McKay: Oh yeah.

Ross Ellenhorn: And there’s this scene in Zorba the Greek that’s just so beautiful, where he finds a chrysalis with a caterpillar that’s slowly becoming… It’s just about to the point where it’s becoming a butterfly, and he decides to help it, so he starts opening up the chrysalis, and of course that thing dies in his hands, and he’s like, “That’s just about the most sinful thing you can do,” and he says this in the book. Like not letting something just sort of emerge in its own time, is just an awful thing to do to it, and we’re doing that too much to ourselves. We’re not respecting the fact that it might take getting on an elevator with some coffee spillers for us to feel like, “I can move forward today.” You have to wait for your field to be in the right place sometimes, and you have to be patient with that.

Brett McKay: And another thing you talk about, you were talking about all these different restraining forces we don’t have control over, but another driving force that can help us is our social environment, and that can play… And so surrounding yourself with people who are supportive and understanding, so that can help a lot. That’s why people go to group therapy or join AA, because it’s just being around people who’ve got their back or if they feel like they’ve got their back.

Ross Ellenhorn: I have to tell you, it’s amazing how little the psychotherapeutic professions understand motivation, and how well social psychology understands motivation. Social psychology has it down, and they’ve done research after research on that, and this is about things like a sense of your value in your community, your purpose, your social support. These are all the things in a person’s field that actually move them forward. Social psychology is basically kind of the study of motivation on some level, on some level, and it’s all about this thing, about what are the things going on around you that get you to move forward, and one of the main ones is social support. Social support is just this medicine that kinda moves you forward. I got this cousin of mine that does this research where he has people sit in a chair, and he’s a social psychologist, and he has them sit in a chair and he has this tarantula in this plexiglass box move closer to them down this ramp, and they actually can control how close it gets, and people that only think about negative support, only think about it, they don’t have less social support than the other people, think that that tarantula is closer to their face than the people that think about positive social support. Not that they have more social support.

Two people walking towards a hill will more accurately measure the height of that hill and how hard it will be to travel that hill, than one person. So social support has all kinds of things to do with how we look at threats and how we look at challenges, and so surrounding yourself with people, feeling connected to people, is just vital to us moving forward. We know that isolation ties with cholesterol and smoking for heart disease, and that’s because of all the cortisol that’s in your system when you’re isolated. It makes you paranoid, it causes all kinds of problems for people, so these are all social things. They’re not necessarily psychological.

Brett McKay: Social support can help you be more of an individual with good faith, that sees that they are accountable and responsible for their life. It’s kind of counter-intuitive. You need the group to become an individual.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, that’s really great, though. It’s a really great kind of paradox that you can’t be too lonely to be alone with yourself, that these things really feed our ability to be original and creative with our lives, is this sense that we’re connected to others.

Brett McKay: Ross, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Ross Ellenhorn: My work is at That’s my company. And then the book, it’s on Amazon, it’s everywhere. It’s HarperCollins, and they can just look it up: How We Change and the 10 Reasons Why We Don’t.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic, well, Ross Ellenhorn, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah, it was great, thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Ross Ellenhorn. He’s the author of the book, How We Change and 10 Reasons Why We Don’t. It’s available on and in bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years, and if you like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or a family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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