What’s really stopping you making the change?

Changing behaviour is HARD! Most of us know what to do but knowing it and doing it are not the same thing. Why?

In last week’s podcast, I spoke about the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant. The rider represents the conscious, logical processes in the mind – the ones we know are happening – while the elephant represents the subconscious, emotional, instinctive processes – the ones we remain largely unaware of.

Often it’s the rider who wants to make the shift.  We’re conscious of our desire to eat less sugar, drink less alcohol, exercise more or whatever goal we’ve set ourselves. We know the goal is good for us. We know it’s in our best interests to achieve it but something stops us. That something? The Elephant.

Are you failing to achieve your goal or succeeding in achieving a different goal?

When we fail to achieve the goals we set ourselves, we often put it down to a failure of willpower but that’s rarely the case. The elephant has goals too – and they’re far more powerful and deep rooted than goals based on things we think we should do for whatever reason. (More on this in next week’s podcast). When we fail to achieve our conscious goals, it’s often because we’re succeeding in achieving our subconscious goals – the elephant’s goals.

How do we find out what the elephant’s goals are?

This is difficult to do. To find out how this might be possible, I enlisted the help of Counselling Psychologist, Dr Despina Learmonth.

Despina Profile Card

Here is what she shared:

1. Start with a Question

What is this behaviour giving me?

If you end up with answers that don’t surprise you or enlighten you, you’re probably still getting information from the rider – information you’re already aware of. This information is unlikely to help you uncover the best route to help you make the change you’d like to make.

2. Free Associate*

Dr Learmonth shared a technique she uses with her clients, called Free Association. It works by starting with the behaviour you’re focused on – in the podcast, we use the example of giving up coffee so the central concept is coffee.

In this case, we would start by writing down “coffee” or drawing a picture of a cup of coffee. Then we would write words or draw pictures of anything that comes to mind when we think of coffee. The idea is to do this quickly and include everything that comes to mind, no matter how random.

Put a time limit on this exercise – maybe 60 – 90 seconds to start with but if you’re still going strong after that time, keep going for a little longer but don’t think hard on it – you’ll be getting information from the rider if you mull it over.

Once you’re finished, review what you have and examine what it tells you about some of your hidden motivations.

3. Think about how you felt and what you didn’t write down

There may be some words or phrases that resonate with you more than others. Those are worth paying attention to.

It’s also worth thinking about the words or phrases that crossed your mind but that you didn’t write down. What stopped you?

New Insights

Following these three steps can offer new insights into your behaviour and motivations. With that information, you stand a better chance of working out strategies to help you achieve your goal.

Next week, I’ll look at the role of beliefs in behaviour and how these can affect happiness.


Free association is typically not used for people who are in any kind of mental health crisis. For those who are having self harming, suicidal or homicidal thoughts and plans, the problem needs to be dealt with much more quickly and directly.

Do not engage in free association exercises without a therapist to support you if you are currently taking psychotropic medication or are in psychological crisis (as described above).

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