In our modern age, change could not seem easier at times. We can change energy supplier, switch phone contracts, and exchange our old appliance for a new one, all with a few clicks or taps. We can even change partner with a swipe!
Yet, to change aspects of ourselves is much harder. If only ‘ten steps to a new…’ really did get us there…oh, life would be easier and we would feel more contented.
But, we all know that changing any habit, pattern or reaction we have can be slow and frequently unsuccessful. Why is it so hard to change?
We are far more complex, even than the small print in a mobile phone contract, and each and every aspect of us is really comprised of many layers. These layers act as barriers to change.
One of the most important layers is history– our own personal history, our family history, and our collective history. History gives us scripts, stories about who we are and the limits that others set for us. History gives us ‘tried and tested’ ways of doing things and responding to events.
For example, we may have learned that saying how we are feeling was not encouraged as we grew up; in turn, older members of our family may not have been encouraged during their upbringing; and we may also have been raised in a community or culture where there was a prohibition on speaking out. Added together, they form thick layers of inhibition that seem subversive and even dangerous to remove. So, we remain in our silent place instead.
Another vital layer is self-protection and its sidekick- fear. Always, always we are set, by default, to a position that maintains the status quo, the equilibrium. All of human experience, through the ages, has taught us to be cautious- cautious in what we do and what we feel. Thus, we want to maintain comfort, sameness, and predictability, as much as possible- even when it is painful to do so! “Better the devil you know”, as we say.
To illustrate, how often have you tried to give up something like cigarettes, alcohol or treats, or tried to start something- the January rush to the gym- only to find you relapse, feel defeated and miserable, and resume your previous behaviour with even more gusto! Depressing, isn’t it? You started out trying to cut out sweet foods, but by the end of a month, you have gained 3 pounds!
Caution is inbuilt in humans. It is crucial to our survival as a species, but it makes it harder for us to change. And this is true; even if you know something is literally killing you or destroying your life.
Don’t stop reading yet- the post on ‘how to make change happen and stay’ may help!
But, it is good to understand just what you are up against when you decide to make changes in your life. ‘Forewarned is forearmed’, as we also say.
Fear is an essential and often underestimated aspect of change. It is what gets us running back to the old habits. Also, our survival vitally depends on our connection to other people. The social and emotional connections we have are even more important than food and shelter (given a choice between comfort and food, baby monkeys consistently choose comfort). For more on the way connection is vital read my post on ‘The neurobiology of change or why my smartphone is so smart’.
Being different from our tribe or group, from how others appear to know us, is a very big deal in psychological terms. Although we might rationally think that we will be as loved and accepted if we change, this is not always so. For example, if we give up alcohol, will our partner, friends and colleagues, feel uncomfortable? They may actually discourage us from trying… “you don’t need to stop/ it won’t be fun without you/ you’ll be boring without drink “etc.
Connection is everything, so when we risk undermining it, fear emerges to hold us back.
There is another important reason why change is difficult. Simply, we often give up too soon. If it doesn’t work after a week, a month, we stop and settle back to life as before.
The post ‘How to make change happen and stay’ emphasises that change has to become embedded, routine and repetitive, and that takes time and effort.
Change is hard, but not impossible. If change couldn’t happen, we would still be living in caves and clubbing each other. We are also motivated to evolve. Hope itself is nurtured by the dynamic power of change.