(A) Voice of Her Own: #A-Z Challenge

“Why is change–even desired change–so stressful? To begin with, it requires psychic energy. It threatens the routines, habits, and fixed points of reference that provide comfort and stability in our daily lives. We are creatures of habit….Then, too, it’s never a single contained event. Our lives are complex tapestries of delicately interwoven threads. A tug in one direction usually has unforeseen consequences for the whole; change can alter the entire woof and warp of our existence….Change always brings the possibility of chaos–and of transformation.”

A Voice of Her Own: Women and the Journal-Writing Journey by Marlene Schiwy

I have long been fascinated with the topic of change. I used to teach about organizational change, and always got a laugh when repeating Michael Fullan’s comment that “the only person who likes change is a wet baby.” 

My real interest, though, is personal change. Specifically, why is it that even desired change is so difficult for us, and what can we do to make it easier?

There are several posts on this site about ways to make change easier. For example, this one of 18 ways to overcome resistance,  this one about making change the kaizen way, or this one about focusing on what’s working. And there will be more in the coming months. I’m going to keep writing about change until I understand it better, and I want to continue to share processes that work.

Today, let’s dig a little deeper into why desired change is hard on us. Mostly, we can blame our brains.

5 Ways Your Brain Messes with Desired Change

  1. There was a time when searching for problems was necessary to our survival. Now that kind of negative default setting just gets in the way. Change attempts based on fear and regret don’t work and never will.
  2. Our conscious mind is sure that we really, really want to change. But subconsciously, there’s something in what we’re doing now that is working for us. The problem is called immunity to change, and unless we figure out what’s keeping us stuck, we’ll stay stuck.
  3. Our brains attempt to conserve energy. We want results, not processes; quick fixes, not the inevitable “three steps forward, two steps back” of successful change.
  4. ‘All or nothing’ thinking often accompanies our change efforts. This can take the form of trying to change too many things at the same time, or of aiming for perfection when making even a single change. All or nothing thinking is a cognitive bias, a trick of the brain.
  5. Any change effort requires a whole range of supports. Internal supports include focused attention, self-control, motivation and willpower. None of these supports are unlimited and they can be exhausted pretty quickly. This is especially problematic when all or nothing thinking is leading the charge.

Those five brain issues are in addition to the interconnectedness and fear of the unknown mentioned in Schiwy’s quote.

It is little wonder that even desired changes are tough to achieve. That is not to say that we are defeated before we start. There are many things we can do to outfox our brains. But it’s good to know, I think, that difficulty with change is not a character flaw.

Which items on the list are most significant for you when you are struggling to make a desired change?

Join the tribe:

45 comments

  1. it is a challenging endeavour – I have collected tools over a long period of time to support me in the process of change. this does not mean that I am ‘good’ at it or that I do not resist etc but I don’t feel hopeless at it either and the fear does not overwhelm me. I have learnt to welcome change by acceptance by recognising that change is happening all the time and it is nature that carries this teaching. right now the leaves are changing colours falling to the ground and ….one thing gives way to another – nature is always transforming. I think we tend to prefer change that we initiate rather it being thrust on us but this is not always possible and here illness/ death is a great teacher. I will be interested to read more of what you have to say about this Karen …

  2. I agree with Sandra. We definitely prefer change that we initiate. And when we are in a tough spot, we want change immediately and when we are in a good spot we want to stay there indefinitely. Neither is realistic. Because change is inevitable.
    It’s definitely good to know that difficulty with change (that we don’t desire) is not a character flaw! Thanks, Karen. Stay dry today!

    Deb

    1. Hi Deb,
      We do prefer change that we initiate for sure, but all of those things about the way our brain messes with us apply equally to desired change as to change we don’t desire. On those tough spot days, I’d say we don’t stand a chance but we know that’s not true. We can outfox our brains. Problem with the tough spot days is that we’re too tired to try – or maybe that’s just me 🙂

      1. Definitely not just you! 🙂
        A wise friend once told me that the best thing you can do after a tough day is climb into bed early, pull the covers up nice and high, and resolve to live to fight another day. Advice I’ve gladly taken a time or two! 😉

  3. Hi Karen
    Another interesting topic. Here’s my take on the topic of change. If you are talking attitudinal change, its takes acquiring accurate information, good listening, and reflection. I think of my time in Egypt when we held many passionate discussions with our Lebanese friends who grew up just outside of Beirut during the war. As kids, they used to go up in the mountains and stand on a rooftop to watch their city being bombed. They certainly gave us the Middle East perspective of just why it is so hard to achieve peace. For us, it changed our whole way of thinking as we had been so well indoctrinated by the western press. If you are talking procedure change, then again, tell me why this new way is so much better than what I normally would do. Provide me with the support I might need to make the leap. Personal changes even though they are for positive things like better health, require me to maintain strong self-discipline. Even though I know I should take that extra fitness class, sometimes I just have to stop creating excuses and just go and do it. Less thinking and more action I guess.

    1. Interesting, Fran. I hadn’t thought to divide desired personal changes into categories, but I can certainly see that the supports needed for a change of attitude are quite different from those needed for a change in action. Thanks.
      Your experience with your Lebanese friends must have been incredibly moving and mind-altering. I can’t even imagine how their experiences would have affected their worldviews from the time they were young children.

  4. Change is part of life. Progress requires change, whether it is personal, cultural, social or environmental change. I embrace positive changes in myself, especially in regards to a character trait that is less than ideal. In general, I like to change things up, which is part of my curiosity to experience, see and do different things in life.

    But, the funny thing is that I have a “problem” with change in others or in familiar environments. Let me explain: when I left Belgium in 2003, my family members were all alive, my friends and I were close, almost nobody had been married and no children had been “produced”. My childhood town and area looked a certain way. Every subsequent visit back, I expected this to be the same – I and my lifestyle hadn’t changed much and I hoped the same was true for everything back home. Nope… The first few years, things remained the way I remembered them. It gave me a safe and secure feeling, something I could expect and fall back on. Slowly, everything changed. Still I expect/wished things to be the way they used to be when I left. Very unrealistic and it makes me think that I stood still in time the last 15 years… Nostalgia. Plus, I never lived there anymore, so didn’t see the progression.

    1. I understand, Liesbet. It would have been a very jarring change for you to see the differences in your childhood home and friends, especially since you didn’t see those differences as they were taking place. And I do think that many of us would love it if our childhood environments could stay intact. There would be such a feeling of safety. But alas, there’s truth to the quote that “Change and death are the only two certainties in life.”

  5. I tell people I don’t like change but I’m proud of being flexible. I rely on habits to get through the day but I also revolt against them. I think I’m confused. Well, my brain is confused!

    1. You do sound a bit confused, Jacqui, but let’s recast it and claim that you have a mind capable of holding two opposing ideas at the same time without going insane. There – now the confusion is a strength.

  6. Hi, Karen – I like your posts on this topic and am glad that there will be more coming. Like you, ‘change’ is a topic that I would like to understand better. I believe that another contributing factor is that we often shift slowly, in small increments, and we begin to accept those ‘changes’ as our ‘normal,’ without recognizing them as significant. I was reminded of this fact the other day when someone mentioned something about my blog. I didn’t appreciate that any change had taken place until this person mentioned it. When I took another look, the change had been significant!

    1. Excellent point, Donna. I’m really bad for discounting small changes as either nonexistent or irrelevant. Remember Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati? When he was hired as DJ, he went into the sound booth, put the old guy who was spinning the Musak-sounding records up against a wall, shouted into the microphone, “Hello, fellow babies. Let’s get down!” and put some hard rock on the turntable. Now that’s the kind of change I love even though it’s almost impossible to overcome all of my brain limitations to achieve it.

  7. Karen, For years (at work) I was known as being resistant to change. I liked process and stability. I still do. So change is hard for me and I’ve had to find tools to help. One of my best tools is accountability. I have a few good accountability partners who have helped me initiate some changes. And I have changed pretty significantly in the past 3 years (big transitions will do that to you as well I guess!). I’m focusing now on changing my thoughts…to change my self-acceptance. And wondering if that will result in other changes in habits. But I’m liking Deb’s advice about going to bed early and pulling up the covers…. I did that last night and yup, feeling better today!

    1. Hi Pat,
      You are most definitely changing. I don’t even recognize the description of who you were at work because that’s not who I know. You are my blogging friend who loves to SOAR, to learn, to try new things and, yes, to change your thoughts – the hardest thing of all.
      Following Deb’s advice is good stress relief after daily battles with the hard work of personal change. I think I’ll be following it myself tonight.

  8. I have the reputation of being an early adopter of change in my work place, and you would think that is a good thing but it can cause problems. For example, impatience with late adopters and difficulty understanding why it is taking them so long to come around. In my personal life, I probably get tripped up on Number 4 more than any other – trying to do too much at once and perfectionism. I am interested in what helps people make changes, too, and am interested in your upcoming posts about the subject. Certainly fear and regret are not effective in creating lasting change. I’ve seen so many heart attack patients vow to live a healthy lifestyle, but after the hospitalization fades from the rearview mirror, they go return to their old ways.

    1. From one early adopter to another, I get it, Molly. I wonder if we early adopters enjoy organizational change so much because it feeds our desire for brain problem #4. I always loved massive changes at work, none of that slow, incremental stuff.
      Thanks for your note about the heart attack patients. I remembered reading some alarming stats once about their difficulty in making changes. I just looked those stats up again, and in the study that was cited, of the three major changes to make following heart attack – stop smoking, better diet, more exercise – 25% of heart attack patients don’t make a single change. And a mere 4% of patients make changes in all areas.
      Here’s the link -http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/health-med-fit/percent-do-not-change-bad-health-habits-after-heart-attack/article_f30164af-2368-5cf5-8bdc-3f641a7607b8.html

      1. Those stats are alarming, Karen, and yet when you understand change theory not surprising. What do people gravitate to when stressed? Things that are comforting, like cigarettes, food, and binge watching TV. And is a heart attack stressful? You bet! People are much more likely to change when striving for a reward, instead of running away from a nightmare.

        1. So true, Molly. It’s easy to be scornful of heart attack patients as weak and undisciplined. But if you know anything at all about change theory and the human brain, they are behaving exactly as most of us would in the circumstances. Heck, as some of us (that would be me) do when stressed about any number of things. Except I don’t smoke, have never smoked. Thank goodness to be free of that vice.

  9. For me, probably number one and number three, generally speaking, and I also think resistance to change is a function of age. When younger, I jumped into challenges, enthusiastic and ready for whatever came my way. But with age, things have changed. There is more at stake now, and things have been settling into a nice pattern that seems to work. Had the opposite been true — things not working — some change would be inevitable. Another take on number two on the list, I think. Thanks for another beautifully challenging post, Karen.

  10. I think you’re doing really well with mostly just numbers one and three, Silvia. I believe in going big so I usually have all five brain issues happening at the same time. And yet I love the promise of change.
    Fascinating point about response to change being age-related. I’m very excited about following that trail further. Thank you.

  11. I usually have trouble with 2, 3 and 5 when I try to make a change. 4 isn’t usually a big problem for me – my doctor upon diagnosing me with type 2 diabetes (it has been almost 6 years now) wanted me to stop smoking, lose weight and get more exercise. I was adamant when I told him I would change one thing at a time, make it a sustained change and then move on to the next item on his list. The first two are conquered and now I am working on the third. The weather is finally starting to co-operate up here although the rain can go any time…really, any. time.
    Keep the change topic posts coming please, Karen. I, like the others, want to understand why it is so hard and how to accomplish significant changes easier. It all gets so frustrating that I find myself giving up too soon. Motivation is another key problem I have when it comes to change. I want the change, am open to change and yet when it comes down to where the rubber meets the road I lose momentum and motivation to push through to actually achieve the change I want to see happen. Aaarrghh! 🙁

    1. Hi Susan,
      I absolutely will keep writing about change but I have to say that it’s quite awesome that you’ve made great progress in two of the three areas requested by your doctor. In my response to Molly, above, I cite the results of a study of more than seven thousand patients who had heart attacks and were told to make changes in the same three areas as you. The vast majority didn’t come close to your successes.

      1. Thanks for the accolades, Karen, I am pretty proud of getting this far – at least in those two areas. I am still looking to get that exercise part going better. I saw the study you cited and the results…if I had a heart attack I would think I would do anything within my power to not have another one. In a lot of ways, a heart attack is a lot scarier than diabetes so the results of the study do shock me a little.

        1. Hi Susan,
          The reason so many heart attack patients don’t take action is brain reason #1 – change attempts based on fear and regret never work. Do you remember what you were feeling when you decided to make your changes? (Please don’t tell me it was fear and regret because that shouldn’t have been sustainable 🙂 )

  12. Another great post and I agree, Karen that no-one really likes change. However, Change is inevitable because in some way each day, changes occur in our lives. I like your point 4 about ‘all or nothing’. We need to take small steps in making changes otherwise it can be overwhelming. Change can be a wonderful opportunity if we embrace it with the right attitude. Have a great day!

  13. I think number two and number four resonate with me. I hate change. Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who does what has to be done and implement change in my life. I truly admire those who accept change gracefully and don’t rail against the inevitable. That’s not me. I believe that resistance to change is my way of protecting me from the unknown. I believe sea changes in our lives are never easy to accept – the death of someone dear, the new baby, the loss of a job or a good friend; those, surprisingly, I find I can handle. It’s the stupid everyday changes that I find difficult – new dentist, new hairdresser, new address – anything new that is a change in the normal harmony of life. I guess I have to work on number two.

    1. Hi Anna,
      You’re not alone. Lots of people have trouble with everyday sorts of changes. I suspect that’s because there’s an expectation that day-to-day life should be livable within one’s comfort zone and steps outside of that feel threatening. On the other hand, the bigger life changes like birth, death and loss, happen both infrequently and often with some advance notice, so we feel better prepared for them and more supported in going through them since there are lots of supports for those kinds of changes.

  14. I think I have that immunity problem! And a little of the all-or-nothing. But change happens whether we’re ready or not, so we might as well go with it. Sometimes it’s hard, but still easier than swimming upstream!

  15. Change can be difficult, especially when it feels as if we have no control over the process. I always try to remind myself that, while the process may be out of my hands, I have full control over my reaction to it. Since change is happening all the time we can fight it, learn to live with it, or look for alternatives. All three reactions are valid under different circumstances… I guess the key is being wise enough to know which reaction serves us best.

    1. I like your three alternatives, Janis. Sometimes having a simple framework like that can help us feel like we have some control over how we are responding to change. Thanks.

  16. Hi Karen, I initiate small changes to my day-to-day activities. I also plan something new and slightly bigger every few months like travel to a new destination. I find that all my senses are engaged when I’m in a foreign place and that feeling of being alive is fantastic. I find that as I create the changes for me, they help build my immunity, and increase my level of patience when I’m faced with changes that I didn’t start myself.

    1. Great ideas, Natalie. I’m impressed that you’ve really thought this through and figured out how to make sustainable changes in ways that work for you. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Karen,
    I have experienced so much change in my life, I’m not certain how much resistance I have to change – at least externally: where I live, where I work, what I do, how I spend time… etc.
    Internal, personality type changes perhaps come more slowly. Or perhaps I have so much external change that I have never allow myself the time and space to examine the internal to pinpoint any need for change. Not sure if that makes sense…

    1. It makes perfect sense, Janet, and highlights an area for me for future research. How do external changes affect our capacity for internal change or our awareness of it. Thanks.

  18. In my career, I was a builder and developer — very change-oriented within my work organizations. I also was change-oriented toward my own career, eager to take on new challenges and try different ways of doing things (even though some of those changes involved learning to do things that were quite stressful for me, such as public speaking or giving media interviews). In being a leader who promoted change, at first I was perplexed that some others around me resisted (obviously beneficial) changes. But over time, I learned how to be a better listener, and engage in the change processes in ways that honoured others’ perpectives and experiences. When people had the opportunity to contribute to the planning, they were always way more likely to support the change and buy into implementing it than when it was forced on them. I often was surprised that, out of these consultations, sometimes just small tweaks shifted a major change from being unacceptable to being embraced. On the other hand, sometimes the group consultation process resulted in huge transformations of the initial proposal, always resulting in a better and more robust result (humbling for me, if I had been the one who put forward the initial plan).

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      Your experiences with organizational change certainly resonate with mine, and with the change literature. I wonder – Do you think that understanding organizational change has made it easier for you to manage desired personal changes?

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