Immunity to Change: Why You Have It & What To Do About It

Have you noticed that there are changes you can make with no problem at all – times when the Nike slogan ‘Just Do It’ is a perfect fit and you feel all virtuous and full of willpower? But there are also those times when the change you want to make is really important to you and not only can’t you change, but you actively sabotage any progress you do make? In those situations, you are suffering from immunity to change.

Perhaps you have also noticed that immunity to change kicks in the most when the stakes are high. We all know that losing weight, quitting smoking, or getting more exercise will extend our lives. And that ending self-blame, perfectionistic thinking, or procrastination will enrich our lives. Yet the statistics for meaningful long-term change in any of these areas are dismal. They don’t have to be.

You are an Iceberg

What you say you want, your conscious desires, are the part of the iceberg that is above the waterline. So are your behaviours that are contradicting what you say you want. It’s brutal to be aware of the gulf between words and actions, but there it is. To mix metaphors, the grand canyon exists in all of us.

Below the waterline, unconscious and invisible to you, are the real reasons you can’t change the very things that will extend or enrich your life. Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan and Harvard change leadership director Lisa Lahey are the authors of the book Immunity to Change. They have spent the last dozen years figuring out what’s going on. Better yet, they have worked with thousands of people and have the evidence to prove that their change process works. But it’s not easy and it isn’t fast.

Two Kinds of Problems, Two Kinds of Change

I do not fix problems. I fix my thinking. Then problems fix themselves.

Louise L. Hay
A friend and her husband went on a restrictive diet together.  ‘Jeff’ has kept the weight off for two years. He says he decided it was important, so he did it. “No problem.” We’re all trying really hard not to hate him.

For Jeff, losing weight was a technical problem. He needed to find the diet that was right for him. Once he had done that and combined it with all of the factors necessary for successful change such as having an important goal, structuring his environment to support success, and looking for the bright spots, Jeff has never looked back.

‘Beth’, on the other hand, also decided, and also lost lots of weight. But she very quickly regained all she lost plus a bit, and she continues to struggle daily.

Beth is an action-oriented woman. She thought if she buckled down and did the work, she would get results. She was right, but only in the short-term. For Beth, losing weight is an adaptive problem. An adaptive problem requires that you shift your beliefs, not just your behaviours.

Beth needs the immunity to change process. But first she will have to stop searching for technical solutions to adaptive problems.

Bravery is Required

Just as your immune system protects your body from threat, your immunity to change protects you from fears you aren’t even aware that you have. Kegan explains it with this example:

“I may have a deep-running anxiety that you don’t think well enough of me. But I don’t live my life every day like I’m walking on eggshells, because I’m very tuned in to what you want or need in order to continue to have a high opinion of me.running shoe clad feet of woman walking along a grass and stone path I use my energy to make sure that I keep delivering what I believe it is that you want. As a result, I don’t feel the anxiety because I’m handling it.”

The problem, as Kegan goes on to say, is that while your immunity to change system is brilliant at keeping your life comfortably under your control, “it’s costing you something. And what does it cost you? It costs you your goal.”

Kegan and Lahey have proven that their process is successful when people work with a coach or a psychotherapist. They say it’s also possible to do this work yourself as long as you are willing to look at your own entrenched patterns. I’m trying and have to say that this process is not for the faint of heart. But we are brave women, right? We are on our profound journeys. We can do this.

Step One: Decide What You Want

Meaningful goals for this process tend to emerge from your gut rather than your head. Often it’s the case that you simply can no longer tolerate the disconnect between your words and your actions.

While your choice of goal can be anything, some of the goal areas that Kegan and Lahey have seen work well are: achieving work/life balance; engaging in conflict constructively; delegating at home or at work; listening, and health-related changes.

Requirements of a Good Goal

Your goal has to be:

  • essential and urgent to you. You’ll be venturing out of your comfort zone, so make sure your goal is wildly important to you with a huge payoff.
  • accomplishable by you. Achieving your goal can’t rely on the people around you changing.
  • positively worded. It’s about what you want to become, not what you want to stop being.


Once you choose your goal, you write it down in the first column on a chart called an Immunity Map (download the pdf here). Below the goal, identify the specific concrete behaviours that are required to achieve the goal. This is important. If you don’t know what you actually have to do to achieve your goal, all of the insights in the world aren’t going to help you.

Step Two: Come Clean on How You Are Sabotaging Yourself

Step One is solidly planted in most people’s comfort zones. Goal setting is safe and future-focused. I love setting goals and imagining how perfect my life is going to be at some as-yet-to-be-determined date.

Steps two, three and four aren’t like that.

In Step two, column two on the chart, your task is to list everything you are doing and not doing that gets in the way of achieving your goal. Notice the emphasis on doing/not doing. This is not a place to list feeling or thinking states like, “I get impatient.” You have to make it concrete such as, “When I’m in line at the grocery store, I sigh loudly and mutter under my breath.”

If you can’t come up with a list, ask others who know you well. But don’t feel you need to share your list with anyone. You probably won’t want to.

Your List

  • cannot include all of the good things you do to help you achieve your goal. No balanced perspective here, folks.
  • cannot include why you are behaving this way or strategies to help you change.
  • needs to be as long and as honest as possible. Apparently that will lead to a “bigger eventual payoff.”

The challenge of Step two is resisting the urge to make the problems go away. Refrain from leaping into action with a technical solution, or booking a dozen appointments with a therapist so you can find out why you are doing these awful things to yourself.  Insights are coming in Step three. Onward!

Step Three: Uncover Your Competing Commitments

The premise of immunity to change work is that when you are not doing something that you think would benefit you, it is because unconscious competing commitments are holding you back.

For each of the statements that you wrote in column two,  ask yourself – “If I imagine myself trying to do the opposite of this, what is the most uncomfortable or worrisome feeling that comes up for me? What makes not doing column two feel so scary?” (p. 238)

Here is a specific example from one draft of my immunity map. In column two I wrote, “I eat really fast. I usually finish long before others at the table.” In column three I wrote, “I am committed to being vital and efficient. Eating slowly means I am less vital, less efficient.”

While I am not sure I’ve worded my response correctly, it does pass the litmus test for a quality column three statement.

Litmus Test Requirements

  1. You have to get to a place of fear–to a feeling, not a thought about a feeling. You need to feel at risk in some way.
  2. Each column three competing commitment must help to make perfect sense of one or more column two behaviours. You should be saying, “Of course someone who feels this way would do this!”

Once you’ve listed competing commitments for each of the statements in column two, you should start to see a coherent picture of the whole iceberg, the whole you. You’ll probably also be feeling really stuck because you can see that you are moving in two opposite directions at the same time. Breathe. Remember that knowledge is power.

Finally, before leaving this step, look at all of your column three competing commitments, take the biggest fear or discomfort, and put it in the ‘worry box’ at the top of the column. Kegan again reminds us to dig deep. If, for example, we claim that our biggest fear or worry is that we will be ‘bored’, we should recognize that disengagement is a cover for something we don’t want to feel. Identify that “awful something.”

Step Four: Identify Your Big Assumptions

“The most reliable route to ultimately disrupting the immune system begins by identifying the core assumptions that sustain it.” (p.246)

A big assumption is something you believe to be true, but can’t know for sure is true until you test it.

To uncover your big assumptions, use the frame “If____, then______” for each of your column three competing commitments. Using my example from Step three, I might write, “If I am less vital and efficient, then people might not admire me.”

You will know when you’ve hit on a big assumption because you will feel a flash of insight, an “Oh…I get it! This is why I’m stuck” sensation. I didn’t feel that for my if/then statement so I need to do more digging.

By the way, your assumptions won’t necessarily all be wrong. But the ones that are wrong are the source of your competing commitments so testing and disproving them is key to making substantial and lasting changes.

Trying the Immunity to Change Process for Ourselves

If you’ve looked at the Start Here section of this website, you’ll know three things about me:immunity to change cartoon battered man flying over houses with bird behind him saying "Tomorrow, I'll teach you how to land."

  1. My inability to make necessary changes took me to a place of burnout. Consider me a poster child for attempting to go in two opposite directions at the same time.
  2. I am determined to change some things that really need to be changed, and I’m going to keep exploring until I find some methods that work.
  3. I want to be transparent about the steps in my own profound journey in hopes that you will find some practical help and some encouragement from reading about my experiences. And, ultimately, when you feel comfortable, that you will write about your own experiences and thoughts in the comments section of the posts or in a tribe story.

I have learned that completing an immunity map is tricky work. I’ve gone through three versions, with three different but interconnected goals. My big fear and the assumptions underlying it are becoming clear, but I haven’t got the right goal and I don’t yet understand how to test my assumptions so that I can make the changes I want and need to in my life.

My job now is to keep revising my map until it feels absolutely true and powerful. Then I need to figure out the tests for my big assumptions. When I’ve done that, and I’m trying to be done by the next posting date – Thursday December 1st – I’m going to share my map with you (gulp) and I will also be able to explain how to test your big assumptions. Sharing my map is a huge challenge for me, as I explained in this post. But it is necessary – see #1-3 above.

Until then, I wish you all the best if you decide to try completing your own immunity to change map. I’m going to imagine that at least a few of us are giving this a try. Journeys, especially profound ones, are always so much better when you have company along the way.

Thoughts? Opinions? Reactions? Please share in the comments below or, if you prefer, feel free to contact me directly.




Join the tribe:


  1. Wow! This is heavy work…maybe it is because I am tired right now but I am having trouble following it all. I have downloaded the pdf for my Immunity Map. I plan on going over this all again tomorrow when I am more awake; one section at a time until I understand it.

    From my first read through, though, it makes sense that the lower part of our iceberg (the unconscious stuff) is where we sabotage ourselves.

    I think I need to figure this out; maybe then I can get unstuck when it comes to changes that I want and need to make but haven’t been able to yet.

    Thanks for not only researching the tools to help me figure this all out but being brave enough to walk through this process with me Karen. =) You are right, it is always better when you have company along the way.

  2. It is indeed heavy work, Susan. In fact, I’ve been having second thoughts about the wisdom of introducing these ideas at this very busy time of year. This is once again me going in two opposite directions at the same time. I want to be light and happy and focused on self-care for our tribe, while at the same time my thoughts are inevitably turning toward the new year and my desire to move a bit from my current ‘stuck’ setting before the calendar turns over. I detest the failure that comes with New Year’s resolutions and want to be working on a significant challenge in advance.

    But I remind myself, and I’ll remind you – “You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.” There’s no rush to plow through this work. Breathe and take care of yourself. Read it again when you feel ready which may, or may not, be tomorrow.

  3. Thank you, Karen, for being so transparent when it comes to your motivations for why you presented this kind of work. I totally get that with New Year and the ultimate breaking of resolutions; no matter how much we mean them when set these resolutions you want to get a head start on changes.

    Thank you for reminding us all to be sure to take care of ourselves. I hope you are equally as kind to yourself. You are right, this post is here to come back to whenever we are ready to tackle it. I actually think that it is a good thing that we have different levels of activities in the change and challenge categories available depending on where we are in our profound journey.

    I also believe in keeping it light and happy with the busy season approaching right around the corner. It is at this time of year that we, as women, tend to take on even more of a load in order to keep everyone else happy and neglect to do any (or very much) self care. So thank you for your reminder about eating an elephant. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *