why is it so hard to change?

Photo credit: ross-findon-unsplash

Change has been on my mind a lot these days. Our organization is going through a structural change that will rearrange many job roles. I’ve recently learned things that dramatically alter my perception of my past (a post for another time). Family members are continually adjusting relationships and future plans.

Sometimes, change happens to us. Other times we are the ones who desperately want to initiate a new way. Januarys often prompt a flood of resolutions that by February we have discarded as impossible and unsustainable. Why is that?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey wrote a book named Immunity to Change. The book highlights a study of doctors who warned heart patients that they would die if they did not change their habits. Only one in seven followed the new health lifestyle successfully. Desire and motivation aren’t enough to produce change, even when it’s a matter of life or death.

What makes it so hard for us to change?

Much of the battle happens below the surface, at the subconscious or feelings level, and we are unaware of how it actively operates in opposition to our hoped-for changes.

We have contradictory beliefs, fears, and commitments that are fighting against the new behaviors and thought processes we want to implement. We have a well-developed immunity to change established, and we need to look below the superficial to conquer it.

Kegan and Lahey offer a process to help us investigate the underlying forces at work:

Identify the change you want to make – your visible commitment. Example: I want to listen better.

Record the things you do or don’t do instead of your preferred behavior. Examples: I get distracted by my phone. I begin to form my answers in my head.

(Now, we get to the good stuff. You have to be honest here, but there is power in this recognition.) In this step, you consider your hidden competing commitments. These can be related to worries or fears. Examples: I don’t want to miss out on anything. I am committed to being “on top of things.” I want to have the answers. I am committed to looking smart, being helpful.

What is the big assumption behind those commitments? Examples: I always have to appear responsible, or I won’t get the promotion. I have to provide great answers, or my friends won’t come to me for advice; they won’t need me.

Plan an experiment for the next week or two that tests the assumptions and see what happens. Examples: Leave the phone face down while talking. Listen intentionally and ask questions instead of giving advice.

When I was doing this with a small group, we met to discuss what happened when we tried out our new behaviors and set up more experiments for the next couple of weeks. I often found my fears and assumptions did not have the power I was giving them, and I was encouraged by the results of my new behaviors.

In their book, Kegan and Lahey share a helpful chart of columns to process through our immunity to change. I highly recommend both the book and the experience if you have a chance to participate.

This post is a light review of the process, but the main points I learned are: change is hard. When I want to change, I must consider my under-the-surface immunity to change habits. And, as I work through this process, I find naming the resistance gives me a more honest appreciation of the battle. Finally, as I test out my assumptions and experience success, I discover a stronger motivation to keep developing the new behaviors.

What has been your experience with change? In what ways do you do battle with your immunity to change?