The reasons why change is difficult and the three key steps to achieving it.
So you want to make a change but you’re finding it hard. Lose 15 pounds. Be less angry. Stop choosing bad partners. Put an end to procrastination.
Instead you find yourself with a donut in hand shouting at your emotionally distant partner and promising yourself (again) that you’ll definitely change things… maybe tomorrow… or next week.
Change is difficult. Sometimes so difficult that it seems easier to keep bearing the current situation, despite how much it weighs us down. Don’t give up – change is achievable. Here’s how.
Why Change Is Hard
If change were easy we’d all be healthier, happier and more fabulous versions of our current selves. Here’s why it’s so difficult.
Change is Uncomfortable & Messy
“Most everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.”Jack Canfield
Change requires moving from the comfort of the known to the uncertainty of the unknown. Even if the known is unpleasant, it is familiar and predictable and therefore feels “safe”. By contrast, the unknown is unfamiliar and unpredictable, and therefore feels uncomfortable and even frightening.
Further, change is not a magical one step process. There are a whole lot of steps between the start and the finish, during which you are neither in the original situation, nor in the new one. You’re in the in-between, the limbo. The in-between part of making change is not only uncomfortable but also messy. This stage is often worse that the original situation and makes you want to give up.
The in-between stage of change is like when you spring clean your house and first need to pull out everything you’re going to throw out. The house now looks messier than before you started. And if you’re attempting a transformational change, such as a renovation rather than a spring clean, your house can end up looking like a disaster zone. You pull down walls and dig up foundations only to discover to your dismay that there is a whole graveyard of buried skeletons. But it’s too late to put them all back.
For example, a person wants to change her pattern of dating unavailable men. As part of the process she unearths years of buried childhood memories about her distant father, unleashing a torrent of repressed rage, grief and abandonment issues. She is no longer in blissful ignorance but she hasn’t yet cured these now open wounds. Messy.
Change takes time and not linear
If you’re looking for a “Miracle Overnight Change” of the kind they sell in the late night commercials, you’re out of luck. Old habits are hard to break, meaning change takes time and commitment.
In addition, the process is not linear. As in 2 steps forward and then 3 steps back, something that’s only fun when you’re on the dance floor. You might wonder at times if you have made any progress at all or just going through cycles.
For example, a person who after months of strict dieting succumbs to a fit of hangry rage and eats their way back through all the pounds. Progress? Or just a dieting cycle?
Changes involves loss
Change requires giving up or losing something in order to gain the possibility of something different. Loss is involved even when we want to change from a unpleasant situation to a better one. That’s one reason why leaving an unhappy relationship still involves grief. This grief could include the loss of hope that the relationship would get better and perhaps also the loss of pride and self-confidence as you admit the relation has not worked out. For some people it is easier to stay in a bad situation than face the loss of ending it.
Three Key Steps For Change
While change is difficult, it is achievable. Further, there are three key steps that make a great difference in effecting change. These are: the what, the why and the how of the change.
Most people jump straight to the “how”. This is at best only equally as important as the first two parts. Without knowing the “what” and “why” of your change, you’ll often get lost on the “how”.
1) The What
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”Rumi
The “what” includes not only your desired change but all the related things you need to change (or at least address) in order to achieve it.
The “what” includes (i) accepting your starting point, (ii) recognizing the “flow-on” changes; and (iii) identifying the obstacles that could prevent your change.
The “what” should only include things within your control. Trying to change others or reality is a waste of time and effort.
(i) Your starting point
If you are not able to accept where you are now, you will find it hard to reach your goal. “Accept” does not mean you like the situation you are in, but it does mean recognizing reality without denial.
For example, if your goal is to cut down on drinking, you need to recognize where you are starting from. Are you a social drinker that occasionally over indulges or are you actually addicted? The steps towards your desired change will vary greatly depending on the answer.
Denying the full extent of a problem only prevents you from being able to work towards the solution. Further, if you attribute your problem to things outside your control (e.g. your drinking is “caused” by your difficult job or unpleasant partner, so really it’s not you that has a problem) you are negating the responsibility you have for your own behaviour and the power that you have to change it.
(ii) Flow on changes
Change rarely happen in isolation. A significant change generally requires or causes other changes. For example, deciding to quit smoking may require a change in your social life to distance yourself from friends who still smoke.
If you haven’t recognized all the related changes that need to be addressed, you might be confused wondering why you are unsuccessful in making a change. It’s like trying to remove a stone from a pile and not realizing it is supporting a number of other larger rocks.
Everything we do has a reason. However destructive or illogical the behavior you are trying to change may be, there is a reason you are doing it. Today’s problems are often yesterday’s solutions.
For example, you have a goal to lose 15 pounds. You might think that you simply need “good diet and exercise”. But your real reason for overeating may be that food is comforting and helps cover up a deep-seated sense of loneliness. That is, eating is a solution to the problem of feeling alone. Therefore, as part of your goal to lose weight, the “what” will need to address managing loneliness without resorting to overeating.
Identifying the flow on changes contained in the “what” requires understanding the real reasons for why we engage in the behaviour we want to change. This requires self-awareness, introspection and often seeking outside perspective from others.
Obstacles are the blocks that prevent you from the process of change.
Often a key obstacle you need to address is how you feel about your ability to achieve your goal and whether you “deserve” to achieve it. If you don’t believe yourself capable or deserving of reaching the goal, you are unlikely to achieve it. This type of obstacle is also referred to as “self-limiting beliefs” and needs to be addressed as part of your “what”.
Another common obstacle is the inability to start change, or procrastination. In dealing with this, it is helpful to understand the reasons for your procrastination.
2) The Why
Your “why” is your reason for making the change. The “why” is the driving force behind achieving change, providing willpower, commitment and motivation. If you are unsure that you want to change, you will lack this driving force and therefore be unlikely to succeed.
(i) Do you truly want to change?
“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”Tony Robbins
Change is uncomfortable, messy and at times, downright scary. If you don’t truly have a good reason for making the change, you likely won’t continue. You’ll try, give up, and then wonder why you suck at changing.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s often because you didn’t have a strong enough “why”. That is, a reason to endure the pain and discomfort of changing.
The “why” of making a change should be aligned with your head, your heart and your gut. It should represent something you truly desire for yourself. If your “why” is based on trying to please others or to avoid something, this is not a strong foundation for driving change.
For example, losing weight due to social pressure or insecurity is a shame driven “why”. Shame is not empowering and therefore you will be more susceptible to lapses during the difficult (and hungry) moments of changing your eating habits.
If you rigorously examine the “why” you may find that it changes the goal. For example, if the “why” for your dieting changes from “social pressure” to “I want to feel healthier”, the goal may change from “losing 15 pounds” to simply “eating healthier”.
(ii) Do you have conflicting goals?
Another key reason for failing to effect change is due to conflicting goals.
For example, you say you want to launch a new business but find yourself procrastinating. This could be because you have an unacknowledged fear of failure and therefore an unacknowledged, conflicting desire to maintain the status quo and not launch your business.
It can be difficult to unearth your conflicting goals as they are often subconscious. Honesty, introspection and playing question and answer with yourself goes a long way towards it.
Some questions you can ask include: What doubts or fears could you imagine feeling if you actually achieved your goal? Who might suffer or be unhappy with your change? What could you lose in achieving your desire?
3) The How
If you have a clear and accurate “what” along with a strong “why”, you now have an excellent chance of finding the “how” that works for you.
The good news is that once you make it to the “how” stage, there is a wide variety of information and support available.
- There is no one-size fits all solution. If something isn’t working for you, try other ways.
- Seek to integrate not eliminate. What you resist, persists. Instead of rejecting the part of you that you want to change, find its reason for existence (the underlying need) and a better way to satisfy this need.
- Discipline and perseverance is important. Don’t give up when things get hard. Just as dangerous, don’t relax just because things are going well. Yes, you should be proud of having gone to the gym every day this week. No, that doesn’t mean it’s now time for a reward trip to the donut store.
- Seek support. Change doesn’t need to be done alone. A good friend or coach can make all the difference.
Change Is A Part of Life
“There is nothing permanent except change.”Heraclitus
The ability to change is important. The world is constantly changing and if you don’t choose your changes, someone or something else will choose them for you. Change is not easy, but it is achievable. And now you know more about how.
So throw down that donut, turn your back on your emotionally immature partner and start today.