Why do we resist change?

Every year, we decide to make a change and take a good resolution on December 31, with some hope that we’ll follow up on that. As I compare now, there might have been up to half more people going to the gym in January than there are in late March — most likely people who decided they’d get in shape, went there a few times, realized it would take some hard work, and gave up.

Now, going to the gym is a fairly straight process. We want to be healthy, feel fit and look nice; the solution is well known, fix your diet and exercise a few times a week. It works for most people, it’s simple (simple =/= easy) and there aren’t many ways things can go wrong. More than that, the results (or lack thereof) are obvious and can be measured daily by feeling how tight the legs are within the jeans, or how easy to climb the stairs are. Whether it works or not, we know it in a matter of weeks.

When it comes to more substantial, internal changes — “I don’t want to be so impatient”, “I want to smoke less”, etc -, the road from point A to point B is a little more complicated and the results aren’t so obvious. Smoking less isn’t just a matter of “out-willing” the addiction, it’s also about finding new ways to manage stress and difficult emotions. Increasing patience is a matter of self-confidence, generally accepting that everything isn’t centered around us, that difficult emotions are part of life, and that we don’t have power over everything. If we can measure how many cigarettes one smokes a day, external variables (a big project suddenly coming in at work? An unexpected broken tyre?) also play a role, so our initial actions (such as meditating, managing our time better, etc) don’t impact the results in a way that can be accurately foreseen (the number of cigarettes smoked). The initial actions do have an impact, it just isn’t directly measurable. The absence of direct causal link can be quite demotivating.

The other problem with such abstract changes is that they often have to do with what we feel. How do we judge whether our patience has grown or not? I remember someone who had been meditating consistently for about a year, and found that she had not benefitted from it. We asked her a few open questions and she quickly said that her husband had recently told her, after an argument, that she had grown much more patient and encline to discuss through the argument without yelling or leaving. She hadn’t realized the progress she had made, but this close relative had. A process of change is often seen by the people around us before we actually see it. So our non-perception of change doesn’t mean change isn’t happening… Which makes keeping up the good work much harder. We’re working through difficulty, yet may not feel any benefit from it for a while (just to reassure you, the example above is a quite rare — most people don’t need over a year to realize they feel better than they used to!). This requires a very developed ability to delay gratification.

The power of habits is a double-edged sword here. Say you want to start going to the gym or meditating when coming back from work. If your current habit is to switch on the TV, it will be a natural movement, and the transition between work and TV will be seamless. Adding a new activity in-between will require to remember it every time, and to gather some willpower to actually do it. However, once this has been done consistently for a few weeks, it is a habit, and not doing it will eventually require some willpower than doing it. Dealing with our environment — whether it be having the proper settings to easily go from work to the gym, such has having a bag ready, or having the people we live with accept it as it’s likely to impact on their routine too — is an important part of the process. I find that having reminders on strategic spots (a door or a screen) is quite helpful.

Another reason we feel resistance is that our body and mind love homeostasis, or non-change. Routines are reassuring, our comfort zone feels safe, and we usually aren’t pushed to take risks or face discomfort. We can even be incentivised to not change, because any internal change will result in changes in our interactions with everyone else, which can lead to the scare of the unknown in them. They may also not want to feel like they will lag behind.

Moreover, we as a culture have a tendency to confuse self-kindness and complacency. I intend to write a post about kindness / complacency later on, but for now this brief definition will suffice: kindness is about saying and doing what someone really needs, even if that includes a (verbal) kick in the butt; complacency is about saying nice things when they’d rather need a (good-willed) kick. We’d rather tell ourselves it’s not time to take on this new activity that would benefit us for many different reasons; sometimes, those reasons a true, but they often aren’t. And if we really are too busy to take care of ourselves for more than a week at a time, it’s a sign that we should make substantial changes in our life. So not taking care of ourselves is a sign that we actually don’t want to do it, rather than a sign that it’s not the right moment. And this is where we show complacency, which we mistake for self-kindness (because after all, taking care of oneself take time, and if we have other things in mind, it’d be rough to add this new activity or remove a harmful pleasure from our life).

This is where fear and shame come into play. When we love we show kindness, not complacency. By “love”, I mean the action of loving and wanting what’s best for someone, not the feeling of need or misplaced attachment that can lead to harmful actions. We usually don’t take care of ourselves because, at the bottom of it, we have internalized the belief that we don’t deserve it. We are ashamed of something within us (I don’t mean that there is something shameful within us, just that we have internalized this emotion), and this shame — a master emotion, according to psychologists from John Bradshaw and Brené Brown, whose books and TedX I can’t recommend enough — determinates how we feel every other emotions, how we feel about ourselves, and how much we believe that we can change. When shame isn’t confronted and met with awareness and acceptance, it leads to feelings of unworthiness, various fears and a lack of self-love. If we don’t love ourselves and don’t think we can change, that we don’t deserve to be happy, why try changing anything at all?

What do we do with all that? Did I mean to discourage you to start any change in your life by stating all the difficulties lying ahead? I hope not. But I do believe that knowing the hurdles we face makes us better equipped to deal with them. Knowing there will be resistance is already sufficient to take some power away from that resistance. All it takes is a leap of faith that lasts long enough to create a habit and see the first changes. From there, improvements become a self-reinforcing cycle, with some bumps along the road.

This article was originally published on Reveries of a wanderer.