Yes, yes it is. Read the following stuff over at Vox, a great social/political website run by Ezra Klein (formerly of the Washington Post). I heavily edited it, so all mistakes are mine. The original article is by Lisa Lahey, a member of the faculty at Harvard, so you know it’s at least worth a gander. The ideas in the article are from her book, Immunity to Change (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read). As usual, read the original article Breaking bad habits for the full monty.
So: why is real, lasting change so hard? Good question. Rather than try to answer this myself, fallible human that I am, I’ll let Professor Lahey field the question of “Why is it so darn hard to create real, lasting change?”
1) Achieving difficult change requires seeing your internal, personal landscape
Looking at what goes on inside ourselves can be uncomfortable, discouraging, distressing or painful. Often negative feelings don’t lead anywhere productive, and we can feel like we’ve wasted our time.
Seeing your inner contradictions, however, helps to clarify the problem you need to solve. More importantly, you will not find the right solution if you don’t truly understand the problem. It’s not that you’re weak-willed; the problem is we all have an unconscious drive to protect ourselves, which is guaranteed to keep us from accomplishing our desired goals.
2) Our standard change methods are flawed
Most of us think change works like this:
Clear goal + Action plan + Monitoring our behavior + Willpower = Change
There’s one small problem here — more often than not it doesn’t work. On the surface this process makes sense; clear goals, motivation and willpower are clearly necessary ingredients to change. So why doesn’t it work? Because it relies on two assumptions: 1) we can succeed by directly changing our problematic behaviors into desired behaviors, and 2) we can consistently apply our willpower.
Neither of these are correct. Humans are complex creatures; we always have competing commitments and goals. While we’re often unaware of these contradictory impulses, that doesn’t make them any less real. They exist, and they constantly affect our behavior. Before we can act in new ways, then, we have to understand our unconscious, competing goals so we can adjust accordingly.
An example: You sincerely want to lose weight, and at the same time you may internally feel a commitment to any of the following opposite goals: not lose your independence or spontaneity by following a diet; not appear vain and concerned about your looks; not risk being rejected by your friends and family. At some point you will start to lose weight. As soon as that starts happening, you’re now in conflict with your internal, competing goals. The more weight you lose, the more inhibited, vain, and vulnerable to rejection you feel. Not surprisingly, these strong, unconscious emotions win out over the best of conscious intentions – every time.
3) Maintaining the status quo takes a lot of energy
So in a sense the mind (or more specifically our emotions), like the body, has an immune system that exists for one critical purpose: to protect us, even to save our lives. An immune system is not an illness, disease, weakness, or problem that needs to be fixed. It is an intelligent, beautiful phenomenon that only wants to take care of us. But your immune system — physical or mental — can still get you in trouble, even when working as designed.
When the immune system is in error, when it sees a danger that is not there, it will still go to work to “protect” you from the very awareness you need in order to thrive. For example, will you really feel vain if you lose weight? And will this matter more than losing weight? No amount of willpower is going to help resolve this internal contraction. Fortunately, misguided immune systems can be overcome. First, though, you need to see the contradiction.
4) Recognize the ways you sabotage yourself
So: how can you overcome an interfering immune system? Through the following series of specific questions you can discover how you might be (unintentionally) working against the change you want, and how to take steps toward creating sustainable change. Follow these prompts and write your responses down in a four-column grid.
Column 1: Identify an improvement goal that means a lot to you and meets the following criteria:
It is important to you
It’s about you, not someone else
It’s a positive action step, i.e., something to gain, not eliminate
Column 2: List all of your behaviors that work against that important goal.
Look at this list as valuable information to identify competing, hidden commitments, NOT things to be eradicated.
Column 3: Imagine yourself doing the opposite of each of the behaviors you wrote in column two. Then:
What worry or fear comes up? That’s your competing commitment. You now see your “immune system.” This is the “problem” you need to solve, not your behaviors.
Column 4: What assumptions are you making about yourself or about others and the world that explain why you hold your competing goal?
This last step is a deeper one. These unspoken and often unconscious assumptions are the ultimate source of the anxiety shaping any of our obstructive behaviors, and so can be the gateway to substantial, lasting change.
5) Identify and test the big assumptions that are holding you back
By putting words to the assumptions that protect us, we test them and usually discover them to be false and/or limiting. So: ask yourself if your assumptions are true. Look at them carefully and in detail. Will you really be vain or self centered for losing weight? Will you really be rejected by friends and family? Imagine how you’d feel if these limiting assumptions were false or inaccurate. Would you feel a sense of relief, or freedom? What would that be like?
Finally, as you put your plan into place, examine if your assumptions are true. Test them against your experience. Do they hold up? As you lose weight, does that really make you vain? Which actually feels better – losing weight, or feeling vulnerable to rejection?
6) Failing to achieve a goal in the past does not predict your ability to achieve that goal now or in the future
Many people blame themselves for their failure to change. They think they had insufficient motivation or willpower and beat themselves up for it. They feed their inner critic, which leads to negative self talk, like this: “You are bad and flawed.” We usually attribute our lack of success to one of three ideas: not enough motivation, insufficient planning, or not enough willpower. While some of this may be accurate, if you’re not seeing the change you want it’s almost certain there are deeper internal contradictions that need to be addressed. Remember, in order to effect lasting change you need to 1) recognize and acknowledge these contradictions and 2) begin questioning and testing them. Good luck!