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why it's so hard to change-part 2

Cultivating the mindset of change.

“Change is hard.” We hear it all the time. We accept is as the truth. And that’s the problem.

Accepting something as true means ‘that’s just the way it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ If you can’t do anything about it, then there’s no point in trying, right? Even if accepting things the way they are now is intensely painful, trying to change something that isn’t changeable would only cause more pain. So the caveman part of your brain jumps in to do it’s job. As we talked about in the last episode, your caveman-brain has evolved over millions of years to keep you alive and safe by doing a few basic things: seeking ease & pleasure, avoiding pain and discomfort, and staying away from danger. Now, these days most of us don’t have to worry too much about being killed by a tiger as soon as we walk out our front doors, but there ARE things that the primitive part of our brain still sees as dangerous, and will do anything to keep us safe from. The #1 thing that the caveman brain sees as dangerous? Change.

Our old familiar behavior patterns are soothing and reassuring to us. Have you ever seen a house-cat get startled, and then suddenly start grooming itself as soon as it realizes that there’s no real danger? It’s because that grooming behavior is soothing and familiar, and that’s how the cat calms itself down. It’s the same with us. We return to our old familiar behavior patterns again and again because that’s where we feel safe. And the more stressed out we get from living our hectic lifestyles, the stronger the urge to keep going back to our soothing old behaviors… no matter how self-destructive they may be. If you remember from our last episode, the caveman brain doesn’t care about future consequences, it only cares about feeling better RIGHT NOW.

Our actions (or lack thereof) create results. Old familiar actions create predictable and familiar results. New actions create new results. That introduces an element of uncertainty. We don’t KNOW for sure what may happen when we start doing something we’ve never done before. That uncertainty sends up a red warning flag that your caveman-brain sees as an imminent threat. It’s job is to get you to avoid that threat by any means necessary. Remember, it only wants to keep you safe, and doesn’t understand that the change you’re thinking about might actually be good for you. The unknown is dangerous, unpredictable, and scary. So what does it do? It starts to create feelings like fear, doubt, and anxiety. For some people, even panic. When you feel emotions like this, what do you do? Whatever it takes to make them go away, right? So when you avoid change, you’re avoiding what your primitive brain sees as imminent danger. Your inner caveman has just succeeded in keeping you safe.

Your caveman-brain sees very little difference between swapping your after-dinner snack for a 30-minute walk, and wandering too close to the edge of a cliff. Both represent danger and the unknown. It will work equally hard to get you to avoid both. Your logical brain knows you’ll feel better and enjoy better health if you lose weight, but your caveman brain is convinced you’re going to starve to death. It’s just trying to make sure you’ll survive the winter.

Now, what do we know about basic behavioral science? Behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated. When you avoid change, you avoid the fear, anxiety and discomfort of the unknown, and you get to soothe yourself with the predictable and familiar. That’s the payoff that your subconscious was looking for. The more you repeat the old behavior patterns, the more you reinforce and strengthen them. The more you get rewarded for avoiding the unknown, the more you’ll want to avoid it in the future. Your logical brain might get frustrated because it knows that change is what you wanted, but your caveman brain doesn’t care. Keeping you alive and safe is all that matters.

I’m telling you this for 2 reasons. One, to help you understand that your fear and resistance to change is normal. Nothing is wrong with you. Your inner caveman is doing it’s job, it just doesn’t understand the big picture. Two, to show you that a certain amount of anxiety or fear is unavoidable. Now that you understand where it’s coming from and why, you can start to develop your tolerance for those unpleasant feelings without letting them control your actions.

The process of starting to cultivate a mindset of change requires an acceptance and understanding of why we resist change. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of energy and create a lot of needless frustration for yourself. It’s like straining with all your might to row a boat while the anchor’s down. You’ll just exhaust yourself trying, and you won’t get anywhere. If you stop resisting, you’ll raise the anchor and your progress will be a lot faster!

I’ve found it helpful to give my inner caveman a name. I call her “Nala”. I talk to her on a regular basis, when she starts waving her torch and warning me about the tiger lurking in the shadows. I’ll thank her for trying to protect me and reassure her that everything is OK, but I’ll also let her know that she’s not in charge anymore, and that I’ve got it handled. She can relax and come along for the ride, but she doesn’t get to decide where we’re going.

Embracing change and learning how to stop sabotaging your progress requires that you start to develop your tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty. It’s perfectly OK to feel those feelings, but if you listen to them and let them dictate your actions, then you already know what results to expect. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten. If you want something different, you have to DO something different. So stop rewarding the behaviors that you DON’T want so you can start creating behaviors that will get you what you want.

Yes, it’s going to feel uncomfortable. Even scary. That’s just your caveman-brain trying to keep you safe. There is no actual danger. You can feel those uncomfortable feelings and try something new anyway. To minimize the discomfort and maximize the chances that you’ll keep doing the new things, make sure to celebrate the Hell out of yourself for stepping out of your comfort zone. Your brain works for rewards. Make sure you reward good behavior, and chances are that you’ll keep doing it. Ask yourself what emotions you’re trying to soothe with your old habits, and then figure out a new way to accomplish that.

When I say ‘reward’, I don’t mean food. If your goal is weight loss, it’s counter-productive to reward yourself with the exact thing that will sabotage your progress. Pick something that you find relaxing and enjoyable (some ideas include drawing, coloring, listening to music, relaxing in a hot bath with a good book, or giving yourself a massage), make it something that you will look forward to doing for a few minutes every day, and make that your reward for doing your new behavior. It’s important to have something positive that you can turn to every day, to alleviate those initial feelings of discomfort. Promising yourself a big future reward like a vacation or buying something you’ve always wanted is probably not going to be enough of an incentive in the moment. Remember, your subconcsious wants ease and pleasure and immediate gratification more than it wants to accomplish a far-off goal. Having something positive to redirect yourself onto every day will be a lot more motivating and more likely to help you stay on track.

I’ll give you an example. When I was working on my weight loss, I was frustrated at how I continued to sabotage myself by snacking after dinner every night. Every morning, I’d tell myself that I wasn’t going to do it again, but every night I gave in and did it anyway. I realized that I was still using food to help diffuse the stress of my work day, and to reward myself for “making it through”. Snacking was something that I just looked forward to, and the idea of not doing it anymore actually brought up feelings of anxiety for me. I needed a new way to relax and soothe myself after work, that didn’t involve food. So I started playing games. Specifically, virtual reality games. I bought myself a headset and instead of snacking after dinner I would explore immersive new worlds. The games quickly became something I would look forward to even more than snacking. They provided me with the release and enjoyment that I was looking for, and they were far more effective than what I’d been doing before. It didn’t take long before I was daydreaming about what game I was going to get to play that night, and not what I was going to eat. I defined the emotional need that I was previously filling with food, and filled it with something better.

Change isn’t hard. It’s our resistance to change, and our determined efforts to hold onto our old behaviors that make it hard. Overcoming that resistance takes an understanding of the deeper thought processes, and a willingness to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort and uncertainty as you create and reward new behaviors. It takes patience and practice. You will make mistakes. You will have occasional “slips”. This is expected, and NORMAL. It’s an opportunity to learn why it happened and how you can be better prepared next time. It’s NOT an excuse to give up and throw yourself off the wagon. When you trip and fall, don’t stay down. Just get up and figure out what you tripped over so you can keep an eye out for the next one.

Remember, success is not the absence of failure. Success is the progression of many failures. No one is an expert the first time they try something new, so be patient and compassionate with yourself. Because you never truly fail unless you quit.

To be continued…

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