“If information was the answer then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
– Derek Sivers
Most of us have changes we would like to make in our lives—myself included. Yet, doing so can feel hard. So hard, there are books, workshops, programmes, and whole industries dedicated to unpacking and exploring making changes. And we still struggle!
In the next couple of posts, I’m sharing some of the most common reasons we aren’t making changes we want to make (and what to do about them). I’m a big believer in the idea that understanding leads to clarity and action. When we’re struggling to make changes we want to make and don’t understand why this can leave us feeling even more out of control and helpless. We don’t want to stop and pitch our tent in the “understanding” phase, but it is an important stepping stone towards action and becoming who we are. This turned into a 3,500+ word post (!), so I’m sharing eight reasons this week and the rest in the next week’s post. Let’s go:
1. You’re avoiding discomfort
Making changes comes with discomfort. Change can feel risky, the outcome uncertain, and making the change might require us to face all kinds of experiences we’d rather avoid: judgement, rejection, failure, feeling our feelings rather than numbing them, and so on. I’ve found it useful to think about change from a perspective described by writer Srinivas Rao: change isn’t about how much you want it, it’s about how uncomfortable you’re willing to be to make it happen.
2. Change takes energy
Doing what we’ve always done is the path of least resistance, even if it’s making us miserable. Making changes to habits and patterns in our life requires conscious effort and energy. If you’re not willing to expend that energy, you won’t change. Recognise that making any changes requires effort and help yourself out. Set up habits in other areas of your life that support you. Create a “When Life Works” list, get support (the right support—see below), and put the same energy into making this change as you would into any important, life-defining project.
3. You’re experiencing fear of the unknown.
What will happen if you make this change? We often focus on the potential downside: what if I fail? What if this doesn’t work out? But alongside this, we can also have fears based on a very different outcome too: What if I succeed? What if this changes other areas of my life? What if I make the change then don’t enjoy it? What if I make the change, then screw it up, lose everything, and end up back where I started? What if my partner/girlfriend/boyfriend/parents/siblings/co-workers/pets don’t like this change? As well as paying attention to your fears of the unknown around negative outcomes, give voice to your fears of success too. Every change—even the best, most life-enhancing changes—come with some degree of loss and grieving for the path not taken. Get conscious of all the ways you are experiencing fear of the unknown, whatever the outcome, and give these feelings and fears a voice before moving forward.
4. You’re trying to change too many things at once
As the saying goes, “You can do anything, but not everything.” If we have multiple changes we want to make in our lives, we might feel internal pressure to do all the things right now. In reality, this isn’t sustainable (see the point above about energy). Making one change, even a small one, can require all the mindfulness and effort we have to spare. Having self-awareness around the things we want to change and the aspirations to do so is valuable, however, it’s also important to remember: you have time. Slow, steady, and sustainable progress that takes you towards where you want to be in the long-term is much better than a flurry of activity that burns out and leaves you feeling despondent and self-critical.
5. You’re seeking support and validation from the wrong people.
Support is crucial for making changes. The bigger the change, the more support we need. When we’re changing something meaningful about our lifestyle, health, career, finances, or any other big aspect of our lives, we want to make sure we’re getting the right support.
By default, most of us turn to family and close friends. However, this isn’t always the best source of support, especially if they are engaging in the patterns, activities, or dynamics you’d like to change. If your friends are all smokers and you decide you want to quit, they won’t be the best people to support you (unless they are willing to join you). This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them about your decision, but it’s worth being mindful that they might have their own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and fears about the change—conscious or unconscious—that colour their response.
Support might not even come in the form of people we know. A role model doesn’t have to be someone we have a personal relationship with. Instead, they might be someone who has trodden a similar path before us and is sharing their journey in public.
Finding the right support doesn’t mean shunning anyone who disagrees with you. Disagreements can be valuable, throw up helpful questions we might not have considered, and force us to think through how this change fits with our principles and values. But we want to make sure we’re disagreeing with people who will respect our individuality and autonomy and are committed to helping us grow.
6. You are expecting change to be easy or instantaneous.
Some changes are easy, but most are not, and it’s often difficult to predict which changes will fall into either category. Making changes that might seem like a piece of cake, in theory, might actually be teeth-grittingly difficult in practice. And that’s OK. This is why it’s important to hope for the best and plan for the worst. If we begin from a place of certainty that it’s going to be hard, it will be. So we want to approach change believing we can do it, without expecting it to be quick and easy. You will slip up and it takes grit and perseverance to continue. That’s where planning for the worst can be useful.
As you approach your change, consider: what will you do when you slip up? What will your next step be? How will you respond when you’re tempted to revert to your old pattern/behaviour? How will you stick to the path you’ve chosen? Returning to the example of quitting smoking, you’ll find it useful to ask yourself: How will I respond when I’m in a situation where other people are smoking? When I’m craving a cigarette, what will I do instead? What other activities can I engage in during those times until the craving passes? Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and you’ll find reality often lands somewhere in the middle :)
7. Making changes from a place of “not good enough”
How you think about yourself matters, including what you make a change mean about you as a person. When we decide it’s time to change, we often do so through realising something in our lives isn’t working or we’re no longer happy with the way things are. We might have reached rock bottom, or we might simply have arrived at a place of thinking to ourselves “OK, that’s enough now.” If we’re wanting to change something we don’t feel good about, it’s easy to slip into scarcity-based thinking and motivation. Perhaps we believe we’re not good enough until we make a change, perhaps we believe other people would judge and reject us if they knew how hard this change was for us to make, or perhaps we are engaging in “when…then…” thinking (e.g. “When I lost 10 pounds, then I’ll feel confident enough to start dating.”)
Needless to say, setting goals and aspirations out of fear and scarcity is not conducive to happiness and life satisfaction. Here’s something we tend to forget when it comes to change and self-kindness:
We can be self-accepting and still have things we want to do and ways in which we want to grow. We can believe we are enough and also want to explore our capabilities and potential further.
The changes we make from a place of believing we are already enough are a lot more fulfilling, life-enriching and worthwhile than the changes we strive to achieve because we think we need those changes to feel good about ourselves.
(N.B. If this resonates with you, I offer a free workbook in the Becoming Who You Are Library called You Are Already Enough, which is all about setting goals from a place of “good enough.”)
8. You’re letting your inner critics rule the show
Last (for this post, anyway), but not least, let’s cast our attention over to our inner critics for a few moments.
Side note: This is a huge topic and one that is too big to cover in a single blog post paragraph. If you struggle with vocal inner critics, I’m releasing a new book later this year, which is all about how to deal with our critics in a way that is rooted in self-kindness. Stay tuned for more info!
Although our inner critics mean well and are trying to protect us in their own ways, they end up doing more harm than good. When we listen to the voices telling us we’re useless, we’ll never change, it’s hopeless, why bother, there’s something wrong with us if we’re finding it this hard, etc., this won’t help us change. It’s more likely to cause us to slip into the “not enough” thinking I described above.
While there is no single solution to dealing with our inner critics, if yours are ruling the show, I invite you to start gently challenging them. I don’t believe in telling our inner critics to shut up or calling them names (do you like it when someone does that to you? I don’t…), but it is important to set boundaries with them. So if your inner critic is telling you how useless you are, encourage it to be a little more constructive by asking questions like “So what would it look like to not be useless in this situation? What would you do instead?” Keep persevering with your questions and see what they offer in response.
I’d love to hear from you: what gets in the way of making changes you want to make? What are your biggest struggles with change? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.