Why is habit change so hard?

 Why Our Behavioural Patterns (habits) are so hard to Shake.

Change is hard. That’s a fact. I’m here to tell you not to beat yourself up about it. We are wired for it. You’re normal. It’s only when we begin to understand the why behind it and actually implement change through awareness of our triggers, that we can make any headway on long term change.

What prevents us from making change?

First of all, we are wired to make change difficult. How, you ask? Well, most of our habits or ‘default modes’ are based on what we’ve learned since we started life on this earth. The simple explanation is that every experience we have is remembered in our brain. It’s how we learn to walk, talk, drive a car, and get through our days. Do it until we automate it.

That’s why habits are so hard to break or change. When A happens, our mind automatically goes through our filing system and pulls out the appropriate response B, based on the accumulation of experiences, or memories. So when we notice a habit we don’t particularly like, or a response that nets poor results/rewards, and try to change it, it might work for a short period of time (will power). That won’t last. It wears us down, and when we are pushed to make a fast decision, or are feeling threatened by something, our minds will automatically respond with the old wired response, even if we don’t particularly want to go there. We can’t help it. Until we examine and find the root cause if it. Only then can we forge ahead into making positive change.

This automated system comes in handy when we are reacting to danger, and the response is to flee (fight or flight response). But there are so many wired responses, typically based on self preservation, that are not appropriate, or give us bad results, that are so so difficult to change. I know this all too well. Anyone who’s experienced any trauma, knows this. It’s next to impossible to change the response without help.  

Many responses are ingrained in us when we are hurt, and when we feel that perceived hurt, we react automatically, before we even catch up to the brain. For example, your parents are fighting, and you’ve heard it time and again. Your response is to flee so you are not exposed to it. You grow up, are in a relationship, and the fight is on, what do you do? First response is to get away, to avoid the pain you’re brain knows is likely to come. Flee the pain...Self preservation.

Another reason change is hard is that many of our habits are born out of our own self defeating thoughts, that we continue to tell ourselves repeatedly, or the things we are told as children, until they become part of our persona. Self talk renders us helpless in so many ways. We are eventually wired to believe these false words, which are most often negative words. Social media does nothing to help this issue, in fact, given the data, it fuels the issue. Lucky is the kid who grew up with a set of positive, loving and compassionate parents. There’s a good start to life, yet it seems an uncommon life in this century.

Words like “you’re stupid, you’ll never amount to anything” or the like, are imprinted on our minds. Even if this is rare, it sticks with us, and changes how we respond to the world around us. Again self preservation. We react to similar situations, triggers, or the feelings it elicits, in a negative way. When this thought or feeling is triggered again, we go to that negative response. It’s so hard to re-wire the pain into a positive response.

It takes awareness, perseverance and the will to change the habit for something more pleasing.

How we deal with uncomfortable internal or external triggers, based on the past, determines whether we pursue healthy acts or self defeating acts (habits) to escape reality.  It’s only when we begin to understand our pain, that we can begin to control it, and find better ways to deal with negative urges.

We have to separate situational causes from the root causes. Until we do so, we will continue to respond the old negative way.  All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort...if a behaviour was previously effective at providing relief, you’re likely to keep using it as a tool to escape discomfort.

Anything that stops that discomfort, is potentially addictive. It’s only when you know the triggers of your behaviour that you can take the steps to manage the behaviour. Interpreted, it’s only when you decide to handle the discomfort within that you are ready and able to make lasting changes.

Depending on how much pain you experience on the daily, that’s a pretty tall order for many of us. Some are never able to get past the pain and make that decision. That means a lifetime of agonizing experiences, hedonic adaptation -  the tendency to quickly return to a satisfactory baseline level, no matter what happens to us in life. Failed marriages. Loss of jobs. Estranged from family. The older I get, and the more I work with seniors, the more I see this play out. One move after another. Never settling into a happy healthy lifestyle. Settling on the known baseline, because it relieves the pain temporarily.

That may be the extent of life for some. Heartbreaking or less than happy lives never fully reaching the potential they were created for. At some point, when the pain becomes unbearable, and it seems the only options are status quo (clinging to the addictive lifesaving yet harmful behaviour) cease to live, or make change, do we come to make life changing decisions. Making change is possible, with knowledge and mentoring through the pain points and action based on this knowledge and awareness, and then the will to stay the course.

Where are you on this spectrum? Is your life one of vibrant joy, hedonic adaptation, or unhealthy choices that are slowly taking the life out of you?

Furthermore, if it’s less that vibrant, are you ready to unpack those old pain points, ditch those shackles that keep you rooted in the old ways, and own your right to achieve your full potential?  It’s ok wherever you are, as long as it gets you through the day. But if you yearn for more, I’d love to chat with you, and explore your opportunity for change. It may sound daunting, but really the most daunting part is staying stuck. Make a decision, and never look back. You'll be glad you did.

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