Why Is Change So Hard For People?

The nature of what it is to be human can be crudely boiled down to two opposite states.

To want, or not to want, whatever our attention is focused on.

Much of the time, we don’t want what we have.  We don’t want the debt, the extra bulges we see in the mirror, or the hassles that come with our careers and home life’s.  Then at other times we want things that we don’t have.  We want the dream lover, the dream job and the dream lifestyle.  So at some level we are always discontent and want change…

Except we hate the unsettling fear and doubt that change brings.  It is this dichotomy that causes us so much suffering and frustration in our lives.

Instead we want the circumstances of our life to change, or the people in our life to change.  Without the hassle of moving out of our safe comfort zone.  We want the same behaviours and thoughts that we always have and so are comfortable with.  Yet we also want a different result.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein
Why Is It That We Find Change So Hard?

To share my thoughts on the cause of this problem, I’m going to go back to the main message of an old post.  In it I talked about how success is preceded by hours and hours of practice.  Specifically it’s a certain type of practice.  Practice where the individual (or the team) breaks the performance down into a sequence of small steps and tries time and again to master the entire sequence perfectly.  Stopping at any hurdles or broken links to analyse and correct their performance and getting closer to achieving perfection.

What happens through this process is that people pay so much attention to their subject, that they see it in such a more detailed, more vivid, clarified and richer way that it becomes impossible to not perform with greater finesse and accuracy.

A few thousand years back, as a species, we ate whatever animal happened to cross our path and considered it a bonus if it were cooked.  Today we carefully choose among the seventeen item on the menu and the five restaurants on a street and still wonder if it has the exact blend of spices and flavouring.  Eating is still the same basic skill, but by now we have given it so much attention and thought that we have developed taste to a far more complex and refined level.

Often the reason that we find change so difficult is because we want to change something, that we have never given enough disciplined and focused attention to, to understand why we have thought and behaved as we do.  So for instance, many people want to lose weight.  They understand at a very broad level that they need to eat less or exercise more.  Typically though, they follow a diet plan or start exercising.  But there is an entire relationship they have had with food all of their life.  But they are trying to change motivations that are blended into their personality and even their genetic make up, through sheer willpower.  As a result they have to give it much of their attention and as soon as they forget, or their resolve weakens, the old behaviours creep back in.

Recently I have been revisiting my interest in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).  One of the concepts I have been reminded of was Robert Dilt’s idea of Logical Levels, which I thought explains the depth behaviours are rooted into our psyche and so the problems people have with change.  Both in changing themselves and trying to manage change in others.

Dilt’s Idea Of Logical Levels

The basic idea is that we have the level of the Environment around us, which shapes and is shaped by our Behaviour.  Our Behaviour is determined by our Capabilities, which are set by our Beliefs and Values, which are defined by our Identity.

In other words, everything that we do, the circumstances that we gravitate to, in our lives comes as a reflection of and a context in which we play out our idea of who and what we are.

Too often we are unhappy with something in our life and jump in to set a new resolution or regime, but because we don’t understand the deeper roots that cause and support our behaviour, our drive for change fails.  Again.  And then we feel stuck and useless.

You see, lasting and meaningful change only happens when something changes in the way that we see and think of ourselves.  This doesn’t mean that change has to be laboriously slow and painful.  It can be instant.  A smoker can in an instant give up, when they have a child and want to become a responsible parent.  A heavy drinker can change their drinking quickly and easily after the shock of running someone over.  Typically though, this type of instant change only happens when there is something so emotionally powerful that it quickly brings our concept of who we are, and what we want to be, sharply into focus.

More often though, the type of change we want to make isn’t the type that shocks us into a deeper understanding of what we have become as a person.  It’s the type of mundane activity such as exercising, being more tolerant, picking up after ourselves, saying no to things we don’t want to do and so on.

In these kinds of issues we are aware of what we want to change, but we never really take the time to understand why we do these behaviours and what purpose they serve.  We never dig deep enough to understand how this behaviour supports the way that we see ourselves and the beliefs we hold.  And since we do not address the deeper roots of what we are, change becomes very difficult.  Much like pulling out the weeds on the surface, while deep under out of sight, the roots of the weeds simply start to grow again.

Man at work
Creative Commons License photo credit: zoetnet

But perhaps the bigger problem of change comes when we decide other people need to change and try to persuade them to see the error of their ways or manipulate them to change to what we think they should be.  On a larger scale Organisations or nations often institute programmes and sanctions to effect change without understanding the deeply intricate structure of human motivation.   Most of the evils of humanity come from the use of force to engineer change.  Individual’s and entire civilisations have been crushed, killed and enslaved because someone else didn’t like what they were doing and didn’t understand why it was worthwhile.

Like many others, Native American culture was decimated because colonial invaders decided that they were uneducated savages.  Yet there was an equally advanced culture, but because it looked different to what they recognised or expected it was crushed.

For Lasting Change, A Person’s Sense Of Identity Has To Change

It is relatively easy to see where behavioural change has to take place.  It’s obvious, everyone can see it.  It is many magnitudes harder, to understand how and which beliefs and sense of identity have to change.  People always act logically.  It’s just that the way they see the world is often skewed, so the logic looks illogical.

If you are seeking to change other people, or corporate cultures, then you need to first look at the underlying beliefs of the people you are seeking to change.  And then understand and respect how they see themselves and how they want to see themself.  Then by helping them to become what they want to be, it will be easier to effect the change that you want to see, rather than policing what people do.

The takeaway point that I’ve been trying to make is that our behaviour is an outgrowth of the way that we think of ourselves.  And to make lasting and comfortable change we need to respect and acknowledge that identity before evolving it in ways that cause changes at the level of our behaviour.

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