Bearded man standing with city and hills in background

The truth is, we often resist change

Why is change so difficult? Change, after all, enables us to accomplish our goals and acquire what we desire most. Intuitively, one may believe that change would be embraced, welcomed, and championed so long as it brought about growth and prosperity.

But this is not always the case.

The truth is we often resist change. And the more we desire something, the more we resist it! How could that be?

Think about your loftiest ambitions. Perhaps you want to get your health in order. Maybe you want to build a business. Perhaps you desire a more rewarding love life.

Whatever your goals may be, the principle to grasp is this:

The loftier the ambition, the more change is required to achieve it. And the more change required, the more resistance we tend to feel!

To put it simply, more change = more resistance, even when change would produce positive outcomes!

Anyone who has renewed their commitment to exercise can attest to this. Yes, exercise is good for them. Yes, exercise will transform their life. Yes, they will look and feel better as a result.

And yet, despite the benefits, they will experience massive resistance.

Now, let’s address the burning question: Why? Why is change difficult, even when it means our lives would improve?

To answer this question, we must examine the problem through the lens of evolutionary psychology.

The human brain has evolved to meet the challenges of our ancestors. Therefore, some structures in the brain date back farther in our evolutionary history than others. We can trace the source of our resistance to one of the earliest of these structures: the amygdala.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure located near the brainstem. The amygdala serves various functions, one of which is the detection of threats. When our brains perceive a threat, the amygdala communicates with another structure – the hypothalamus – which triggers a cascade of processes that ultimately result in the release of hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. At this moment, we enter into the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.

You may ask yourself, what does this have to do with change? Here’s the rub: change is perceived as a threat, regardless of whether the change is positive or negative. And because of this, when we endeavour to make positive changes – such as exercising regularly, cleaning up our diet, or socializing more – our mind employs a variety of tactics to keep us stuck, thereby “saving” us from the “danger”.

Naturally, you may ask, what tactics? Glad you asked! Let’s list them out. As a little homework assignment, I encourage you to be on the lookout for these mechanisms playing out in your life. Simply observe them without judgment. Develop awareness of them. Keep a journal and track each instance you observe over the next seven days. On the seventh day, contemplate the impact of these psychological phenomena on your life.

With that said, here are the ways in which your mind can attempt to thwart your efforts to change:

Resistance, procrastination, avoidance

Here’s a quick thought experiment: Consider going to a different cafe tomorrow and ordering something new.

Did you feel a little hesitation? That is resistance at play!

Resistance is the psychological pull to refrain from engaging in a given set of actions. Whenever we consider trying something new, expect resistance to rear its head. There are at least two factors that influence the strength of our resistance.

The first is the magnitude of change. As I mentioned earlier, more change = more resistance. For instance, you will resist a career change far more than taking a gamble on a new cafe.

The second factor is the presence of imperatives – shoulds, musts, haves.

  • should go to the gym.
  • must meet the deadline.
  • have to go to the meeting.

To help manage your resistance, take a moment to recognize that, fundamentally, you don’t have to do anything.

Yes, there are consequences for not going to the gym. Yes, there are consequences for not meeting deadlines. And yes, your boss will be pissed if you miss the meeting.

But fundamentally, you choose whether you do these things or not. Recognize and acknowledge this. Once you have, I invite you to exchange the words should, must, and have with choose.

  • choose to go to the gym.
  • choose to meet the deadline.
  • choose to attend the meeting.

It might sound a bit airy-fairy, but don’t knock it until you try it!

Another way to tackle resistance is to allow yourself to feel the resistance fully. Let it wash over you. Let it fill every fibre of your being. This may sound counter-intuitive, but allowing yourself to feel your feelings will enable you to process and release them. Unconsciously, we resist unpleasant feelings (including our resistance!), much like a floodgate holding back the flow of water. Make a conscious decision to open your floodgates and feel whatever you’re experiencing.

Finally – and this is my favourite method – just do it. The Just Do It method is precisely what it sounds like. Just. Do. It. If you can brute force action for 10-15 minutes, your resistance will lift. Though simple, I recognize this isn’t easy, so here’s a tip to help you execute it effectively:

Do not think about everything you need to do. Instead, without contemplation, carry out the actions required to complete the task. If, for example, you’ve committed to meal prepping, get up, grab your shopping bags, walk to your car, start the engine, drive to the store, buy the groceries, drive home, place the groceries on the counter, grab the cutting board, grab a knife, etc. By the time you’re chopping vegetables, your resistance will be a thing of the past!

Excuses, stories, justifications, rationalizations

The mind will concoct stories to prevent change. These stories can seem compelling, partly due to their emotional charge and partly because we want to believe them (because if we do, we don’t have to endure the emotional labour involved in making the change). The antidote to this is awareness and radical self-honesty. Choose to display the strength required to acknowledge when you’re BSing yourself (Do you really not have time to exercise? Is eating healthy actually more expensive? Are you really going to stop smoking come the new year?)

It’s easy to read this advice and dismiss it as “obvious”. Perhaps it is, but are you doing it? As Stephen Covey has been quoted as saying, “What is common sense isn’t common practice.” If you’re serious about making changes, put these simple teachings into practice and watch your life transform. Be on the lookout for stories your mind constructs to prevent change. Most of the time, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Fear

Fear is a powerful and essential emotion critical for our survival. Fear protected our ancestors from being devoured by predators, poisoned by spiders, or separated from the tribe. And while fear continues to aid our survival, it doesn’t always work as intended.

We no longer live in the jungle. There aren’t any lions, wolves, or hyenas eyeballing us, hoping to turn us into their next meal. Change entails risk, it is true. Change entails the unknown – also true. But risk and mystery couched within the comfort and security of modern society seldom entail life-or-death circumstances. (Good luck telling that to your amygdala, however!)

Despite the relative comforts of modern society, the fact remains that you’ll always experience fear when making changes, especially meaningful ones. The question is, how do we deal with fear?

I find it helpful to reframe fear as an indicator of the direction I should be heading (ironic, I know). In other words, if something scares me, I take that as an indication to press forward. (Of course, you need to use your judgment. Your trepidation about stepping in front of a bus is warranted.) I like to think of fear as a membrane, and by leaning into the fear and pushing through it, I find what I desire on the other side. To quote Joseph Campbell, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

Conclusion

Change will always be tough. Resistance, procrastination, fear, and the rest will always lurk within our psyche. The goal is not to rid ourselves of these pesky tricksters but to manage them. Awareness is step 1, and this article has helped you with that. With this newfound awareness, I invite you to take the lessons you’ve learned and make a steadfast commitment to applying them in your life. These simple bits of wisdom, applied diligently over time, will transform your life, and that is a change worth fighting for!


About the Author

Ben is a life and peak performance coach located in Vancouver, BC. He is the founder of essaysforgrowth.com, a catalogue of videos and essays outlining the principles, methods, and teachings required to produce excellence in health, wealth, career, and relationships.

You can find Ben’s work at Essays for Growth or his YouTube channel at @EssaysforGrowth.

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