Trying to create lasting change but finding it hard to stick to your new habits? You’re not alone. Find out why change is so hard and start building the life that you dream of.
Sticking to New Year resolutions, starting the gym next Monday, meditating daily, journaling every night… Have you ever tried to start a new habit only to slip back into old patterns after a few weeks?
Oh, you too? Welcome, then.
Change is difficult. Sometimes it seems like no matter how hard we try or how strong our willpower is, we just can’t seem to stick to the healthier versions of ourselves we’re trying to create.
But why? Why is change so hard?
It’s not because you’re lazy or incapable of changing. Creating lasting change means going against a lifetime of powerful unconscious programming. It means telling your brain and your body to go in the opposite direction they want to go.
But you can do it. That healthier, happier version of yourself you dream of is possible, you can break the cycles that keep you stuck and live a more fulfilling life.
It’s important, though, that you understand why it is so hard to change and to come to terms with the fact that the process will require patience, discipline, and perseverance.
The good news? It’s all up to you, and you absolutely have the power to make it happen.
Why is Change so Hard?
Thanks to the advances in neuroscience, now we understand better the workings of the mind, and we can translate the science of change into practical behaviors that allow us to shape the person we want to be.
There are many reasons why change is hard. Let’s take a look at them.
1. The brain likes certainty
The human brain loves certainty. It has evolved to predict and control our circumstances because that gives us better chances of survival, so it will instinctively avoid situations that involve uncertainty.
And there’s always uncertainty in change. Even if the change you’re trying to make is a positive one, you can’t predict how things are going to turn out – and the brain doesn’t like that.
The brain is not concerned with finding things that make you feel safe or fulfilled. The brain seeks the familiar. Since changing means moving away from the familiar and into the unknown, the brain will interpret it as a threat. It’s this interpretation that counts.
The body will react by instantly activating the fear-threat centres and putting the rational centres on hold. This could translate in the body, for example, as stress, anxiety, vigilance, and fear.
2. Hardwired habits
Hardwired habits are another reason why change is hard for most people.
On top of looking for certainty, the brain is designed to be efficient – that is to say, it will always choose the option that takes less energy. This is where habits come in.
Habits are behaviours or thoughts that you have repeated so many times that they have become automatic. Because they are deeply carved in our brains (the neural connections are well established), they take very little energy.
Habits are powerful, efficient, and very comfortable (hence the phrase “comfort zone”). When healthy, our habits can lift and empower us; when unchecked, they can become our limitations.
The tricky part is that even if they are detrimental, your habits fulfill an essential physiological or psychological need – it could be survival, safety, belonging, etc. They are your brain’s default setting, so when you try to change something, your body will resist.
Staying in your comfort zone is easy because it requires less mental energy. Creating lasting change is difficult and complex because it requires you to “disrupt a current habit while simultaneously leaning into the uncertainty of change.”
3. You are addicted to your emotions
We usually use the word addiction to refer to dependence on external substances (alcohol, drugs, food), or behaviours (gambling, sex).
However, it is very possible to be addicted to our own internal chemicals. Our emotions are chemical responses to a stimulus, usually a thought. Our minds tell our bodies what to feel.
How does this work?
Many of the endless thoughts we think every day are habitual (we think them often) and unconscious (we’re not aware we’re thinking them), and they come from our childhood subconscious programming: behaviors, attitudes, mindsets, and beliefs that we learn while growing up and that help us survive and belong (which is all the brain wants).
By the time we reach adulthood, these psycho-social behaviors have become automatic, they feel comfortable and easy – they are a structural part of the brain. They are so ingrained in our identity that they’re really hard to notice or change.
Since those thoughts and behaviors are associated with important emotions and functionalities, every time we recreate them, the brain instantly releases neurotransmitters (adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine) that trigger physiological changes in the body.
Even if those emotions and physical sensations make you miserable, the brain interprets the rush of neurotransmitters as a reward, making you subconsciously seek the same emotion again.
You’re addicted to it – you’re addicted to the life that you don’t want.
As Dr. Joe Dispenza puts it: “the body is objective, it doesn’t know the difference between the real experience that has created the emotion and the emotion someone is fabricating by remembering the event.”
An emotional addiction is developed when the body becomes dependent on our own chemical responses. The chemicals released when our familiar emotional buttons are pushed are our [emotional] addiction.
4. You don’t have the solution in your brain… yet
Another reason why change is difficult has to do with time. When we are trying to change something and don’t see results fast, we start losing motivation, so we go back to our old ways.
Remember that every time you work on creating a healthier, happier version of yourself, you’re battling against well-established “unconscious, automatic processes in the brain that are designed to make life easier“ (but not necessarily better).
Slipping back into old patterns of behavior during the process of change is normal and expected. It happens because the habit you’re trying to create is not sufficiently carved into your brain to outweigh the old pattern.
The solution to your problem (the new habit/behavior) is not yet hardwired in your brain – it hasn’t become your new default yet. But it can and it will if you keep at it long enough.
Your brain will make and strengthen its new connections every time you repeat the new behaviour or thought. As you do that, the new connections will get stronger and the old ones will get weaker. Eventually, the new habit will become your new default.
This is the science of change. And it works. Just remember that reprogramming the subconscious mind takes time, patience, and discipline.
Go easy on yourself. And keep at it.
5. We have a limited amount of willpower
As we’ve already discussed, resisting hardwired habits requires a lot of effort, which can leave you depleted at the end of the day. And the moment you relax, the subconscious mind takes over again.
This is another reason why it is so hard to change. We can only push so much. The key is to get back up again. And again. And again. It’s time and repetition that builds new habits.
Setbacks are inevitable, they are an integral part of the behaviour change process, but the way we react when we experience setbacks and relapses is crucial.
Kicking yourself when you’re down will only prolong the stress reactions that keep you stuck and will create more suffering. Learning how to manage those setbacks with self-compassion, and looking at them as opportunities for growth and learning will increase your chances of success.
Change is hard.
The interpretation of the events we experience early in life establishes a pattern of thought and behaviour that gets carved into our brains, and ultimately shapes our worldview and our actions.
Creating new habits and reprogramming your mind takes time, discipline, and running against powerful subconscious mechanisms and emotional addictions.
Behaviour change is not a linear process, it’s a cycle that we repeat over and over as we get better at it. Setbacks are normal. The important thing is to keep working. It will get a little bit easier every time you practice.
In the end, it will amount to a whole new life.
Our usual behaviors and habits give us feedback. Ignoring them can destroy us; used mindfully, they can lead us toward our greatest potential.