You know that habit you want to change or that new one you want to create? Yeah, we all have one (or 20). So why is it so HARD? If we really want it – as much as we say we do, why does it feel so difficult?
I see this a lot when I’m coaching clients towards better self-care and health. They vision it for themselves. They can see themselves living a healthy lifestyle. They understand what they need to do, they even see what they need to do to make it happen, but they struggle immensely to do it. And for reasons that escape them. There are SO many layers to this, and I’m not suggesting I have the answers, but this has been percolating in me for a few weeks, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.
What if we continue to struggle because struggle is what we know? There’s an beautiful quote from Thich Nhat Hahn,
“People have a hard time letting go of suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
In our recent Shift the Process course, my brilliant co-facilitator Kathy Kutzer was sharing the concept of a familiar self. The “you” (including your behaviour and habits) that you return to time & again. Part of the reason is because those neural pathways are so downtrodden they are like super-highways in your brain. To take an alternate path would be like bush-wacking through an old grown-over country road. Which is easier? Which path would you take? Yeah – the highway. Until you’ve traveled the country road a few times & it becomes more accessible and the travel easier.
But the WORK required to bush-wack that country road? That is the struggle. That is where the true challenge lies. It’s easier to take the highway. It’s faster & more efficient. But it’s also the same old behaviour & habit. At some point the you evaluate the cost benefit of continuing the habit. And when the cost of continuing the habit is greater than the cost of the struggle of change – that is when we see the impetus for change.
In my practice this is when I see powerful change unfold because there is a deeply powerful “why” in play: the cost of staying the same is outweighed by the cost to change. I call that the motivation equation. And it’s fundamental to the momentum required to initiate change. But it’s no the whole picture, which is why you need MORE than a why.
Let’s take this into a concrete example. The desire to change your body composition for an example (because it’s a common theme I hear pretty much daily). You want to “lose weight.” You want to live a healthier lifestyle. You’re even really clear on what is in it for you. The “why” is strong and your motivation is high…BUT actually making it happen – seems insurmountable. Why?! You’ve checked all the boxes of “how to make a habit change,” so why isn’t it working?!
I think part of it is that we’re destined to struggle with something AND the “health struggle” is so common it’s become a theme that binds us as humans. Let me explain.
The struggle that binds us.
Here’s something interesting (to me at least). It’s “socially acceptable” to STRUGGLE with your health. It’s a common thread. So many people do – with 60% of Canadians NOT meeting basic activity guidelines and soaring obesity rates – the struggle of health is far more common than not! So it’s familiar lunch room banter to discuss the latest & greatest diet or weight loss gimmick or program. People LOVE commiserating over their struggle. It bonds us – it’s the “oh hey, I’m not alone” that provides connection. So if we don’t have this to commiserate over…what happens?
There’s two themes here that I find fascinating; one is our desire to be like our peers and the other is that we’re wired for struggle. Let’s look at our desire to be like our peers first.
We want to belong.
In psychology this is all about the science of social acceptance and it stems back to our evolution. When we were cave people fending of fierce animals and foraging for food it was helpful to align with a pack. To have a social group for safety & support. As we’ve evolved, even though our physical environments have become much less challenging, our need for social acceptance remains the same. So it’s no surprise that we generally as humans thrive on feeling loved & accepted by our peers. That feeling of belonging is important to us. From the brilliant Brene Brown:
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
But what if that social acceptance is based on behaviours and habits that aren’t helpful? What if we want to change those habits? What then happens to our love & belonging? How do we reconcile our need for social acceptance AND our desire for change?
Clients often tell me that they really want to make changes, but it’s hard because their family & friends aren’t on board. And I get it, because family and friends can be our biggest supporters…and the biggest saboteurs. Maybe you’re ready…but they aren’t. But if your bond & connection is built on the common struggle (among other things of course, but this being one), what happens when you make changes? How does that impact your relationships? How do those important people in your life respond? I recently read a book called “The Dance of Intimacy” by Harriet Lerner. In it Lerner discusses the idea of a “change back reaction.” This is how I would summarize it. Humans don’t like change. Change is hard. We like routine & stability – homeostasis (that’s another, “we’re wired that way” thing). When we make changes it’s because the “cost” of staying the same is greater than the “cost” of the struggle of change. But just because that cost benefit evaluation makes sense for us, doesn’t mean it makes sense to the rest of the people in our life! So they often react in a way that isn’t helpful or supportive – either passively or overtly in a way that is requesting for us to “change back.” Which makes change (which is already hard), harder. And so, struggle.
So, do you ditch your friends?
Of course not! There’s this meme that floats around that says you are the reflection of the 5 people you spend the most time with. And while I don’t know if this is based in science, anecdotally I would agree. We tend to take on the habits, behaviours and attitudes of those we are surrounded by. So if your close friends & family aren’t “on board” with your health changes – what then? I suppose you can make new friends, but what about family? What do you do?
With close friends and family sometimes it’s as simple as a conversation. An honest, open and non-judgmental dialogue where you share that you are making some changes, and you invite them to join you, but you also acknowledge that they may not want to make changes – and that’s OK (and it really needs to be ok – because most people can smell in authenticity from a mile away). And a request for them to support you – and concrete examples of what that looks like to you.
It also might mean finding a tribe of amazing people who DO support you. Fitness friends you can count on or a health community that aligns with your philosophy. Surround yourself with people who lift you up & encourage you to be your best. Spending the majority of your time with these people (either in person or online) can go a long way to having the social acceptance, love & belonging you need to push through the struggle! Because no matter how awesome your support…you will struggle. Because, change.
Why do we have to struggle anyway?
Brene Brown talks about how we’re wired for struggle. That humans are simply created this way – we’re built to struggle & be challenged by life. It’s just what we do. So if you gave up this struggle (the “health” struggle), what would be left for you? What would you then have room to “look at?” In other words, knowing that you’re wired for struggle as a human – if you stop the struggle in ONE area of your life, where would you struggle with next? If you gave up all the struggle around your health & well-being what would you then need to look at? And do you WANT to look at it?
I found this piece of curiosity especially interesting personally.
I long considered my weight to be my Achilles heel. The “thing” that held me back – in my life & in my work. And when I gave that up I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t about the weight (as Geneen Roth so eloquently puts in her book “Women, Food & God” – “It’s not about the weight, it was NEVER about the weight.”). So if it’s not about the weight…what the H-E-double hockey sticks is it about?
That was harder to look at. Because for me it was about my fear of failure. See weight is a great scapegoat. As much as the “health struggle” bonds & connects us as a common thread it is also deeply depraved by society and therefore it is a GREAT excuse to be playing small. It’s easier to blame my lack of success or any failure I have on my fat (something OUTSIDE Of me) than me (my innate capabilities, work ethic, talent). Yeah. That was a JUICY aha moment people.
Once I stopped blaming EVERYTHING on my fat…once I OWNED my capabilities, work ethic & talent…BOOM. Talk about SHIFT. I call that leveling up. I’m playing on a whole new level of awesomeness now.
But letting that shit go – it’s hard. Especially since I’d carried that rather unhelpful bit of narrative since I was 5 years old. When I was too fat to keep up with the big kids. When I was too fat to be liked by that boy I had my eye on. When I was cast as the courageous lion instead of Dorothy in the school production of the Wizard of Oz – yup…there was FAT. I could go on…but you get it. That narrative did a number on me. But it also fueled my fire. “oh yeah FAT…fucking watch me.” Watch me try out for the rowing team. Watch me learn to run all by myself. Watch me do Ironman.
See, narratives aren’t all bad…unless we allow them to drive the bus without our awareness. Kind of like driving a bus without your glasses on. You sort of see where you’re going but it’s a whole lotta dodgy. And the really cool thing about narrative? Once you can see it, you can’t un-see it and the whole world just sharpens up.
Does it stop me from having my narrative drive? Nope. Every once in a while that jackass commandeers the wheel. But I see it quickly, and I kick him off the bus and keep on trucking.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Change is hard. You need to go into change eyes wide open knowing full well that it will involve a shit-tonne of struggle. And if you’ve struggled with this specific bit for a long time….you may have some deeply ingrained familiar self to deal with. It’s not as simple as plugging the coordinates into Siri and taking a new route. You’re going to be on a bunch of worn down back roads with a plethora of potholes. And you may or may not have the support crew you need. You might even have a heckler in the car trying to steer you in the wrong direction. You’ll have to manage that. And while you’re at it – keep driving. And you may run out of gas one or two times (or more). You’ll have to spend a night or two in a hole in the wall motel in the middle of no where. You’ll feel “stuck,” but you’ll find your way back on the road, and realize the pit-stop was exactly what you needed. Sometimes your wind-shield will get clouded and you’ll question the whole damn trip and wonder why the heck you didn’t just take the freeway – because it would have been quicker & easier. But then you’ll notice the view. And you’ll stop. You’ll breathe it in. And you’ll be SO glad you did because what you’ll realize is that the road is never-ending. That there is no final destination and you may as well enjoy the drive.
Need some support? I’d love to embark on this journey with you and support you along the way. Let’s chat!