Why is it so dang hard to make changes in your life?
I was having a discussion with my therapist at the end of last year and we were talking about changes I wanted to make for myself, not just because of the new year, but just in my life in general. The discussion revolved around my future career and where I saw myself going forward.
I expressed my dissatisfaction at where I was currently in my job and life which led to a rant about my dream of moving down south, going back to school and starting over doing something totally new.
She asked me one simple question, “Those goals don’t seem unrealistic by any means, what’s stopping you from doing it?”
Her question threw me off for a second but then the irrational part of my brain took over and I started listing off all of the reasons I couldn’t make those changes: I’m too old, I don’t have the money, it would be too difficult to move without first having a job, etc. and the list goes on.
She patiently listened to my ranting and only interjected to say something to the effect of, “Those sound like excuses to me.” Now, she didn’t quite put it like that, what she said was a bit gentler — but that’s the takeaway I got from it. And it was like a punch in the gut.
She’s right. They ARE excuses. I don’t like change, I never have. And, quite frankly, I’m terrified of it.
The thing is, this feeling is not exclusive to me. Most humans resist change and have probably related to my rantings at some point or another.
I look around at people in their 50s and 60s who are in the exact same place they were at my age (late 20s) and wonder how they could let themselves stay that way for decades. The answer is really pretty simple, I realized, because I exhibit the same patterns.
According to an article published by Verywell Mind, there are six stages of behavioral change. Now, this is slightly different than what I was talking about above, which is environmental change – but it all ties together. You can’t really change your environment until you change yourself.
The six stages are broken down into these categories:
Precontemplation: This is when people are in complete denial, as in they see no issue with their behavior and therefore see no purpose in changing it. I think I can confidently say that I am past this stage, at least for the most part.
Contemplation: In other words, you’re aware that there are benefits to change but the cons outweigh the pros (at least, in your head.) This stage can cause heavy feelings of uncertainty. Unfortunately, this is the stage that I and many others have been stuck in for months or years (in my case, years.) Some people never make it past this stage. It’s recommended for people stuck in this stage to identify barriers and figure out ways to move past them. It can help to work through these issues with a mental health professional.
Preparation: You’ve moved past that comfort zone holding you back in the contemplation phase and are making small realistic changes. An example is trying to lose weight through diet – instead of cutting out all junk cold turkey, you might still be eating what you want, but incorporating vegetables and other healthy foods into one meal a day. So, not completely jumping into change head-on, but accepting that you can make changes and start taking baby steps. This stage can also include something as simple as writing down your goals on paper, but not necessarily implementing them yet.
Action: This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but is sometimes the hardest to implement correctly. This is taking direct action to accomplish your goal. The problem with this step is that many people give up in the long run – the reason being is they don’t fully think everything out in advance. The previous stages are overlooked and some people think you can just jump right in and everything will fall in place. For example, mentally speaking you can still be stuck in the contemplation stage but in a short spur of motivation you throw yourself into an action you want to take. That's great, but it’s not sustainable. If you haven’t thought it out and worked past your barriers, it’s extremely difficult to make long-term goals that can be sustained.
Maintenance: Maintenance is continually replacing your old behavior with the new one, and rewarding yourself when you do it. This stage has to be implemented in the long term until your changes become habits.
Relapse: You’ve tried so hard, yet you fall back on old behaviors. It’s important that when this happens – because it’s most likely going to happen – not to be too hard on yourself but identify what triggered the relapse. Most people have several relapses before they can get a grasp on it, and that’s OK.
No matter what stage you are currently in, know that it’s okay to be scared of change. And ask yourself which one you would rather have – being in the same place in 30 years or getting over that minor inconvenience of discomfort for long-term happiness?
That’s something everyone has to decide for themselves. If you’re trying to accomplish that New Year’s goal, good luck. And who knows – maybe I’ll finally move past the contemplation stage this year and accomplish my goals. There’s nothing stopping me, after all – except me.