The ABCs Most Likely To Hijack Your Momentum
Dry January, pre-breakfast jogs, spin classes, gluten-free diets… who hasn’t tried one of the ‘must-do’ life-style changes, only to find them fall by the wayside much sooner than we’d care to admit? In the wake of multiple frustrated ventures, perhaps you have accrued a drawer-full of optimistic lycra, a juicer (possibly now tucked into the back of an inaccessible cupboard) and a couple of packets of out-of-date ‘Free-From’ cardboard crackers that will probably only be eaten in the next ice-age.
Of course, this is all fertile ground for the hungry marketeers, who fully understand the fallibilities of our efforts to change and who prowl around the edges of our fickle aspirations. So, why is human behaviour around change so predictably ineffective? And what can we learn about these well-worn human pathways that can help us, finally, to either follow through or at least to know enough not to get hooked into a doomed scheme in the first place?
WHY MOTIVATION IS NOT ENOUGH
Motivation is complex. For every eager pull in one direction, there is often a compensating pull in the opposite direction. This unavoidable conflict that occurs in our efforts to make change, is because of two fundamental human needs — one for security and the other for exploration and growth. Our essential life-force, which is built in to our neurology, is simultaneously seeking to survive and to evolve.
When we go into unfamiliar territory, like taking up a new hobby or changing our diet, there is novelty and stimulation. The part of us that feels motivated likes to explore, to discover new things, and expand beyond current boundaries. It is optimistic, maybe even excited, at the potential of something better. Meanwhile, another part wants to maintain the status quo. This part has the core aim of keeping us safe within the confines of our comfort zone; it knows that anything unknown is going to upset the equilibrium and take energy to readjust.
Hence motivation waxes and wanes.
So, what’s the deal? Why can some people resolve this conflict and overcome discomfort, even severe hardship, in their quest for a better lifestyle, where others keep giving up? What is it that gives some people the edge when it comes to overcoming resistance?
THE SIX CAUSES OF RESISTANCE
We commonly think of resistance as something bad or unwanted but I prefer the assumption that every human instinct has a positive intention. Putting the brakes on is our safety mechanism. It’s important for our survival and we need it. However, where this falls down is when we have a perception of danger (often unconscious) that is not real.
Over a few decades of working in this field, I have distilled my observations into six key factors that can skew our perception and create resistance to change. These are the things that we need to be aware of and get underneath if we want to sustain momentum in a new direction.
They are all interconnected but being able to look at them individually makes them easier to identify.
Here are the six factors (beginning with the letters A — F respectively):
A is for ATTACHMENTS
Attachments include all the things we have a strong urge to keep hold of and can feel significant distress about if we have to give them up. It is the fear of loss that creates resistance. Many people tend to think that the subject of attachment belongs in a therapeutic environment, under the remit of dealing with co-dependency or addiction. Consequently, owning up to having attachments can make us seem needy. However, we all have them; lots of them. They include:
- Points of view
- Roles (status)
What makes attachments challenging to deal with is that we often don’t know they’re there until faced with having to let them go. As an example, imagine you decide to give up coffee — in addition to the chemical addiction, you may have some attachment to the morning ritual of making your favourite brew; then there’s the socializing and connection that comes with it, the down-time associated with your coffee breaks, the delicious aroma, the sugar hit from the accompanying snack plus your state of the art coffee-maker becomes threatened with redundancy. There’s potentially a lot invested in your daily cappuccinos and therefore a lot more to give up than just the caffeine.
B is for BELIEFS
Sticking with the coffee, your decision to quit maybe based on the belief that coffee was bad for you. Then off you go to the internet to find some more supporting evidence only to come across countless articles that explain all the reasons why coffee is good for you. It does seem increasingly difficult to know who or what to believe.
More generally, beliefs are simply thoughts (our own and others’) that we assume to be true. And despite the notorious unreliability of our thinking, which can be distorted and irrational, our beliefs can be extraordinarily powerful — they can be powerfully positive OR powerfully negative.
When it comes to making change, beliefs can be the make or break factor. A strong belief in the importance of the proposed change or a fervent belief in our own capability to follow through can be sufficient to overcome huge obstacles. Conversely, any lurking negative beliefs will provide constant fuel for non-cooperation.
One of the greatest challenges in ensuring our beliefs are in alignment with our intentions is that many of our most potent beliefs are unconscious. And, to add another layer of challenge, we can often hold contradictory beliefs at the same time. These are illustrations of the next source of resistance…
C is for CONFLICT
Conflict around making change is two-fold — inner and outer. Many of us are not great at dealing with outer conflict and can be easily put off by a dissenting voice, yet we are often even worse dealing with inner conflict.
If we have to use will-power to get ourselves to do something, that’s a clear sign of inner conflict. In addition to the contradictory beliefs that I’ve just mentioned, some other common sources of inner conflict are:
- Conscious / subconscious mismatch
- Conflicting values
- Competing head / heart agendas
Whatever is causing the conflict, the two opposing parts are engaged in a silent tussle, and sensitive negotiation is required to bring them into alignment. Inevitably this involves inner inquiry, self-awareness and a willingness from both sides to listen, learn and collaborate.
Without this kind of awareness and negotiation, the conflict will remain active and following through will continue to feel like a huge effort. Dealing with the fall-out of a constant inner battle is usually not sustainable.
D is for DISTRACTIONS
Distractions are the perfect decoy during periods of change — they provide a never-ending source of things to get in the way. This is especially true when one of the other sources of resistance is in the mix, and any number of distractions can provide a very convenient excuse for not following through.
Much like conflict, distractions can be both external and internal. The external ones include all the various sources of noise in the environment and the stream of demands on your time, energy and attention. Meanwhile, the internal ones cover the perpetual stream of unhelpful thoughts whirling round your mind, and the annoying fidgeting and habitual behaviours that serve no useful purpose.
The antidotes for dealing with distractions are focus and discipline. The word ‘discipline’ typically doesn’t have pleasant connotations as it makes us think of harsh regimes. But, interestingly, it comes from the Latin word ‘discipulus’, which means ‘learner’. So, perhaps it is more helpful to see it as making a commitment to our on-going learning and growth by being persistent in following a particular direction.
Back to our efforts to give up coffee and, facing a multi-day caffeine withdrawal headache, it may be easier to rationalize that there is just too much important stuff going on right now to risk being laid low. So, let’s just leave it ‘til next week…
E is for EGO
Still in the linguistic realm, Ego is the Latin word for ‘I’, and it is responsible for maintaining our sense of self. The whole notion of Ego is simply a concept; there is nothing real and tangible about it in physical terms, despite it having a significant influence on our lives. This mystical entity is merely a collection of thoughts, ideas and beliefs about who we are. In other words, it is our thinking about who we are.
The Ego’s job is self-serving. It wants to preserve our identity — to protect who we think we are. This means that most of us have a strong in-built drive to defend this version of our ‘self’ and reject anything that doesn’t belong.
When it comes to change, the Ego’s drive is to impress. There is a strong underlying agenda to be bigger, better, stronger and to prove something. Typically, if change has been imposed by someone or something else, the Ego can get defensive as it prefers to call the shots. Getting to grips with the Ego’s agenda means taking a really good look into the reasons why we want to make change and what we think is at stake.
F is for FEAR
Fear is really the catch-all cause of resistance. It shows up when our attachments are on a shaky footing, when we have certain negative beliefs, when conflict is in the offing, and most especially when the Ego is vulnerable.
The most common fears that arise during periods of change are:
- Fear of the unknown (or more accurately, fear that our imagined worries will become a reality)
- Fear of failure
- Fear of criticism
- Fear of not having enough money / time / energy / expertise
- Fear of losing something important
- Fear of letting someone down
Faced with the prospect of stepping into new territory, what we are fundamentally assessing is ‘Can I really do this? Do I have what it takes? Is this safe for me/my reputation?’ Most of us have been punished at some point in our life for getting it ‘wrong’ so it’s no wonder that we shy away from entering into an unfamiliar arena where we risk pain or shame.
Sitting with our vulnerabilities on show is rarely comfortable for anyone.
TIPS for MASTERING YOUR RESISTANCE
- Identify them — list all the things that you might have to let go of when you make a change
- Let go one step at a time (unless you prefer the gung-ho, cold-turkey type of approach)
- Balance any sense of loss with something that feels like a ‘gain’ or ‘win’ (if you feel deprived for any length of time without any compensation, this is likely to lower the odds of you sticking with it)
- Discover if you’re really committed by asking yourself, “Do I WANT to or do I HAVE to make this change? Why? What’s really driving me?”
- Bring any doubts or uncertainties into the open and face them head-on
- Examine and scrutinize your sources of truth
- Notice any will I / won’t I thoughts whirling in your head or any conflicting behaviours
- Have a dialogue on with the opposing parts on paper (or out loud if you have someone to help you)
- Ask close friends/family to support you in your intended change
- Set some clear boundaries
- Ask an accountability partner to help keep you on track
- Reflect in a journal at the end of the day so you can highlight any unhelpful thoughts, feelings or behaviours that are diverting your focus and energy
- Consider how you would like your intended change to augment you and consider if there is any risk that it may diminish you
- Notice any signs of defensiveness and examine what’s underneath
- Build up a sense of familiarity with your new identity by repeating the words, thoughts, feelings and actions that align with it
- Begin to notice any signs of tension or holding in your body
- Examine the source of your fears to see if they are real or imagined
- Alleviate your fear by making any useful preparations, as well as deep breathing or other relaxation techniques that dissipate tension
[If you’re interested to read more, the six causes of resistance are explored fully in ‘The Change Equation’ book by Elizabeth J Oliver, available now on Amazon.]