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“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin


The season of resolutions, visions of a new and improved — a better — you, falls behind us as January slips into February, laying bare an uncomfortable truth: deep down, perhaps you didn’t really want to change. The comfort of what is familiar, even if it’s not good for you, is more attractive than the scary unknown. A salve in an unpredictable world. What makes positive change so difficult to initiate, and how might we overcome the inertia of the status quo?

One Change Can Upend Your Entire Life

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t want to change, and some of it is within their control, some of it is not,” says Dr. Jesse Owen, a professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Denver. “For some people, the thing they’re doing, or their habit, is so ingrained that it’s part of their identity. And so, changing this part of their life would change a lot of different aspects, such as who they’re hanging out with.”

He shares the example of people with addictions, such as alcoholics who’ve built their life around drinking and going to bars. Once they get sober, not only are they losing a routine, but they might also lose those friendships.

The Invisible Pull of Secondary Gains

With a seemingly undesirable habit or attribution, “Typically, there’s either a primary or secondary gain to it,” says Owen. Benefits and payoffs such as attention, love, money, and more can be derived from seemingly negative or distressful situations, including mental or physical illness. A primary gain is often thought of as one we’re conscious of, and a secondary gain as one we’re generally unaware of. 

For example, “Being very angry in certain spaces shuts other people down, and so it helps them control the environment. It helps control other people’s reactions,” says Owen, including people who slam things, yell, or make other aggressive gestures in the anger cycle. 

“But they don’t see the other ramifications, including what they’re missing out on, such as closeness or vulnerability with others. We see this a lot in domestic violence situations, even emotionally abusive relationships where the vulnerability and closeness are just not characteristic of those relationships, yet they can persist for a long time.”

Whether it’s persistent sleep deprivation, overeating, gossiping, criticizing, or ingratitude , what might you be getting out of the bad habit or distressing situation – no matter how often you say (and believe) you want things to change?

Note that the same habit or attribute may be less successful in different settings. “Being arrogant in certain fields of work may be a benefit,” says Owen. “But that may not work so well in romantic relationships or friendships.”\

Humans Are Wired To Resist Change

Research from Wendy Wood, Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, shows that

43% of the time, people habitually repeat behaviors without thinking, making us literally creatures of habit.

Our default can be to resist the new. It can take several weeks, even months, in addition to repetition, persistence, and practice, to establish a new habit.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, regarding those in leadership roles, has cited reasons why workers and others resist change including: excess uncertainty, loss of control, too sudden of a transition, they don’t like the implication that the old way they were doing things was wrong, old resentments, additional work is expected of them, self-doubt, and fear of failure. 

Upsetting others and even fear of success can thwart change. Fear is linked to the amygdala, where the brain’s fear circuitry is housed, and our “flight or fight” response can be triggered.

Lack Of Resources

It’s not always that people are actively resisting change. “People in different communities have fewer resources to help them change,” says Owen. “And when they come back into those communities where they don’t have resources after working sixteen hours a day, the ability to make those larger changes comes secondarily to the necessities in life. And so, a lot of this stuff is contextual.”

Tools To Overcome Resistance To Change

Some people make the most of challenging and unexpected changes. An inspirational example is Amy Purdy, who, at 19, had her legs amputated below the knee after a sudden illness and went on to become a 3-time Paralympic medalist and pro-snowboarder, as well as appearing on “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Amazing Race.” As a motivational speaker and podcast host, she’s given a TED Talk about living beyond limits, letting go of your old life, and embracing the new. 

There are companies famous for successfully embracing change rather than resting on their laurels: Netflix Co-Founder Reed Hastings pivoted to the future by supplanting the DVD-by-mail business with a pioneering internet streaming model, despite public consternation. In 2017, Apple discontinued most of its once ground-breaking iPod models and focused on iPhones. Amazon, which started as an online retailer of physical books, became an e-commerce and technology behemoth.

Group change, within workplaces and communities, can also overcome resistance to change. “Harnessing the power of a group can help cohesion and the ability to voice concerns with positive outcomes,” says Owen. And for leaders, “having happy employees is all about the process. Can they step back and ask, ‘Am I treated with dignity, integrity, and respect by my boss and coworkers? Does my voice matter?’”

When the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change one can overcome cognitive, emotional, and intentional resistance. Formulas for change evolve.

Researchers have devised several formulas for change, both in the context of corporations as well as advocacy groups. A well-known formula includes one associated with David Gleicher and updated by Kathie Dannemiller: (C = D × V × F > R). The potential for change depends on a critical mass of people who are dissatisfied with how things are now; a vision of how things could be better; and it’s decided that it’s worth taking first concrete steps towards that vision. Change actually happens when that combination of factors is greater than the resistance to change. As society, technology, and business evolve, so do the formulas: innovation, agility, entrepreneurship, and course correction are also important factors.

Therapy Works 

“Overall, we see that people who go to therapy resolve their issues more often than people who don’t,” says Owen. Indeed, The American Psychological Association states that about 75% of people who enter psychotherapy show some benefit and that the average person in psychotherapy is better off after treatment than 80% of those who never receive any treatment.

People are pulled between the motivation to change and motivation to maintain the status quo.

Therapy is about helping people want to change. 

Is therapy not for you? “There are a lot of relationship education programs that teach you skills and about commitment and communication,” says Owen. “Even the term education tears down some barriers and stigma that couples therapy sometimes has. Also, sometimes it can take a long time to access therapy, at least in the United States, which is very problematic.” 

Motivational Strategies – Envision Your Ideal Life

“In my experience, someone absolutely dug in who doesn’t want to change, the goal is to help find out what do they really want,” says Owen. What, ideally, would their life look like for them? How would their partner feel? How would they feel? Try to highlight those discrepancies between the life they’re living currently and the life they really want.”  

Couples can do this as well. “Most of the work I do with couples is to find a co-created narrative for the relationship. You can have your own narrative of what you want in your life. And I think that’s great. People need to have some individuality, but at some point, the couple needs to come together and say, what’s the life we want, and what kind of challenges will that face? And what type of opportunities do we have as a couple because of where we’re at in life,” says Owen. “Be creative in that space.”

Ask The Deeper Why Questions

“People can reflect on what exactly they want in their life and what’s going to make change possible,” says Owen. “Sometimes, we search for things we think will make us happy. Oh, I’m going to join a book club, I’m going to start reading, I’m going to join a league. Without it being fully thought through, why am I doing this? What’s missing in my life, or what am I moving towards that I truly love? Those types of more internally driven rationales are what’s going to get people to move.”

For example, Owen suggests rather than taking French classes just to learn French, perhaps there’s a vibrant French community in your town, and you want to be more integrated into that space and learn more about that culture. 

“My guess is a lot of folks might be missing the relational, achievement, or charitable component in their life,” says Owen. “So, they need to figure out what is truly driving what they need, what they want to do, and then gear themselves towards activities that will actually fulfill those drives.”

Alene Dawson is a Southern California-based writer known for her intelligent and popular features, cover stories, interviews, and award-winning publications. She’s a regular contributor to the LA Times.