Back when I struggled with candida symptoms that ravaged my skin, my sinuses and my digestive tract, I ignored it all at first.
As someone who had dealt with candida before, I knew that the solution was to change my diet and lifestyle. But that didn’t matter.
In fact, I began to truly change only when I had no other choice. Eventually, the physical symptoms became so severe that I could no longer ignore them; I couldn’t function.
I had to learn to shift my behaviors quickly, or, quite honestly, I believed the candida would kill me.
So if I, a holistic nutritionist who knew what she had to do, could resist change so dramatically, what does that say about why we don’t make changes in our lives in general?
Here’s what I’ve learned over the past 2 decades about how–and why–we change, as I’ve dealt with my own candida and helped hundreds of others learn to eat well and change their own lives for good.
I. Our brains are wired to avoid change and keep our lives the same.
What happens when you think about making a major (or even minor) change in your life–but invariably find that you don’t take the action necessary to implement that change?
We may think that our conscious mind is in charge in these situations (ie, we simply “changed our mind”), but more likely we’re being directed by the unconscious parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala (also known as the fear center) developed when we lived in caves and our survival was threatened on the regular.
Back when we were cavemen, if you found a safe haven that was hidden away from the saber-tooth tiger and provided shelter from storms, you tended to stick with that residence. As humans, we are wired to seek safety and stability, while shunning anything unusual or atypical (such as an unfamiliar shadow in the bushes). It’s the amygdala that causes us to feel that way; its purpose is to keep us safe from harm.
In modern terms, however, the amygdala can actually impede positive change in your life, especially if you rely on just your own momentum to make the change.
Even when a situation feels negative, it’s still easier for us as humans to remain the same and deal with what is familiar rather than implement changes that could lead us into unfamiliar territory. (You’ve heard that old saying, “Better the devil you know. . . “ right?).
This, in part, explains why so many people stay in loveless marriages rather than strike out on their own, or why you might have remained in a job you hated for too long before seeking out other employment or starting that business that you’ve dreamed about for years.
In my case, it took a debilitating illness for me to change my health, which ultimately led to a new purpose in my life and starting my own business. I literally waited until I had no choice–behavior that is quite common given our propensity to want things to stay the same.
None of the major changes in my life would have happened if I had relied on my own dissatisfaction with my health or my job or my relationship to prompt those changes.
II. It’s difficult to recognize that change might be helpful in your own life.
Precisely because we’re wired to seek out consistency and our brains like sameness, we tend to overlook or downplay situations in which change might even be beneficial.
As humans, it’s really easy for us to become accustomed to a particular situation or behavior and it can be extremely difficult to envision things changing. Again, this is our overly protective brain telling us that change can be dangerous and we shouldn’t rock the boat.
Let’s say you’re stuck in a situation with which you are less than happy, like a job with an overbearing, micro-managing boss. The natural tendency is to point out why this situation is necessary (and why you shouldn’t change), as a way to avoid the harder decision of making a move away from the job–even if you’re not completely satisfied with what you have.
“It’s not so bad,” you might think. “At least I have a secure paycheck and I can afford my mortgage. And if I moved somewhere else, who knows what might happen? It might even be worse. What if my new boss was a mysoginist, or a racist, or worse?”–and so on. In this way, the notion of changing is not even perceived as something viable.
Similarly, once we establish a belief about ourselves–even a negative belief–it tends to stick with us and can be used as an excuse to avoid trying something new. “I’m just not good at math,” you might think, “so there’s no point considering that new managerial position, since it reqires analyzing lots of statistics.”
This same line of thinking occurs when we say things like “I’m too old,” or “I can’t afford it,” or “I don’t have the education I need for that.” Our brains are constructed to find reasons to oppose change.
For me, it wasn’t until I started working with a coach who helped me see clearly the path I wanted to pursue, and then pointed out many examples of people who had accomplished the same thing before me, starting at the same place (or with even less of a chance of success than I had).
If you’re feeling stuck, one way out is to actively search for examples of others who started where you are now (or worse) and have accomplished what you desire (eg, someone older, with less money or less education who nevertheless achieved what you would like).
Sadly, without our own ability to recognize (or someone else to point out) alternatives, we far too often end up staying where we are, and nothing ever changes.
III. Change never happens without discomfort.
Let me be real here: change is hard.
And if you truly want to enact positive and permanent change in your life, you’ll need to navigate a period of discomfort on your way to the final destination.
As I mentioned, our brain wants us to avoid change and will do whatever it can to convince us to remain stagnant. As a result, we tend to stay where we are unless we are forced by outside circumstances or people.
In my case, I simply couldn’t ignore my symptoms any more. It got to the point where I was in constant pain and couldn’t think straight. There was no way I could continue with my job or even my daily life, and I was spending all of my time either treating my symptoms or madly searching online for solutions. It finally occurred to me that was no way to live; and by then, I would have tried anything to be free of the constant itching, pain, fatigue and foggy thinking.
Just as physical discomfort is a signal that change needs to happen, I believe that psychological discomfort is, too.
In other words, if you find yourself constantly uneasy, restless, angry or depressed for no apparent reason, it might be your mind telling you that a change could help.
I once worked with a client who came to see me because of physical symptoms that prevented her from participating in many of the activities that she wanted to enjoy. Over time, however, it became clear that most of her negative feelings were a result of resentment at her job, where she was constantly asked to put in more hours and more work than her co-workers at the same level. Once she decided to change the way she responded to these requests and take back control of her own time, many of her symptoms subsided at the same time. As she clarified what she wanted and began to feel like she was happier emotionally, her body responded by improving as well.
Whatever kind of change you implement, working through it will always trigger discomfort; but it’s important to keep focusing on what that change will bring on the “other side.”
Learning to eat a completely different way, navigating social situations, talking to my family and friends about why I couldn’t go out to eat with them, learning to treat my body differently–these were all supremely uncomfortable for me.
However, as Stephen Pressfield says in his book, The War of Art, at some point the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of changing. That’s what happened to me.
But, once I learned the skills necessary to maintain this lifestyle, everything became easy and natural, and I didn’t have to think about it again. Today, I never ruminate over what food to eat or whether I’ll be able to participate in social events that I’d like to be at. It’s just no longer a concern.
[I’ve even been teaching other people how easy it is to cook and eat this way!]
Think about the last time you learned a new skill or started a new hobby that you continued to pursue: can you see how discomfort was part of that growth and change?
When you first learn to play the piano, for instance, every practice is excruciating and requires your full attention. But, keep at it–and before you realize it, once day you’re pounding those keys without even being aware of what you’re doing, and you are transported by the music that you create. That is the reward of weathering the discomfort of change.
If you can push yourself and persist through that initial uncomfortable period, you’ll find that what awaits on the side is more ease, freedom and joy.
IV. Even when we truly want the change, avoiding discomfort can be a stronger driver than the desire to change.
It’s only natural that you would be averse to change, given how much your amygdala wants you to keep things exactly as they are. And even when we know on a conscious level that we want to change, the power of the discomfort as a result may be stronger than the desire to make the change in the first place.
As a result, the vast majority of people won’t initiate that change because they don’t want to experience the discomfort. However, if you can persist through that initial period of discomfort, you will reap the rewards of that new job, that new relationship, that new skill or that new diet.
What we need to do, then is learn to override those impulses in the brain, so we can move forward voluntarily instead of waiting (like I did) until we have no choice. For me, this learning came through working with my coach, who not only taught me skills to help me override those primitive instincts, but also taught me other strategies that made the process of change easier and smoother.
I’ll talk more next time about the many ways we subconsciously sabotage the process of change, and what we can do to override some of the natural instincts to keep us stuck where we are.