Why can't I change even when I want to?

It’s the new year and already, just two weeks in, some of our inspiration and motivation for change that notoriously grabs us on the 1st Jan, is starting to fade. I recently had a client ask why that happens, particularly when the change you want is strong desire and you know it’s good for you, but you keep going back to old ways. This conversation I had on my closed FB page for our past participants sheds some light into why you do what you do, even though it’s not what you want to do.

Mum #1: This is a bit deep and a bit philosophical (especially for this time of night!), but something in a movie I was just watching sparked my thinking. The main character just said something along the lines of “Life is all about choice. Making good choices and bad ones. Sometimes we make good choices with the best of intentions, but when the going gets tough, we revert back to what we “know. Even though what we know may be broken beyond repair and has proven many times prior to be ineffective.”

It just got me thinking about why we do this? For example, for me, I have learnt that speaking calmly with my kids and not raising my voice is a far more effective method of dealing with their behaviour. However, after a few weeks I revert to old habits momentarily. I know it’s ineffective and I know my behaviour is damaging. So why is THAT the easy road? Why do I go back to it? Why do we take on new diets and sway from them weeks later to go back to bad eating and no exercise? We know how it will make us feel. We know we still won’t be happy with what we see in the mirror and there will be no positive changes. So then why do we quit? Is it just that our bad habits are ingrained? Why do we decide that we are going to be less engaged with the online world and more present in the real world, only after a few days to find our Facebook addictions creep up again? I could go on and on. I’m just finding it difficult to get my head around why we deem the ‘broken’ ways to be the easy ways. Why do we revert to them when we know they don’t work?

Jackie: Because the knowing what to do (logic) and the desiring (wanting) are all conscious functions of the brain (the 2-4%). The unconscious brain (96-98%) is mostly the one driving your decisions when you are unaware / in an unconscious state of mind. When you start off doing something, you are steering yourself in the direction of change using your will – which lies in the conscious part of the brain (2-4%).

However after a while of getting results or putting in the conscious effort, you get complacent, forget to be aware and practicing that change, and the sat nav kicks in (the unconscious) sending your decisions to be back in alignment with the habitual beliefs that have been stored there for many years. In short, the answer to your question, why do we do what we know not to do, is because there is a stronger, more ingrained ‘story’ going on that is being activated in that moment. That story serves you in some way. It can protect you, help you, give you pleasure in some way, you may believe at some level it is effective in getting you control etc. Because you have lost awareness of desire, intention and conscious action. If you can maintain awareness of when the habit starts to kick in, all you need to do is put your hands back on the steering wheel and be conscious, deliberate and maintain focus on what you want and how to get it. Then you will not only start to see results, but you will also start to retrain the sat nav to have a new home. You’ll effectively move out of your old residence (the beliefs that are causing you to make those unwanted decisions)

Mum #1: I just had a shower and spent the time trying to answer my own question. And in different words, but identical to what you were saying Jackie, I decided that I go back to old habits because they have 1) been habits for so long and 2) they provide immediate gratification. So for example, when I eat a chocolate bar, I get that immediate ‘OMG I’m in heaven!’ feeling. The guilt and the ‘I wanna lose weight’ thoughts kick in well after I’ve eaten it. And something like weight loss provides long term gratification or satisfaction. I think our brains are still very childlike in that way. We like immediate reward. Immediate stimulation. And when I scream the house down with an adult-tanty, I instantly feel good like I’ve released my anger. But this is later followed by guilt, regret, upset and disappointment (but not right away). I’m really going to try and focus on the long term and not get do caught up with the immediate feel-good moment.

Jackie: The interesting thing about the unconscious mind is that it doesn’t have a sense of time. Everything is in the now. Logic and reasoning is a conscious part of the brain, so when you are operating through the sat nav (unconscious), it is interested in instant gratification, not long term results.

The trick is to use the conscious mind to focus on the immediate results you are getting by not having that chocolate bar. How you feel now. How it would feel to have an apple instead. Give yourself an in the moment reward for choosing otherwise, etc. Something that overrides the immediate payoff for having the chocolate bar. It all has to be done initially with the conscious mind.

In regards to the anger, if in the current moment, you can remind yourself of all the flow on of getting angry, you would stop. Create a list that you can keep handy, get the assistance of your kids to tell you certain words that bring your attention back to the result you don’t want, or any other means of being prompted in that moment to stack all the unwanted things that come from anger, that you can bring into the current moment consciously and that too will override the payoff for getting angry unconsciously. The trick to change is through constant conscious awareness. Repetition and consistency will then retrain the unconscious mind.

Mum #2: I have also been thinking the same things! But even after reading Jackie’s reply I still am very unsure as surely we were trained (for lack of a better word) growing up to eat our veges, exercise, etc, which I know I did and loved. What changed in adulthood that so strongly changed my natural way to now eat crap, be mean & impatient! That’s what really irks me – that all the shitty stuff is just so easy and what we should be doing seems so damn hard!

Jackie: ‘All the shitty stuff is just so easy and what we should be doing seems so damn hard’ sounds like a stronger story overriding the logic right there, lol. Look at where your focus is. The brains natural agenda is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. If the shitty stuff is easy and brings me pleasure (ie ease), then why would I make ‘the hard stuff’ a priority?

Perhaps to begin with you need to find some joy in the desire you want to achieve, find the benefit, the value to your life and consciously connect with the feelings you get from focussing on that.

Sometimes it can also be that the belief – ‘what I should be doing seems so damn hard’ – makes me feel like a failure, like an idiot, or some other self-worth belief. It can trigger identities that we created and attached self-worth too (eg I am an achiever). If you’re ‘meant to be’ an achiever in order to be good enough (based on your beliefs), yet you also have the belief that what you want to achieve is too damn hard then the priority ends up being to not try to avoid the pain of failure and not living up to your achiever identity. But then because you’re not trying and feeling crappy that you can’t play the role of an achiever, you end up drowning yourself in the more shitty stuff to try and distract yourself, but end up feeling shittier and getting into the shitty stuff to keep distracting yourself, moving further from the goal, feeling shittier and then….. and on it goes.

You see it’s all about the stronger story that’s making your decisions and actions a priority. Change the story about what you’re doing, change the focus to why you’re desiring what you are and how much joy/pleasure you will get out of that desire and keep that at the forefront of your mind and you’ll make it a priority, providing the payoff for getting your desires outweighs the payoff of doing the shitty stuff.