Have you ever had something you really wanted or needed to change, but never seem to manage it? Or how about a change you were able to make for a short time, but before long slipped back into your old routine? You are not alone. Unfortunately, while we all tend to think that with a strong desire and enough will-power we can change anything about ourselves we choose, that is only partially true. Sure, a strong desire is important, and self-discipline is necessary, but as I’ve recently learned we all have an innate “immunity to change” that can keep us stuck in old habits and behaviors. It is that unrecognized, self-protective immunity that makes change so difficult. For those of us who are on a quest to know ourselves better as life goes on and to make positive changes when necessary, learning how this immunity works is juicy stuff.
Just two short weeks ago I came across an interview of Dr. Lisa Lahey and her unique approach to change and how to overcome it. I was amazed at how it fit into many of the other topics I’ve been exploring lately. Lahey, a former associate director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, along with her colleague Dr. Kevin Kegan are the authors of the book Immunity to Change. They are also the founders of Minds At Work—a leadership development company using their understanding of the immunity to change. At this company they focus on helping people choose to close the gap between good intentions and actual behaviors—in other words how to make desired change really happen.
Because as we all likely know, real change isn’t always easy. Her research shows that only one person in seven will actually change their health behaviors –even if their doctor tells them they will die if they don’t! Other research found online shows that less than one-half of those diagnosed with cancer will ever change some of their risky behaviors. What’s going on? Why aren’t people changing when their very lives depend on it? In spite of what you might think, Lahey doesn’t believe those people are lazy or lack total self-control. Instead, she believes the inability to change happens because those people have one or more hidden blocks within them that gives them an immunity to change.
So, what does Lahey mean by this immunity? Think about the biological immune system for a moment. That system is built into our bodies to keep us safe from what it perceives as threats, or to repair damage. It is a protective mechanism that operates instinctually without our knowledge or direction. By the same token, Lahey believes we have a psychological defense mechanism built into our psyche that keeps us “safe” and protects us from anything different or out-of-the-ordinary. Just like the biological immune system, this protective mechanism kicks in (usually unconsciously) to maintain the status quo in our lives. In other words, our egos (our sense of self) usually sees change as threatening and dangerous. Again, this is instinctual and done as a protective measure in favor of the familiar.
So, while it is most common to believe that change happens when you want something bad enough and come up with the right strategies to accomplish it, there’s more to the story. Lahey says that is because there are two types of change: 1) Technical Change and 2) Adaptive Change. If all a person does is focus on the technical strategies necessary to change, but ignores the adaptive needs, a person will seldom achieve lasting change. For example, if I want to lose weight but all I do is focus on a. eating less and b. exercising more, I am focusing on the techniques required to change—but not the “why” or why-not” behind it.
Then what is necessary to make adaptive change? Adaptive change asks us to dig deep within and explore what we are doing (probably unconsciously) that sabotages our desire to change. If we can uncover any hidden beliefs, feelings and blind spots, we can get behind the reasons we habitually do things that on the surface we know are not what we want, wish or need to achieve. Think of those cancer patients or others with health challenges. If they can’t get their minds on board with the change, it just won’t happen. To accomplish that Lahey and Kegan created an Immunity “Map” which is a simple (but not easy) way of digging out those unconscious blocks in order to really make the changes we seek. While they actually have a graphic to use, here is a narrative of the map.
I. First decide what change you really want to make. Just pick one. This needs to be a personal goal or intention that is very important to you (not someone else). You are not looking to achieve anything—but rather make a personal change you want to experience. On a scale from one-to-five this should be at least a four.
II. Next you fearlessly write down the behaviors you regularly do that keep you from making that change. Don’t mistake this as an easy thing to do. Spend time (and be honest!) recognizing why you don’t follow through on your very important intention. Remember to stay with the actual behaviors you do, not your feelings or emotions. Also, don’t try to rationalize or explain why you do them. Just list four or five ways you consistently sabotage your change.
III. Now comes the really challenging part. Take each of the behaviors that you regularly do that block your change and write down the feeling behind “why” you feel compelled to do that instead of making the change. Do your best to come up with what you perceive to be your biggest worry, discomfort or fear if you were to give up the competing behaviors you have recognized in step number two.
How do you know if you’ve found it? Lahey says, “If you haven’t located a genuine ‘oh, shit’ kind of feeling you are probably not there yet.” Think about it, if you are trying to drive a car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, you won’t get very far. Once you’ve discovered the fear, then write down the previously unconscious belief or commitment you have been holding inside to keep the thing you are afraid of from ever happening. That thing, that hidden commitment, is your change immune system trying to protect the status quo and keep you safe.
IV. It might be tempting to just say, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over!” because now you know some of the reasons why you haven’t been able to change. But don’t stop yet. Lahey recommends we take the fourth step. In this step we write out what she calls our “Big Assumptions.” These are the beliefs we just assumed were necessary to keep us safe—and to maintain the status quo. Once we identify the behaviors that have kept us from making changes AND identified the mindset and beliefs behind those behaviors, we can now challenge them. We can’t necessarily just eliminate them—but we can question and incrementally chip away and disprove them until we reach an entirely new mindset. From this new mindset, we can then begin taking the “technical changes” we know are helpful and institute the change.
I realize that this is a lot of information packed into a relatively short article, but I believe this process is very valuable. By recognizing that we all have unconscious and hidden beliefs, desires and fears that drive (and block) some of our behavior, we can better understand ourselves. Plus, if we want to make lasting change within ourselves, this is as good a practice as I’ve ever learned.
As I mentioned in previous posts, a major intention I have for 2023 is to become more accepting and less reactive to external events in my life. While it is fine to have that intention for myself, if I stay unaware of and unwilling to examine any hidden conflicting commitments I might hold, I will be less likely to ever arrive at the place where that happens. From here on out I want to remember that the SMART approach to change requires that we take the time to really know ourselves before we can become the change we wish to see.
For a full explanation of this process: https://mindsatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Chapter9.pdf