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
Such a deep topic with so many nuances and good ideas. I agree with the comments that all others tell you how to change not why you do what you do. I’m glad they adress that in Immunity to Change.
And yes, you really do need the “oh shit” moment. It’s almost like you need to shock yourself so much you finally realize what’s been right in front of you the whole time. Like you said it’s a defense mechanism. I believe if you really, really think about it you’ll know what your blocks are. Maybe not in totality but you are aware of them. Now admitting them to yourself is a totally other matter.
I kind of had that with family. I was hanging on to the vision of my family I had from childhood. One that hasn’t existed for a very long time. Once I accepted the changes and that our lives were going in different directions, it was easier to not feel frustrated and angry every time I felt a sleight. There are still some other things I need to have my “moment” for to discover my blocks however as you said “it’s a life long journey.
As always, I really appreciate you bringing up these topics. Even when they are difficult or a little esoteric, discussing them brings them out of the shadows and makes people think and, possibly, change how they view things overall. Expand your mind and horizons and continue to grow. 🙂
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Debbie! Thanks. I’m glad you got something out of this post. I was aware that it was a pretty “deep” topic that might not appeal to everyone but I found it so complementary to the work I’ve been doing with Michael Singer and his “untethered Soul” that I couldn’t help but write about it.
As you say, it is so much about those block we are mostly unconscious about. We do them for protection obviously, but as long as they are there they hold us back from being as centered and at peace as we can be. Besides, I’m a big fan of life-long learning and I’m guessing you are too. While absorbing new information might be one form of learning. I tend to like the one that increases self knowledge and awareness. As Rumi said, ““Yesterday I was clever and was trying to save the world. Today I am wise, I’m trying to change myself.” Thanks as always for your comment! ~Kathy
Galen Pearl says
This is such a helpful post. I appreciated the steps and also the examples in the post and in some of the comments. Like Tom, I quit smoking after many failed attempts (I only smoked for a few years as a teen, but I was deeply hooked and felt like crap all the time) by changing my underlying attitude and also by making the focus something besides smoking. Gosh I haven’t thought about this in so long! I actually taped my two fingers together that I used to hold the cigarette. Instead of focusing on not having a cigarette, I focused on not taking the tape off my fingers — a much easier concept. It’s silly, of course, since I could have held the cigarette a different way, but somehow my laser focus on that tape got me through by interrupting my habitual smoking routine.
When I used to write and lead discussion groups about happiness, I always started by asking folks to really think about their hidden beliefs about happiness. If someone asks “Do you want to be happy?” most people would say yes. But like you observed, so many of us won’t change the things we would need to change to experience more joy in our lives. Why is that? Because so many of us have what I call “shadow beliefs” about happiness.
So I would ask people why it might not be okay to be happy. There were lots of answers. For example, we might think we don’t deserve to be happy, or that it’s selfish to be happy when someone else isn’t, or that if we let our guard down to be happy, something bad might happen. Unless we uncover and address these shadow beliefs, we will always sabotage any efforts we make to be happier. So giving ourselves genuine permission to be happy is always going to be the first step before any of the techniques will be effective.
This fits very well with what your experts have discovered, and how great that they don’t only identify the issue, but they offer a path forward to remove the underlying obstacles to making the changes we want to make.
Kathy Gottberg says
Thank you so much for offering some great suggestions and examples about why change can be hard! I like that term “shadow beliefs” because that is a great way of thinking of those hidden unconscious thoughts that we all have whether we are aware they are there or not. I also found this entire process so very helpful (and connected) to my current focus on Michael Singer’s work. He calls those shadow beliefs a “thorn” that we carry around and “protect” inside ourselves to feel okay. If we can recognize those thorns and let them go, things that used to bother (and distress and worry us) won’t.
I’m also finding that using this process (the immunity map) is helping me realize why I’ve held on to some of the thorns that I just assumed were part of my personality–things like wanting other people’s acceptance, caring what other people think of me, taking things personally–are to a great extent just more shadow beliefs that I have become identified with.
Like so many of these topics, this one is as deep and integrated into our psyche as much as we are able to recognize. I just keep chipping away at it all but as all teachers remind us, it is a lifelong journey. Thank you for your insights and help along the way! ~Kathy
Caree Risover says
I’ve never understood all those self-help manuals that preach about doing something 20+ times and it becomes a habit – it’s never worked for me and now you’ve just clarified why.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Caree! Yeah it makes more sense now doesn’t it. We can read a million books about HOW to do it but they all tend to focus on just the technique not the mindset behind it. Did you get a chance to read the link? There is a great example there of her filling in the MAP and how that works. So much to think about! ~Kathy
I love the analogy of “immunity” to change. It makes sense. I would get so exasperated with patients that experienced a heart attack or new diagnosis of diabetes and would not make the necessary changes for their health. I really like the strategies that you identify for effective change. I agree that change starts with self-reflection and identifying your own “why” that will drive and sustain your change. This is indeed “juicy stuff!”
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Marian. Thank you for letting me know this got you thinking. It really helped me understand why some people (myself included) can continue behaviors that we KNOW aren’t good for us. The tendency is to just think they have no self discipline or a too lazy to do something about it. But this research proves that the real reason is much deeper. I thought about my mom who was NEVER able to quit smoking until the end. I think for her the alternative asked her to change too much about her life and she just wasn’t willing to let that go. We never know for sure what is in another person’s mind but now I feel I can be more understanding with others AND myself. ~Kathy
Tom from Sightings says
I agree, self-discipline will only get you so far, and then it will fail. We need a new “mindset” as she says. I’m thinking of how I gave up smoking. For a long time I tried self-discipline. It would work for a while, then inevitably I would backslide. Eventually I just realized, smoking is disgusting. And I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I gave up meat sort of the same way. At some point I decided it was disgusting — the gristle, the blood, the skin. Yuck! And I just stopped. No self-discipline required. (However, I must admit, every once in a while I will now eat meat . . . as long as it’s sufficiently processed that it doesn’t remind me of an animal). Anyway . . . good post.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! Thank you for two GREAT example.s As your mindset changed you were able to make the change much more easily. Those are good lessons at least for things that we are consciously aware of…but those ones that are deep down hidden from us can be really problematic. Like she said, if you don’t at least think “Oh shit” about the reason then it probably wasn’t deep enough or hidden enough. Remembering this should be helpful right? ~Kathy
Kate Sullivan says
Wow, Kathy, this is one meaty post. Chockful of great information. I need to reread it. It fits right in with a website and ebook I’ve just discovered: MEA, which is the Modern Elder Academy and the book entitled “Anatomy of a Transition.” Might want to check it out. Thanks for the information. I can always count on you to provide helpful and insightful stuff. Kate
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kate! Yes I know I’ve been pretty “heavy” with my writing lately but it is so darn interesting I can’t help myself. I have heard of the MEA but not the book, I will have to check it out. ~Kathy