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03.11.2014 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

Why We Say We’re Gonna Change — But Don’t

I was chatting on the phone with one of my friends the other day, and we dropped into one of those age-old conversations that makes us giddy. The tone always turns comical as we talk about all the things we know we need to do more, better, different.

It’s the familiar adage: we laugh to keep from feeling bad about how bad we really are. Our silly banter is really a cover-up for the fact that we still, after all these years, are resisting many necessary changes.

After I hung up the phone, however, my thoughts went deeper. What do I really want to be different? How much change is required? And, by when?

If you’re wrestling with change, big or small, it might be interesting to examine why. One of the things that I’ve said to my clients through the years is this:

Small, incremental changes over time create extraordinary results.

You don’t have to change everything, and you don’t have to change all at once. You just have to be willing to take one small step in the right direction.

For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier, you don’t have to give up everything next Monday only to find yourself binging on junk food by Tuesday. An all-or-nothing approach only produces guilt which in turn produces shame.

Shame is the business partner to resistance. Why, after all, would I want to do anything that produces shame?

Our Defense Mechanism against Change

The renowned thought leaders Kegan and Lahey tell us that we have a built-in defense system that wards off change. Similar to our physical immune system that protects us from disease, our emotional and psychological immune system causes us to “systematically work against the very goal we genuinely want to achieve” (Kegan & Lahey, 2009, p.47).

“It is not the change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defense in the presence of what we see as danger that causes anxiety” (p. 49). This built-in system is made up of underlying commitments and big assumptions. We are somehow rewarded, often at a subconscious level, for our maintaining a status quo.

We fail to change, not because we don’t want to change or because we are bad people.
We fail to change because at our core we have an Immunity to Change.

Is a Faulty Premise the Culprit?

What I’ve discovered on both a personal and a professional level is that we often have a “faulty premise” that dictates our resistance to change. By this I mean, we have some underlying belief that keeps us from doing that which we know we need to do.

It’s not necessarily a wrong belief. What makes it “faulty” is that this belief is blocking our ability to make a good and necessary change. Kegan and Lahey describe this process in terms of competing commitments that are based on “big” or deep assumptions.

While attending their session at Harvard, I discovered a pretty straightforward example:

The change I chose to focus on in the workshop centered around a desire to cut back on my sugar intake. The competing commitment that surfaced during our process work involved dinner out with my husband.

It goes something like this. Dinner is over. My husband encourages me to order dessert even though he doesn’t eat dessert. “Just order one, and we’ll share it,” he says.

The competing commitment has to do with a subconscious voice in my head that doesn’t want to reject his nice offer of dessert. After all, this is our night out together, and he is trying to be thoughtful because he knows I love dessert.

The big assumption underlying this simple example is that if I reject his kind offer, I might disappoint him. If I disappoint him, I might disrupt or compromise our evening out together.

These faulty thought processes produce an undesired result. We order dessert. He takes one bite. I eat the rest. My decision is followed by guilt and remorse that I failed to make the change. Again.

Isn’t it amazing how even something as simple as whether or not to order dessert can become so complex in the inner workings of our mind?

Remember one thing: With the first moment of awareness, comes opportunity for change.

Once I developed awareness of the thought processes involved in this dessert scenario, I was able to make the change. I’ve also been able to apply this same teaching to other changes I’m making in my personal and professional life.

Of course, it’s not always this simple. Changes come in large and small packages. The bigger the change, the more complex the competing commitments and the larger the big assumptions associated with them.

You may have some work to do. You can start by reading, Immunity to Change.

Q: If you have another example of how best to embrace change, you may leave a comment here.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. March 11, 2014