Immunity to Change: Why We Don't Do What We Want To and Tips for Lasting Change

With the fresh start 2015 brings, people are crafting their resolutions, setting intentions, and dreaming of the changes they want to make and the goals they want to accomplish in the coming year. It’s hard to find an available machine at the gym this time of year, but come February, March, April…machines start opening up. As human beings we are capable of incredible cognitive dissonance; we can hold two beliefs and systems of thinking at the same time. In short, we don’t do the very thing we want to and know we should do. The list is exhaustive, but here are a few examples we commonly see of what adult children and baby boomers know they should do, but often don’t:

  • Have difficult conversations with aging parents and loved ones
  • Plan advance directives and have end-of-life conversations
  • Look at long-term care insurance options  
  • Plan finances and savings for long life
  • Follow doctor instructions, get regular tests, take meds consistently
  • Manage chronic illnesses well
  • Eat well and exercise regularly to minimize health risks
  • Make small changes to the home before they become bigger safety risks as they age
  • Create plans for emergencies, crisis, or medical events 
  • Ask for help from others before we are overwhelmed
  • Manage stress well to ovoid burnout

Dr. Lisa Lahey and Dr. Robert Kegan are both psychologists and professors at Harvard University that have come up with an interesting answer to the age old question, “Why don’t we do what we want to do?” When we want to meet a goal or change a behavior, we are often stuck doing the opposite of what we genuinely desire to accomplish. They call this phenomena our “Immunity to Change”, meaning that our brains actually have well-developed immune systems that are protecting us from the changes we fear. They make the case that our hidden worries, fears, and assumptions about how the world works actually create competing goals that run counter to our new goals. We may be crafting our 2015 New Year’s resolutions, but are adhering to other legitimate goals and we suddenly have one foot on the gas and one foot on the break. The result being that we don’t get anywhere or just give up for reasons we don’t understand.

So, how do we get insight into this gap between our intentions and the actual reality of our behaviors? As Albert Einstein once said, “It can be more important to get the problem right than the solution.” According to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, one of the biggest common failures occurs when people try to meet adaptive challenges through technical means. We think we can change our habits if we just have the right information or skillsets. In a technical challenge, the right information does solve the problem. However, most of our goals are adaptive challenges, meaning that it requires a change of mindset and behavior. We can know all the right information and still completely ignore it to our own detriment. In a study of heart doctors and their seriously ill heart patients, Lahey and Kegan found that when doctors told their patients they were going to die unless they changed their diet/ exercise behaviors only 1 in 7 could actually make the changes. They all had a desire to live, but even in life and death scenarios, the heart patients were unable to make the changes even with the best of information. Sound familiar? 

Lahey and Kegan’s model points out that there are parts of our brains that are actually devoted to making sure what worries us never happens. Much like our fight or flight response, these instincts serve the purpose of protecting ourselves in reaction to our fears. Understanding our fear allows us to watch our minds at work and see the influences of our counter goals. Here is an example of a mapped out thought process of an adult child named Joan: 

Joan’s New Goal: Make an eldercare plan with my parents this year.

What Joan is Actually Doing: Avoiding the topic of aging and making excuses for my parents’ behaviors I am concerned about.

Joan’s Fear: “If I bring up the topic, then I will challenge my parents’ authority and competency and I might lose their trust and our relationship might change.”   

Joan’s Counter Goal: Don’t do anything that might change my relationship with my parents.

In light of the counter goal, Joan’s behaviors make all the sense in the world. If she doesn’t want to do anything that might alter her relationship with her aging parents, then avoiding any sensitive topic is going to overrule her goal to make an eldercare plan for the future and risk having many candid conversations. Looking at this example, we can note some big assumptions behind this cycle of fear and behavior. The nature of big assumptions is that we have no curiosity about them, but internalize and live as if they were unquestionably true. For Joan, there is no question that an eldercare conversation would have only a negative impact on her relationship with her aging parents. She can’t imagine any possible outcomes where the conversation might go well, her parents might take it differently, or it might have both positive and negative ramifications for her relationship.  

When it comes to making lasting changes in our lives and meeting those big goals, we have to become aware of the fears, worries, and assumptions that create counter goals in our lives. So, what do we do with that self-knowledge? Instead of tackling your goals with more gusto and willpower, prepare to test your big assumptions in small ways, suggests Lahey and Kegan. By safely testing the accuracy of our big assumptions we are able to override our mental “immune system” that is causing the behaviors that undermine rather than support our new goals. By taking up a position of curiosity and exploration, we can ask the audacious question, “What if the assumptions my fears are fueled by are not entirely true?”

In the words of Marianne Williamson, “You must learn a new way to think before you can master a new way to be.” Whether your goal is weight loss, going for that second career, or addressing your family’s eldercare needs head-on, we wish you great success and encouragement in the process. As experts in eldercare, we know that families need both good information and support in making those shifts in mindset and creating the outcomes they desire for their aging loved ones. At Sound Options, many families throughout the Puget Sound have gathered around our big consult table to begin those difficult conversations guided by the insight and compassion of our RN an MSW Care s. It has made all the difference in the world. Give us a call today at 800.628.7649.    

Published on January 2, 2015.