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Why Changing a Behavior Is a Complex and Very Unstable Process

Changing a behavior is supposed to favor improvements of people. There are mechanisms that can help the achievement of healthy goals. However, our brain is dominated by unconscious patterns that hinder the integration of new habits.

Research from the University of Vermont, for example, highlights an important point.  Changing a behavior is a complex and very unstable process, that is, there are relapses, steps backwards and abandonments. Not being able to maintain these new behaviors or attitudes in a sustained way can revert to physical and mental health. Therefore, it cannot be underestimated.

Sometimes the difficulty does not lie in the lack of will or discipline. There are underlying psychological processes that we drag on for years and that we should detect to deactivate.

Your limiting beliefs

Limiting beliefs are negative opinions or perceptions that we have of ourselves and that condition us. It is essential to know that a good part of them is gestated in childhood and education. Often, we incorporate completely invalidating messages from the outside that diminish our values, virtues, and strengths.

Believing that we are not capable of something, that we are incompetent are important obstacles to the process of changing behavior.

An excess of negative emotions

Imagine that you are bad in your relationship, and that you are very unhappy. You know you have to take the plunge and leave that bond but doing so scares you. If you wonder why it costs so much to change and move forward, you will find out that there is anguish, anxiety, guilt, sadness and even shame.

That accumulation of sensations fills your mind with adverse and even fatalistic ideas. You fear failure or regret, or fear of the unknown.  What will happen after you have changed?

Imposter syndrome and low self-esteem

Taking a step forward, more than effort, requires commitment and full self-confidence. If the latter fails, everything collapses. In this way, it is very common, for example, that people with imposter syndrome (those who believe that they are not intelligent and that they never live up to almost anything) find it difficult to establish new habits.

When you don’t tune into your own values and you show low self-esteem, it is difficult to promote long-term change.

It’s hard to change because of your cognitive dissonances and self-deception

Cognitive dissonances are mechanisms that allow us to rationalize our own inconsistencies to avoid psychological suffering.

Given this, if you wonder why it takes you so much to change, it is recommended that you analyze some of your self-deception. You may be very aware that you need to take new steps in your life, but they scare you. And to avoid that anguish, you opt into very artificial reasonings that justify that you are still in your comfort zone.

You underestimate the process

Changing behavior doesn’t happen overnight. Promoting it requires meticulous craftsmanship that demands emotional, behavioral, and cognitive elements. Ignoring those components will cause us to fail in that attempt. Also, in each step back, self-image and self-esteem collapse.

Successful changes are the result of multiple interconnected steps that require commitment, purpose, and a healthy dose of enthusiasm. However, sometimes, due to lack of awareness and tools to understand these processes, you may get it wrong.

Strategies for effective changing behavior

Science has always been concerned with change. A study by the University of Helsinki and Ireland, for example, highlights something striking. The potential for human change integrates social, emotional, and biological factors.

To achieve it, you must work from motivational, behavioral, and educational aspects, to review many of the beliefs that are integrated into your psychological universe. It is time to reflect on those tools that will facilitate this process.

1. To awaken your motivation, remember why you want to change

You don’t always find motivation when you need it. If you need to initiate a change, you need to clarify your purpose and why you want to take that step.

2. Plan-Evaluate-Adjust

When starting a new habit or establishing a transformation, it is necessary to define an action plan. It is not good to improvise, the ideal is to design the steps to follow and then evaluate that process. Is this useful to you? Should you modify anything?  Every plan must be flexible to adapt to each challenge and circumstance.

3. Manage stress

It is necessary to integrate stress management resources into your day to day. After all, every change places you in new scenarios that make you stagger or accumulate negative emotions. Don’t hesitate to practice sport, relaxation techniques or meditation.

4. Boost your self-efficacy: you are skilled and competent

Self-efficacy is the confidence you have in your abilities to achieve what you want.  This is the most decisive psychological aspect when integrating a change into life. It is knowing that you have the resources to achieve it, that you are skilled and that those skills will help you to succeed.

5. Small everyday achievements: less is always more

In the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, he tells us about the power of small everyday achievements.  Sometimes big changes require a tiny daily progress, and focus on your purpose. Therefore, remember that it is not good to rush or make too many changes at once.

6. Discipline

Discipline is one of the most decisive factor that comes into play. You shall be disciplined and understand that establishing new habits requires commitment, action, and repetition.

7. Resistance to frustration

Who hasn’t been frustrated when they see how difficult it is to change? Nothing is as common as taking a step back, failing, falling apart for a few days, and then moving forward again. No change is linear, there are always ups and downs and you shall know how to resist and accept them.

Commitment to change

If you are wondering why it is so difficult to change, know that this is a shared experience. You’re not alone. It’s worth reminding yourself that you have extraordinary potential to achieve this. You can do it.

Are you ready to commit yourself to these steps for an important change in your life?

19 thoughts on “Why Changing a Behavior Is a Complex and Very Unstable Process

  1. So true Christina. Motivation is just one factor contributing to our success. As you highlighted, there are many more factors, voices, all vying for attention in our heads. We need to be aware of them so we can challenge and change them, so we can make the other changes we seek

    1. I like when you name the factors as voices we hear in our heads. Sometimes it is so difficult to silent them. Thank you for commenting Brenda (by the way, my name is Cristiana…)

  2. Fascinating topic and a really good discussion. I’ve long been fascinated with the Freudian concept of Thanatos–that we all have a hardwired drive to engage in self-destructive acts–that we have, in effect, a kind of death wish. Procrastination is self-defeating as are addictions. In the case of procrastination, the person does nothing at the precise moment when something needs to be done, and this inaction often has terrible consequences. Addictions often literally lead to self-destruction, yet we fall prey to all sorts of addictive behavior. Really cool topic and great blog!

    1. Thank you Troy, happy that you liked it ! Actually Thanatos in the Greek mythology is the personification of death. This is a very interesting topic, Thanatos vs Eros one of the concept that Freud developed.

      1. I done some reading of Freud and Jung, and I have read two or three books on Eros/Thanatos. I’ve long felt that some societies/countries have a death drive as well. America’s embracing of guns seems to be a kind of collective neurosis that ultimate leads to death and destruction. Also, America is warring country and appears to be somewhat neurotic in this way too.

  3. These are all very true points. Our Neural pathways get built up over time with repetitive and prolonged actions and thoughts, so the only way to create a new habit is to consciously think the new thought and to do the new action.

    Neural pathways get built and become our brain’s shortcuts and automatic go-tos, and the only way to overcome them is to keep building up new pathways. Over time and with repetition the new pathways get stronger and stronger, while the old ones gradually fade from disuse.

    There’s no point in fighting the old, for that strangely reinforces the old because thoughts are being applied to it. The only way is to just keep picking ourselves up and getting back to the new thoughts and actions!

  4. Great post Cristiana. The sub conscious is extremely powerful. Even if we know what we want consciously – if the sub conscious isn’t on board – it will conspire to sabotage is. Keep the value in mind – know your why – and show up everyday no matter how it is you feel. Eventually the sub conscious will catch up – but it requires a lot of upfront effort/energy. Thanks for the great advice 🙏

  5. Thanks for the great post Cristiana! It hit me at a good time since I have been struggling recently to change some sloppy behaviors I have fallen into.

  6. What a great full-view article about change. It’s so helpful to not only have the ideas of how we can support change – but also have some visibility into why it’s so hard. This resonates a great deal with me! Thank you, Cristiana!

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