Why Change Is So Damn Hard (And How to Make It Easier)

If you’ve followed me for any length of time or if you’ve read my book Just Do Nothing: A Paradoxical Guide to Getting Out of Your Way, you know I’m not a fan of wordart. At best, it’s bad taste, and at worst, it’s giving people a misguided idea about how hard it is to change their behavior. And I’ve had enough clients buy into the messaging to know not everyone can “just ignore it.”

Oftentimes, these messages are oversimplified. Take “know your why.” I hear this everywhere: on ads for SoulCycle radio, online dating ads, leadership courses, mastermind weekends, you name it. Knowing your why is an important PIECE of the change puzzle. 

What Does It Take to Change?

Wanting to change isn’t enough. Knowing how to change isn’t enough. There are SO many reasons change is hard, notwithstanding that it takes a lot of energy for the brain to do something differently, so it’s not going to do it without a lot of structure around it. That being said, the change has a better chance of lasting when we move through the process laid out in the Transtheoretical Model of Change. Developed by psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente in 1983, it says we need to go through all five stages of change (though we often don’t experience them in order) in order to be successful:

  1. Pre-contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

Lapses and relapse are to be expected, and you can re-enter the process at different stages. 

Changing behaviors is challenging for all of us. When the challenge is particularly hard, having clarity about what you’re moving toward and why can be the difference between achieving change and not.

How Do I Find My “Why?”

Your “why” is the main reason you want to make a change. Maybe it’s a set of values you want to move toward or a goal. When you’re clear about it, it becomes your North Star. 

As you go through the stages of change, it guides you and keeps you going. 

To work, your why has to be authentic, and I think sometimes people don’t get to their real motivation. Maybe it’s too scary or too embarrassing to admit. Perhaps they’re judging the why as not good enough, too this or not enough that. For it to work, it has to be real. 

If that wasn’t enough to consider, here’s something else. Your reason(s) to change has to be stronger than your reason(s) to stay the same. This cannot be overstated. People do not change unless the discomfort of staying the same outweighs the discomfort of changing. That’s why vague reasons like “better self esteem” and “feeling better” don’t cut it when your back is against the wall, you’re flooded with adrenaline, and need to decide if you’re going to try a new skill or revert to the way you’ve always responded. 

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  1. Why is this meaningful to work on?
  2. What’s on the other side if I achieve this?
  3. How do I want to be remembered?
  4. How might I feel when I accomplish this?

How Can My “Why” Help Me Change?

So how does distress tolerance fit into all of this? Change is hard because we’re forced to do something differently — that’s why it’s called a growth zone. When we encounter distress or discomfort, our old stories pop up, most of which are self-limiting. That’s when we can talk ourselves out of doing something because we assume we cannot handle how we might feel. 

Remember, that’s the definition of distress intolerance: the perception that you cannot handle negative internal states. When we have that perception, our behavior matches so we avoid or do things to eliminate the distress and discomfort. This could look like:

  • Talking yourself out of change entirely
  • Doing it but with safety behaviors (I can do it IF I have x/y/z)
  • Doing it but white-knuckling through the whole thing
  • Doing it but trying to eliminate the distress and discomfort

In order to get better at change, we must get better at feeling distressed and uncomfortable. We must do distress and discomfort differently. I’m not talking about settling with tolerating and managing the feelings. I’m talking about building the confidence that you can feel them and move on with what’s important. This is called building your distress tolerance. And it takes a lot of willingness and practice to seek out opportunities to practice feeling the feelings and doing them differently. 

In order to allow yourself to be uncomfortable, you need to remember the thing that means more to you than escaping the discomfort. It’s what allows you to move through the discomfort. Everyone’s why is different, and once you figure out what it is, you’ll want to keep it front and center.

Distress tolerance is so important to me that I wrote an entire book on how to increase it. Just Do Nothing: A Paradoxical Guide to Getting Out of Your Way is available at your favorite bookstores.