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Turning discomfort into positive permanent change part 2: Overcoming resistance to change.

Once you’ve defined your core values, it’s time to take a look at the resistances you’re facing.

What’s that? We haven’t talked about deciding what to change yet?

That’s right.

You might think that the next step is to come up with all sorts of changes that you’d like to make in your life.

It’s not. Here’s why:

Resistance to change isn’t just about things that are stopping you from taking action–or that are preventing the changes you make from “sticking”.

It’s also about what might be blocking you from even seeing where changes need to be made, in the first place! Finding your areas of resistance is all about finding opportunity.

And that long list of changes? We’ll wrap a bit of that into this process, but the beauty of this is that you don’t actually need a long list. You don’t need a list at all! When you find out where your resistances are, you’ll automatically know where your opportunities are, too! You’ll see what I mean.

But first, an example:

New Math

Have you seen the videos and images going around that are disparaging the newly recommended subtraction method that is part of the “common core?”New Math: Overcoming resistance to change

This has been showing up in my Facebook newsfeed quite a bit, lately. So I got curious. This video makes the new system look completely incomprehensible.

It turns out, the new method makes perfect sense  The confusing videos and images are just the reactions of people who are feeling some pretty intense resistance to the new method, and are reaching out to validate their resistance by getting other people to agree with them.

It’s a great example of something known as the Semmelweis reflex: The automatic rejection of new evidence or knowledge, because the new idea contradicts a pre-existing norm or belief. In this case, the “normal” way of teaching subtraction is so ingrained that there is a strong rejection of the new way. “It’s so different it must be wrong.”

Ignaz Semmelweis

In the mid-nineteenth century, the mortality rate among mothers who gave birth in hospitals was tragically enormous, and no one knew why. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that doctors would routinely move directly between various functions at the hospital, often without even washing their hands. Many times, a doctor who was delivering a baby would have, just prior to that, been performing an autopsy. At the time, the germ theory of disease had not yet been developed, and so no one thought that this was a problem.

No one except for Ignaz Semmelweis. He did experiments that clearly showed that washing hands in a sanitizing solution of chlorinated lime had a dramatic effect on lowering mortality in the birthing ward.

No one believed him. Doctors became irate at the idea that they were to blame for the spread of disease. They retorted “a gentleman’s hands are never dirty,” and refused to explore the new evidence. After all, nothing was visibly dirty about the doctors’ hands… why would there be a problem?

Semmelwies was ridiculed, forced to leave the hospital where he worked, and eventually died in an asylum. And even more tragically, sanitation reform wouldn’t sweep through the medical world until many years later, after thousands more preventable deaths.

To change, or not to change

Not all that is old

Here's an opportunity to exercise skepticism

Speaking of evidence-less medical claims… Here’s an opportunity to exercise skepticism!

is wise. Not all that is newer is better.

It’s important to call out the difference between the knee-jerk reaction of the Semmelweis reflex, and the careful consideration of healthy skepticism.

Doctors in Semmelweis’ time rejected his ideas out of hand. He had clear evidence to back up his theory, but no one bothered to review it. Or when they did, they deliberately confused things to make it harder to believe.

On the other hand, we get bombarded everyday with “new ideas” in medical care, technology, and philosophy that have zero conclusive evidence. I’m not suggesting we blindly accept everything, hoping that most turn out to be good ideas. That’s just as bad as blind rejection.

I’m just suggesting that we learn to notice that automatic reject/accept reflex, and to periodically step back and take a look at the “why.”

When I saw the story about this “crazy new math,” I could have added my reflexive “WTF?!” to the comments about it and moved on. But I didn’t. I noticed that I was feeling resistance to the idea, so I decided to explore it. And because of that, I learned a better way to subtract large numbers in my head. It might have turned out differently. I might have discovered that the “new math” really was needlessly more confusing after all. Either way, I took an active role in exploring my resistance to change, and so either way, I grew as a person and opened myself to opportunity

Three types of resistance to change: Patterns, stories, and fear.

In my experience, there are three main forces to deal with when overcoming resistance to change. I see these every day in the people I talk to who are feeling stuck, frustrated, or otherwise unable to move toward their goals.


1: Patterns

Patterns are all around us. Nature loves patterns. Just take a look at a pine cone, a sea shell, or the leaves on the tree right outside your door.

Our brains are wired to seek patterns, and they’re really good at it. The trouble is, they get attached. Show your brain two dots with a horizontal line below them, and your brain sees a face. Objectively, those dots and lines may not look like a face at all, but your brain is deeply attached to that pattern. It will see faces everywhere.

Brains are really bad at letting go of patterns, even when those patterns that don’t serve us.

So what are patterns?

Patterns are sequences of behaviors or beliefs that are deeply embedded within us.


Our pattern-seeking brains see a face where there isn't one.

This rock on mars is a notable example of our tendency to see faces everywhere.

They are mostly or completely unconscious. Patterns can be empowering, or they can be destructive. They can be habits that you do because you’ve always done them in the past, or they can be expectations about the future: “If A happens, then B will happen.” And, like the face-that-isn’t-a-face, your brain gets attached to that particular outcome, even when it’s not all that likely, in reality.

The important thing to remember about patterns is that you often have no idea that you’re following the pattern at all. They are deeply ingrained in your unconscious mind. But never fear! It is possible to drag them up into the open where you can make changes.


2: Stories

Patterns that have been consciously recognized become stories. Another type of story is your personal narrative; the story of who you are. Memories? Those are the stories that we tell ourselves about our past.

Stories are how we make sense of the world. They define our understanding of how the world works, and help us to make decisions based on that understanding.

Stories are how we derive meaning from the events of our lives. And just like patterns, they can be empowering or destructive.

Stories generally have a beginning, a middle, and an end: “First, I was ____,(beginning) then ______ happened. (middle) Now, I am ______, because _______ (end).”

The way you fill in those blanks has a massive influence on your mind, moving forward. And just like a written story, your stories can be edited, rearranged, and told from various points of view.


3: Fear

This one is self-explanatory. We can all think of times when we wanted to do something, but the fear of the possible outcomes was paralyzing. This kind of fear is rooted in uncertainty. It’s the fear of the unknown. It creeps in when you don’t have a pattern or story that your brain thinks fits the situation, and so things become unpredictable. And your brain does not like it when things get too unpredictable.

When your fear is stronger than your frustration, you won’t change. You’ll sit in that awful feeling, because the fear seems even worse.

There are two ways to move through fear: 1) Get certain that the result of changing will be better than not changing, in at least some small way. And 2) Make friends with frustration. Invite it in. Get yourself so uncomfortable that the discomfort outweighs the fear, and you have to change.

The takeaway:

Finding your resistances to change comes before defining your changes.  Once you’ve found those resistances, you’ve also found both the problem that needs to be solved, and the way to solve it. That’s one of the defining attitudes of permaculture: Every problem is an opportunity, and contains its own solution.

Don’t avoid your resistance. Don’t minimize it. Dive in. Get familiar with it. Learn everything there is to know about what’s holding you back, and in doing so, you’ll find the way through it. The resistance will dissolve, and you’ll move forward–either with a new way of doing things, or with the secure confirmation that the old way really is better.

One of the easiest ways to look for resistance to change in your life is to notice when you have strong reaction to someone’s alternative way of doing something, or a criticism of your way of doing something. Similar to the internal dissonance that we talked about last week, a strong reaction to a new idea is another indicator that there is opportunity for change,and resistance to it!

Don’t let that possibility pass by! Grab on to the feeling of discomfort and take a close look at it. Ask questions of yourself. You may be surprised at the answers!

Some questions that you can ask include:

  • What is it that I do, that is being challenged by this new idea/criticism?
  • When did I start doing this?
  • What goals was I trying to serve by doing this?
  • Does this action still serve my goals?
  • Are there any downsides to this action?
  • Is there an alternative that may serve me better/eliminate downsides?

And then, if you find yourself resistant to a new method:

  • What part of this new method is bothersome to me?
  • Does this bothersome part go against my core values?
  • Does this bothersome part cause harm to myself, my community, or the environment?

When you ask these questions, even if you don’t come up with answers, you’re well on your way to creating a conscious pattern of growth for your life.

Going deeper

Each of the above categories of resistance and opportunity–patterns, stories, and fear–deserves a lot more explanation than I’ve been able to fit into this brief blog post. In fact, I’m working on an ebook right now that dives into all of this in much greater detail, and provides some easy, step-by-step instructions for quickly and effectively working through each point.

Interested in learning more? Sign up for my email list, and you’ll get a copy of the new ebook as soon as it’s released!



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