Why We Struggle with Change and How to Overcome It

Whether starting a new diet or changing careers, we're all a bit resistant to change. Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey propose that maybe the challenge isn't just a lack of willpower, but an immune system response protecting us from feelings of disappointment or fear. With this four-step process, discover what internal barriers are stifling your efforts, so you can open your path to lasting change.

Have you ever felt inspired to make a big life change, charging down the path to self-improvement only to lose steam a month later? Well, you are not alone. It’s a cliché, yes: but change is hard.

Just maybe, though, the problem isn’t inertia or lack of willpower. According to Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, when we fail at a goal we’ve set for ourselves, it’s likely that a sort-of emotional immune system is covertly at work, defending us from perceived threats like feelings of disappointment or shame.

To arrive at lasting change, Kegan and Lahey say you must dig deep to identify what may be in opposition to your goal. These hidden competing commitments are rooted in our individual worldviews—our big assumptions about how things operate. And change results from altering the way we think.

In their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Kegan and Lahey lay out a process for overcoming obstacles. Using their proposed immunity map helps you explore your feelings about a particular change and better understand how they are sabotaging your efforts. Such internal investigation can help you tackle the greatest challenges.

Mapping your immunity to change

Step 1: list your improvement goal.

What areas of your life could use some positive change? Perhaps it’s spending less and saving more for retirement, becoming a better listener, or finally switching to a new career. Write down this goal in column one of this immunity map worksheet or your own worksheet.

Underneath, list some actions that would help you achieve your goal. For changing careers, these actions might include researching options to earn a graduate degree part time.

Step 2: identify behaviors that keep you from your goal.

What are you doing (or not doing) that’s stalling your efforts? Detail these behaviors in column two.

Let’s continue with the example of changing careers. Say we have an accountant who really wants to become a psychologist. But she works many evenings and weekends at her current job, and keeps forestalling enrollment in graduate school courses.

It might seem like enough to recognize and focus on changing these behaviors. But we all know it is much easier said than done. Let’s dig deeper to find the root of the struggle in the next two steps, so you can begin to not simply shift your behavior, but your mindset as well. 

Step 3: discover your competing commitments.

Here’s where the real self-exploration comes in. Look at the behaviors you listed in column two and ask yourself how you’d feel if you did the opposite.

Our career-changer might worry that if she works less on evenings and weekends to make time for graduate courses she’ll be perceived as a slacker. What if the coursework is too challenging? What if she succeeds in earning a degree, but she cannot find employment as a psychologist?

It’s easy to see the concept of the emotional immune system at work here, warding off feelings of shame, disappointment, and fear.

Given these feelings, we might see her competing commitments as a wish to be respected professionally, to perform at the highest level, and to have security and stability.

What fears do you have about pursuing change? Outline these worries in a box at the top of column three and what you fear will be compromised—your competing commitments—below. 

Step 4: identify your big assumptions.

Now you come face-to-face with the barriers you must overcome to achieve lasting change. Figure out what internalized truths are at the root of your competing commitments. Try framing your competing commitments in “if ____, then ____” statements.

For our career-changer, one such statement might be “if I don’t perform at the highest level, then I will be seen as a failure.”

List your big assumptions in column four.

Making use of what you’ve learned

These columns form your immunity map, helping you visualize why you struggle to make changes. A solution must take your emotions into account.

So how can you move forward given what you’ve learned? You might test the assumption that presents the most significant obstacle in your life. Think of a low-risk scenario. Our career-changer might take a weekend off and see how her manager and colleagues respond. Is she really seen as less committed? Does slightly lowering the expectations for herself result in failure?

Given time to challenge a particular assumption, you may find your beliefs shifting in a way that frees you to pursue your goals with success.

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