Why Doesn’t Joy Trigger Us to Change?
Have you ever made some fundamental change because things were going great? If you have, you’ll be the first person I’ve heard of who has. Usually, people show up in my office because they’ve hit a brick wall of some sort, and they feel that something has to change….now.
Why is it that we only change when things get “so bad”? Well, it comes down to survival. Your sense of self (which stores how you feel about being human and then generates every moment of your life from those feelings) is your survival mechanism—it’s literally how you feel you need to be to stay alive on the planet. So, it’s actually quite natural that your sense of self resists change.
But what about changes that you know are good for you, like exercising more, eating well, not working so late? Why would your sense of self resist changes that are obviously going to be beneficial? It’s because your sense of self isn’t part of your thinking brain. Your sense of self was developed before you could think, so it doesn’t respond to rational thoughts. It merely stores your survival mechanism as “the way it is to be human,” without regard to whether what it stores and generates is objectively good or bad for you.
Wait, really? Yes. Here’s an example. Your sense of self was put into place when you were younger than 2 1/2, so let’s look at how a 2-year-old would respond to a change they feel affects their survival. Think about an abused child who is being taken away from her abusive parent. Often, she will cling to the person who was hurting her, because that person is her whole world – they have always provided her survival. We know rationally that this child is going to be better off, but her little 2-year-old sense of self can’t understand that, so she clings.
Your sense of self never grows beyond the age of 2 1/2. So, you’re always clinging to your survival mechanism, even when it is “abusing” you. That’s why I always remind my clients to be kind to themselves when they’re making big changes. The 2-year-old inside is just terrified, even by changes that make sense rationally. So, it’s only when a situation becomes absolutely intolerable that we are willing to make the courageous leap away from the way we’ve survived all these years.
A situation I see over and over again is one created by the survival mechanism that says, “It’s not safe for me to matter or voice what I think.” An example is someone who is constantly passed over for job promotions in favor of his subordinates, where his boss always second-guesses his decisions and never recognizes his accomplishments. You’d think if this man were in the position to get another job, he would jump at it, right? But if his sense of self includes the feeling that “it’s only safe to be silent and invisible,” this job is a perfect fit. His sense of self says, “This is great! I can survive forever like this!”
But there is a unique voice within each of us that yearns to be seen and heard and to openly express what truly matters. At some point, this man will reach the point where the cost of burying that voice to in order to survive is just too high. It will become too painful to stay invisible. He will reach that brick wall that my clients talk about—and that they find Quanta Change helps them dismantle, layer by layer. As the brick wall comes down, they more often find themselves in situations (often with the same people as before!) where they are invited to share their opinions and gifts, and where it feels safe and easy to do so.
Does this sound familiar? Is part of you screaming to make a change, but you just can’t seem to do it? What do you think is the survival mechanism standing in the way of your good change?
Update: The client I spoke of above had some significant changes in his job situation recently, as a result of working on the feeling that he does matter. He got a new boss who really honors my client’s opinions and who even asks for feedback on how he (the boss) is doing his job. He received an honorary bonus for the first time ever, after many years at the same company. He’s being recognized by many around him for his gift of managing difficult situations calmly. He said it’s a huge change for him that he’s amazed by, given that he hasn’t taken any rational action to make any of it happen, and he’s doing his job the same way he always has.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.