Why is it so hard to change?
May 1, 2002
Anger, fear, depression, hate, grief, addiction, jealousy and other such negative feelings are demons that most of us confront throughout our lives. These feelings drive us to behaviors that we know, in our rational thoughts, are in one degree or another self destructive. Our conscious mind argues that we should have the will power and self control to do what we know is in our best interests: to avoid the drug, to turn the other cheek in arguments, to overcome grief, to cheer up, to change bad habits and follow through on our New Year’s resolutions. Yet, in spite of knowing better, we often lose the battle for self control.
When you’re frightened and you feel your scalp tingle, or you’re angry and feel your skin flushing, or you’re sad and feel a lump in your throat, blame it on cellular chemical processes that were designed over millions of years by natural selection.
Every feeling you have is there because your brain has processed input from your senses, or from your memory, and has initiated a cascade of physiological events resulting in physical sensations.
Why are your battles with your inner self hard to win? Your conscious will is at a disadvantage as the primary control center is operated without our conscious awareness. It’s not that our behavior is beyond our control—obviously, we do have the power to make choices—but on too many occasions we do things that we know are against our best interests, yet seem powerless to prevent ourselves. The addict or alcoholic knows the tragic cost of succumbing to another hit or drink, the angry spouse knows that letting rage take over will lead to jail or death or worse, the gambler knows the odds are against him. Yet, in spite of knowing of the potential long-term consequences of destructive actions, we do them anyway. Almost all of us can recognize destructive patterns in our own behavior. Almost all of us have things we’d like to change. We promise ourselves. We make New Year’s resolutions. We chastize ourselves. And millions of us spend billions on professional help trying to change our behavior.
Yet success is rare. Most of us make the same resolutions every year. Most of our friends follow patterns so familiar to us that we laugh. All of us can easily tell our friends what their doing wrong, and explain why this or that action is the root of their problems. All they have to do is change.
But why is it so hard to change?
The answer lies in our DNA. Our DNA holds the program that guides our thoughts, actions and reactions; a program written over millions of generations through natural selection. And while we do have reason, and are beginning to understand how our genetic program creates the feelings that impel us to act, our reason is a weak guardian of our long-term interests in modern society.