Michael Bader: Do you have an immunity to change?
September 26, 2016
People resist change, get in their own way, and sabotage themselves because they are as committed to feeling safe and secure as they are to self-improvement. They — we all — sell ourselves and our goals short, not because we're lazy, but because we're scared.
In their book, Immunities to Change, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey outline a process that anyone can use to diagnose the difficulty he or she has in changing unwanted behavior. I have used their model both with patients in my private psychotherapy practice and with the leaders of large organizations.
Most of us know that we fall short of our ideals. We make resolutions to change but never seem to get around to it. We procrastinate. Somehow, we get in our own way. Sometimes, the problem is that external forces are holding us back — we can't give our kids more quality time if we're forced to work two jobs and we can't be more philanthropic if we're broke. But as Kegan and Lahey argue, the most common cause of the inertia so many of us feel about personal change lies in deep fears and assumptions or beliefs about ourselves, our world, and the imagined dangers of changing either one. The obstacles are usually more internal than external.
In Immunities to Change, Kegan and Lahey first ask readers to identify one or two deeply desirable changes they would like to make, changes that, were they made, would give them a deep sense of satisfaction. They then ask readers to become self-critical and honest and list the behaviors that interfere with these goals. Say, for example, I would like to be become more accepting and tolerant in my most important friendships. But I first have to admit that I quickly and automatically notice what is wrong with other people, their mistakes or blemishes, when I'm first with them. I focus on the negative. This attitude or behavior clearly impedes any progress I might make towards my goal of becoming more accepting and tolerant.
Kegan and Lahey then ask readers to ask ourselves a difficult and provocative question: If we imagine that our self-defeating behaviors were to suddenly vanish, might we then become aware of any feelings of discomfort or anxiety? Our logical selves would most likely feel relief. Referring to the previous example, we would be happy to no longer be so negative. But can we imagine a situation in which we might also begin to feel something uncomfortable if we did, indeed, rid ourselves of our critical thinking? Perhaps we might feel naïve and vulnerable if we were no longer negative and judgmental? As irrational as it might be, perhaps we might even feel that we were in danger of becoming unduly compliant, an "easy mark."
Kegan and Lahey are suggesting that our negative behaviors and attitudes, even while frustrating and counterproductive, might also protect us from some imagined danger or fear. As a result, we subliminally worry that if we didn't get in our own way — a consciously desirable outcome — we might also open the door to something uncomfortable.
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These fears, rational or not, conscious or unconscious, motivate us to not change. They give rise to self-protective intentions and behaviors that work against our most cherished goals. We are at least as committed to safety as we are to change.
Becoming aware of the ways that we have one foot on the accelerator but one foot on the brake, a situation that they describe as an "immunity to change," is the first step to changing, but it's not enough. Each of us has to then experiment with healthier ways of being, with taking small and incremental steps in the real world toward realizing our goals, thereby facing our fears and hopefully gathering evidence that feared outcomes do not necessarily follow. Our fearful expectations might have been accurate when we were children, but usually they are inaccurate as adults. But we can only learn this lesson if we test out reality by taking small risks to try out new behavior.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.