This Is Why You’re Having Trouble Making Lasting Change

Believe it or not, taking the first steps in making change is not the hard part. Even though making up your mind to lose weight, stand up to your parents, or find a new job is a big hurdle and a good first step, it’s only one of many steps on the road to transformation. Once started, real lifestyle changes are darned tough to maintain; a University of Scranton study found that 92% of people who make New Year’s resolutions fail to keep them.

So much of our energy goes into preparing to start a new goal. And yet, often, the adrenaline and promise of those first days makes jumping into them easier than continuing them. Three weeks later, it’s a different story: trying something bold and new has lost its excitement factor, and with the hard work kicking in, it’s common to sink back into the couch, the Cheetos, and the familiar patterns.

Knowing what you’re up against may make it easier to find long-lasting solutions. Here are some universal pitfalls to creating and sustaining change.

1. I’m not seeing results right away.

When we start a resolution—This week I’m going to cut out all sugar—we’re often enthusiastic and energetic about it. It’s exciting, it’s new, and we’re proud of ourselves. But often there’s a time lag between, say, starting an exercise program and seeing results on the scale, or quitting smoking and having relief from constant urges. Then we might start to think, Why go through all this pain and not get right to the benefits? Why bother? Hanging in through the middle phase of the new behavior turns out to take a lot of stamina and faith.

That’s where support can be a key factor in creating change. There’s a reason weight-loss centers offer in-person one-on-one meetings, support groups, or online chat forums; that kind of personal touch has been shown to give a huge boost to members’ ability to stick with the program. Finding a friend to partner with in your resolution (taking walks together, for instance), using a life coach or therapist to work through resistance, or using a support group online or in person is a great way to boost your commitment and to have a little more fun in the process.

2. The people around me don’t agree with the changes.

Perhaps you’re hoping to quit your job and start a new career, but your partner thinks it’s too risky. Or you want to reconcile with your mother, which makes your sister furious. It’s hard enough to put the work into making the change, but to have the people closest to you oppose it can cause you to want to give up right away.

When our friends and family are less than supportive of changes we are working hard on and feel strongly about, it’s a real letdown. We expected them to be cheerleaders, and instead they’re sabotaging us. Knowing this is a possibility can help ease our disappointment. Don’t assume everyone around you will be supportive, and use other tools to keep your resolve—journaling, meditating, and using calming self-talk (This is important to me and good for those around me) are just a few ways people motivate and care for themselves during stressful times. Also, having other people around who fully back us (there’s that support group again!) gives us strength and hope.

3. The people around me are making it harder for me to keep my resolve.

There’s a term in psychology called homeostasis, which theorizes that people want to keep whatever system they have going, even when that system isn’t fully working for them. In other words, change is scary even if it’s good for us. So we can’t expect our family members or friends to jump for joy when we begin to take better care of ourselves. A new, healthier lifestyle might cause some friends to feel jealous or left behind.

Sometimes even people who want the best for us can get in our way. One common example is when one person in a group decides to quit drinking, and the other group members continue to urge that friend to have “just one,” or stop inviting the person along to watch the game. It’s an unconscious desire for homeostasis that’s driving them, and it’s best dealt with either directly, by gently pointing it out, or indirectly, by drafting one of the friends as an ally and coach in the new lifestyle. When they feel included and relied on, many people will rise to the occasion and put their own insecurities aside.

4. I’m changing, but it isn’t the magic pill for happiness I had expected.

Many of us can spend years fantasizing about how perfect everything will be as soon as we (fill in the blank). If you think you’ll be a new person when you’re a size 8, but then begin making progress toward your goal and feel little difference in your daily happiness, you may be hard-pressed to continue.

Setting realistic expectations for change is essential. To quote Buckaroo Banzai, “Everywhere you go, there you are”; in other words, you can’t escape your basic nature, and changing the externals isn’t going to create instant happiness where there was none before.

Setting realistic expectations for change is essential. To quote Buckaroo Banzai, “Everywhere you go, there you are”; in other words, you can’t escape your basic nature, and changing the externals isn’t going to create instant happiness where there was none before.

Change can be revelatory, but it can also be merely fun—or barely noticed. This is why you have to do it not for extraordinary rewards but for the process itself. Do it because you want to prove to yourself that you can, or because the journey will be full of lessons and opportunities to grow.

In the end, it isn’t a black-and-white equation—i.e., either you change totally or you don’t change at all. If you start a resolution by thinking about taking it one day at a time instead of focusing on the end point, you’ll be able to enjoy every step of it—even the relapses, or what I like to call “reevaluating.” After all, most experiences don’t end up exactly where we thought they would.

If we can let the journey unfold in any way it chooses, with each new bend in the road bringing its own challenges and rewards, then wherever we end up, that’s where we’re meant to be. All 92% of us.

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