How To Change Your Life For The Better (& Why Your Brain Tries To Stop You)

The real reason creating change is so hard.

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Our brain is built to protect us. But surprisingly, it can get in our way when trying to figure out how to change our life!

When you brush a hand against the plate of a hot electric stove, your brain sends pain signals to shove your hand away from the heat. Likewise, when you are faced with a physical threat, your brain reacts by sending you into a mode commonly known as the "fight or flight" response.


But we are more than our bodies. We have thoughts, self-awareness, and a personal identity formed of social groups, family, political beliefs, and nationality — so how does the brain protect what is essentially itself?

According to neuroscientists, we can watch the process the brain uses to itself — and us — with a process called neuroimaging, a medical scan that shows the chemical changes and activity in your brain as they're happening. 

In a 2016 study published in Scientific Reports, Jonas Kaplan placed 40 self-identified liberals and conservatives in an MRI scanner and then began supplying counter-evidence to key political issues.


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While Kaplan admitted the study suffered from a small sample size, his study concluded that certain regions of the brain associated with emotion regulation activated when people were given counter-evidence to their beliefs.

In other words, when people were asked to change their beliefs, their brain began to react as though it were under attack.

Why? Where is the threat in someone changing their mind? 



The reason is because change is painful.

If people are asked to accept an alternate political belief, they must consider an alternate version of themselves, too — and people resist changing beliefs that are central to their personal identity.

Kaplan explains that this resistance against change has to do with the amygdala and the insular cortex portions of the human brain, which are both pertinent to a person’s emotional balance.

One model of belief maintenance holds that when confronted with counter-evidence, people experience negative emotions borne of conflict between the perceived importance of their existing beliefs and the uncertainty created by the new information.


In an effort to reduce these negative emotions, people may begin to think in ways that minimize the impact of the challenging evidence: discounting its source, forming counterarguments, socially validating their original attitude, or selectively avoiding the new information.

Since political beliefs are tied up with our sense of self, our response to alternate views has more to do with protecting our personal identity than it does with the objective question of right or wrong.

But our brain reacts to more than just politics. Anything that pertains to our personal identity is hard to change — that can be a job, a relationship, a house.

Imagine the last time you seriously considered changing a fundamental aspect of your life: Did you act on those thoughts immediately, or put them aside for another time? Even our own memories are affected by our brain’s urge to protect us.


In his book, The Seven Sins of Memory, David Schacter talks about people’s tendency to re-write memories to coincide with the present. He identifies five memory biases: consistency and change, hindsight, egocentric, and stereotypical. Most of these biases involve the widespread effect that a person's current knowledge has on their perception of the past.

In the following passage, he explains what “the sin of bias” is in our brain’s functionality: "The sin of bias reflects the powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we remember our pasts. We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences — unknowingly and unconsciously — in light of what we now know or believe," Schacter writes.

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The result can be a skewed rendering of a specific incident, or even of an extended period in our lives, which says more about how we feel now than about what happened then

Each of these biases play a role in how we understand the world — It’s all in effort to eliminate as much change as possible.

Change and consistency biases can lead us to reconstruct the past in a way that makes it seem overly similar to the present. For example, if someone is having a poor phase in their life currently, they are more willing to remember the past as consistently bad than to admit something in their life has changed.

Hindsight biases overlay a narrative over the past, imbuing meaning and intention on events that, at the time, were absent of both. That’s why it’s difficult to get a separated couple to honestly recount the beginning of their relationship — there’s too much bitterness in the present to see the past clearly. David Schacter concludes that people are driven to ensure that their past memories agree with what they know now.


So, what does this all mean?

Our brains really don’t like change — so people who need a change in their life will have to fight against their own brain to carry through with it.

Sometimes, our brains, the very structure meant to protect us, becomes an obstacle to overcome.


And for many people, it’s an obstacle that can’t be done alone. It’s normal to experience stages of resistance or emotion throughout the transition. That's why many people need coaching to help them gain the confidence they need in order to complete the change.

Some people call this cycle of emotion the Change Curve, which is purposefully similar to the cycle of grief. Change is a form of grief. Because when we change, we are constantly reinventing and saying goodbye to earlier versions of ourselves — which is why it’s difficult to consciously force a change in your life.


But it can be done. So don't fear it, and don't be afraid to seek the help you need in order to get there.

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Coach Monique is a certified emotional intelligence-based self-improvement coach who is here to ensure you reach the other end of your transition as smoothly as possible. She is also the author of Most People Don’t Need Therapy, They Just Need a Change, in addition to being a Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT) hypnotherapist.

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